It is perhaps appropriate that a new Danish collection of Jesus and Mo cartoons should be published this week, the tenth anniversary of publication of the original Danish cartoons. This is the foreword that I have written for the new collection.
Satire can be a deadly business these days. Especially for those satirists who see it as their business to mock religion. And most especially for those who dare to mock Islam.
The murderous assault on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo in January this year, followed by the attack at the Krudttønden cafe in Copenhagen during a debate featuring Lars Vilks, the Swedish artist known for his controversial depictions of Mohammad, reveal the furies that now often confront cartoonists. Against this background, it takes courage to be a satirist of religion. We should be grateful simply for the existence of Jesus and Mo. The author may be forced to remain anonymous, but the fact that the cartoons come out week after week is something to be cherished.
Jesus and Mo is not, however, simply a work of courage. It is also illuminating and witty, sophisticated and challenging. The cartoons are based on a simple format (Jesus and Mohammed sharing a house, discussing religion, politics and philosophy, between themselves and, occasionally down the pub with an atheist barmaid) and limited to four frames. But beneath the simplicity, brevity and humour lies often a rare depth and seriousness.
One of my favourite cartoons shows Jesus and Mo explaining to the barmaid the Aristotelian idea, later picked up by both Islamic and Christian theologians, that ‘Everything that has a beginning must have a cause’ and ‘the universe has a beginning, therefore it must have a cause’. ‘Therefore?’, asks the barmaid. ‘Therefore no bacon’, replies Mo. ‘Or gay sex’, chips in Jesus. It is a typical dig at the illogicalities of religious faith. It also, in Jesus and Mo’s inimitable way, taps into one of the most difficult theological conundrums for believers, the tension between the idea of God as ‘first cause’, or as a ‘condition of being’, and the God of scriptures that does all the other things that religion requires of Him: perform miracles, answer our prayers, wrestle with the devil, set down moral law, punish sinners. And tell us to keep off the bacon sarnies and gay sex. I give an hour-long lecture on this topic. Jesus and Mo get to the heart of the matter in four frames.
Nor is it just religion that Jesus and Mo cartoons dissect. They unpick many of the idiocies of liberal culture too. Another of my favourite cartoons shows Jesus and Mo sitting at the bar having ‘pledged not to say anything that might cause one of them to feel offended.’ They sit in silence. And still more silence. Until finally Mo says, ‘This is nice, isn’t it’. In one cartoon strip, getting to the fundamental problem with the liberal fear of giving offence.
The humour in Jesus and Mo is not brash or vicious as in Charlie Hebdo. It is gentle, but also gently subversive, respectful even, but also respectfully challenging. It is easy to see why many would dislike, even despise it. It is more difficult to imagine why anyone should find it offensive in any meaningful sense. Yet, many do just that, and not just hardline believers.
Last year, a controversy erupted in Britain when Maajid Nawaz, once an Islamist, now a leading figure in the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counter-extremism organization, tweeted that he was not offended by Jesus and Mo cartoons. ‘I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it’, he observed. At which point all hell broke loose. Other Muslim activists organized an international campaign of vilification. Nawaz received a torrent of abuse on social media and a sackful of death threats. There was something truly bizarre (and yet in keeping with the zeitgeist of our age) that someone should become the focus of death threats for suggesting that an inoffensive cartoon was, well, inoffensive. There was also something in keeping with the zeitgeist in the response of many liberals.
Channel 4, one of Britain’s major broadcasters, and one prized for its liberal, open attitude to cultural issues, organized a debate around the controversy. The programme showed one of the cartoons – but blanked out Muhammad’s face (and only Muhammad’s face). In the context of a debate about whether Nawaz had been right to tweet the cartoon in the first place, or whether his critics were right to hound him for ‘offending’ Muslims, it was an extraordinary decision. The broadcaster had effectively taken sides in the debate – and taken the side of the reactionaries against the liberal.
Channel 4’s actions may have been indefensible, but they were also sadly typical. The reactionaries may be reactionary, but what gives them room to operate is the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their fear of causing offence.
