Hard News by Russell Brown

Is it because I is white?

Apparently our local imams have called for amputations and executions of errant cartoonists and publishers. Well, that's what it says in the New York Times anyway: "From Gaza to Auckland, imams have demanded execution or amputations for the cartoonists and their publishers." Guess it must be true, then …

Thanks for the heads-up to Matt Nippert, who has already dispatched a polite letter to the Times pointing out that it is making stuff up. Guess there's just those riots in Auckland to deal with now: the ones mentioned here ("Riots have now spread to Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, New Zealand, and The West Bank") and here (actually, the author of the second blog made a swift correction after I pointed out his error).

The irony of these factoids is that the story has actually unfolded this week as something of a triumph for reasonableness, and for our way of doing things. And, not least, for the frequently-pilloried Human Rights Commission. After yesterday's meeting in Wellington, there is no guarantee (nor should there be) that the Dom Post will never again publish similar material, but I think we can take it as read that Tim Pankhurst won't claim to be "testing the tolerance" of a minority community. (As you will have gathered, I had rather more of a problem with that unfortunate bit of posturing than I did with the publication itself.)

I absolutely agree with Paul Thompson of The Press when he says that a newspaper "can't decide to run stories based on what might happen to trade or diplomatic ties." And I think both editors will in future more carefully weigh the actual purpose served by publication against the likely insult to a section of the community.

In the course of thinking and arguing about this stuff, I've gone back and looked at the controversy in 1998 about the Virgin In a Condom work that featured in an exhibition of new British art at Te Papa. It was quite surprising. Six people were arrested in the course of protests. One was convicted of assaulting a Te Papa employee, another of intentional damage. National MP John Banks tried to have Te Papa prosecuted under our archaic "blasphemous libel" law (he was eventually told to go away by the Solicitor General).

Across the Tasman, the 10cm-high work was wrenched off its base at a Sydney gallery and stolen; and around the same time an exhibition in Sydney featuring the 'Piss Christ' photograph (which, if the circumstances of its creation are ignored, is actually quite a beautiful image) had to be cancelled after that work was destroyed by two protestors.

If only those Catholics could be as restrained as the Muslims, eh?

This week's furore necessarily requires us to consider other claims of offence, and perhaps to take them more seriously. The Catholic church's Lindsay Freer has now gone back to Canwest to try and convince it not to screen the South Park Bloody Mary episode, as she has every right to do. But I do think there's a difference between a city's only daily newspaper, and a TV channel or an art gallery. Things that would cause outrage in a newspaper have frequently hung without incident on gallery walls. Newspapers serve a broader community than music TV channels; they enjoy a certain status and authority. Muslims who own dairies and newsagents aren't expected to sell C4 with the morning pint of milk.

Certainly, the papers covered, and illustrated, the Virgin in a Condom debate, but the equivalent to the cartoon publication would have been the Dominion running a full-page picture of the work alongside an editorial telling Catholics to get over it.

I haven't been able to directly answer much email via the site this week, but Philip Simpson pointed out that: "Most cultures have an undercurrent of self-deprecating humour and I would be very surprised if in some bazaar or corner of the Muslim world there hasn't been a joke about the possibility of running out of virgins for the martyrs."

Quite probably. And I remember my North London Jewish friend saying certain things (sometimes involving the phrase "Hassidic bastards …") and then reminding me that he could say such things but I could not. Of course. It's never been any different. Much of Billy T. James' humour wouldn't have been funny from the mouth of a Pakeha.

If the right to publish is a given, the decision to publish is necessarily more complex; taking into account the purpose served, the intrinsic worth of the material and that notoriously tricky chap, Johnny Context. I actually don't think the Dom Post needs to publish the Iranian Holocaust cartoons when they emerge. I don't need to see child pornography to know that it's evil, although I understand that some people (including a Jewish person I know, who believes that they will provide an instructive illustration of the ugly nature of the regime in Iran) will feel differently. I think there are already too many people who can't tell the difference between the fanatics who run Iran and the family who run the local dairy.

A free press is not the same thing as a press that will print anything. And even in a free society, free speech is not an absolute, as witnessed by the sentencing to seven years' jail of the radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri largely for things he said. Although you might not spot it amid the parade of wild-eyed radicals fetched to comment on the telly, the majority of British Muslims seem to feel themselves well rid of Hamza, a psychopath who had already been dumped by his own congregation.

The Guardian looked at the content of sermons from Hamza, a former boozer and nightclub bouncer who latterly got religion:

At the Finsbury Park mosque Abu Hamza rapidly acquired a reputation for vitriolic preaching, hurling his ire at many targets. Kuffurs (unbelievers), Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, homosexuals, off-licences, video shops, Muslim newsagents selling men's magazines, the British education system and television were all subjects of revulsion in his long, rambling and sometimes incoherent sermons.

The rhetoric was a way of attracting those at the extreme of Islam. In one Finsbury Park sermon, he referred to tourists in Egypt: "Many of the scholars have said when a woman, even a Muslim woman, she is nude and you cannot cover her up except by killing her then it is legitimate."

Asked about differentiating between civilian and military targets, he referred to a woman "who's wearing a miniskirt ... she's actually confiscating people's money ... and she's working as a spy, you can never call her a civilian". Homosexuals, he said, should be stoned to death.

Abu Hamza's extreme views led him to fall out with mainstream Muslims, who believe he has done Islam enormous harm in Britain. The Allah portrayed by Abu Hamza was a vengeful God. "No drop of liquid is loved by Allah more than the liquid of blood," he told a rally in Birmingham in the late 1990s.

Well, fuck him.

Anyway, thanks for all your thoughts on the matter. For my part, I hold no brief for any of the religions above; I care more about the impact on actual people. Unless something else happens, I think that'll do me on this question for now. If I get a chance to blog tomorrow, I'll look at a more disturbing example of religious creep: the bizarre story of George Deutsch at NASA.

But in the meantime, how come Tze Ming gets all the interesting racist emails? Is it because I is white?