In a world defined by outrage and offence and liberal spinelessness, Jesus and Mo is a treasure, whose value we should never fail to recognize. Read them. Laugh. And think.
I guess this will get translated in any case, but there appears to be an editing error here: “…the tension the idea between God as ‘first cause’…”
your hivemind copy editor
Oh, it got published already. Nevermind then.
Thanks for spotting. I’ve corrected it here. I assume that it has been corrected in the translation/proofing process for the book.
The two main protagonists against Nawaz, made some ridiculous statements, as well as one journalist as a guest on Newsnight. One of their main gripes was that Jesus and Mo share a bed. I suppose we have to put aside the fact that beds have a main design purpose for sleeping in. They went straight to sex, and homosexual sex at that. In fact one of them did actually say on the radio that “they are depicted having homosexual sex.” They aren’t. The method is an old one. Laurel and Hardy shared a bed, as did Morecambe and Wise. I don’t remember anyone being up in arms about that, or having their fragile minds wander. The journalist, in making a point on Newsnight said (to Nawaz), “you don’t show two prophets in bed together.” Again, why not? A method of rest and sleeping. That’s all it is. Don’t let your mind wander.
Another silly thing was that when any of them were on TV having to explain their ire, they tried to water it down a bit by saying something like, “we are offended by the depictions of any prophet and that includes Jesus and Moses.” Really? Was that an attempt to get some Christians and Jews on their side? What if Nawaz had tweeted just a cartoon pic of Jesus with the same sentoment of “not offended.”? Would those protagonists have got all upset like they did? Of course not. Do they really think people were born yesterday?
After such a loopy and frankly dangerous attack, one of them still gets a regular radio airtime slot, and is sometimes brought on as a guest for “Muslim issues” on other programs. All three of them mentioned here showed a side of them that was completely and utterly ridiculous, and then they moan about how Muslims in society can sometimes be perceived, when it’s them who are in the spotlight with the responsibility.
And of course, what if someone else had sent the tweet rather than Nawaz? Nothing perhaps? Much of it was a bout the tweeter.
Maybe introducing snoopy the beagle might help. He had some good ideas. He may be copyright, but I’m sure a dog could see round the problem. If you bomb the hell out of a country twice, killing 120,000 people in a matter of weeks then even the most sincere and patient saints amongst us, Christian or Muslim, are going to be enraged and affronted. It is a necessary and human response to grotesque violence. Violence begets violence. The West were the aggressors and is it any wonder that Muslims are up in arms?
I’m not sure how you moved from Snoopy to war, but don’t forget that in 1990 Sadam was the aggressor in Kuwait. Then in 2001 the aggressor was Bin Laden against the US. It all hasn’t been how you’re suggesting.
Liberals are cowardly ? Well, that’s news !
There’s nothing in liberalism to give anyone an atom of courage or even provide the motivation to get up in the morning.
Especially as most liberals are de facto atheists and an atheist is, as the old definition has it: “A person without invisible means of support.”
Because life really is terrifying; and the liberal answer to this – being tolerant and comfortably well-off, while engaging in the entirely futile attempt to make the world a tolerant, comfortable place – is a waste of time.
Why is life (inescapably) terrifying ? Because of the suffering and – even more chillingly – because of our inability to keep ourselves in being by any act of will; we will die.
Liberalism and other secular viewpoints fail to address either problem.
Instead, secular people go into a great huff, claiming that they “don’t need religious belief” – i.e. giving us to understand that they’re stronger and braver than everyone else.
Trouble is, they aren’t.
Whoa, Tony – there are enough straw men in youer comment to keep half of East Anglia free from crows. Everything you say is rhetorical, evidence-free nonsense. And if it IS futile to try to make the world a tolerant, comfortable place, I’d rather be trying to do that than sitting down sneering “liberals are cowards” without offering any evidence to back that up. If there’s cowardice, it’s trying to convince yourself that everything will be all right in the end because SkyDaddy will make it better.