On satire

I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl’s feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer. I would like to smear honey all over you and then roll you in feathers, and take you on a leash to fairs, to say to all: He was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness. And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Pope Francis’s comments on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, attempting to place limits on freedom of speech and endorsing the use of violence against those who say things that upset the religious, have already got themselves a post here, but I want to say something wider about the role of satire in religious affairs.

The Charlie Hebdo situation has frequently been likened to the Satanic Verses controversy, and I think that comparison stands, and not least now in the regrettable siding of Western religious figures with those who feel that the slaughtered and the maimed somehow had it coming to them. The Satanic Verses, as did the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, set out to undermine the Islamic conventions around the representation of Muhammed; but they are hardly the first—Dante’s Divine Comedy places Muhammad in Hell, his guts hanging out, a schismatic and a false prophet. Illustrators over the centuries have not ceased to relish this scene for visual depiction—yet there are no protests, no burnings, no gunnings down in Tuscan publishing houses.

What was extraordinary about the Satanic Verses affair was how much Christian and Jewish leaders leapt into line, not with the supporters of free speech, not with the opponents of bigotry and intolerance, but with the other camp. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, declared that Britain’s blasphemy laws should be extended to Islam, and that Rushdie should be prosecuted, and other Christian and Jewish leaders took a similar line (see Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great for a detailed list of those non-Muslim and secular figures who enthusiastically endorsed religious censorship). A spokesman for Pope John Paul II, whilst admitting that the fatwa was excessive, denounced the book as “blasphemous,” and the official Vatican newspaper stated that “the very attachment to our own faith induces us to deplore that which is irreverent and blasphemous in the book’s contents.” That is, the heads of churches which necessarily consider Muhammad to be a false prophet and consider this a matter of fact demanded the prosecution of an author for representing Muhammad as a false prophet in a work of fiction, and then only in a dream of a madman. Why? Why did Runcie want blasphemy laws extended to “protect” all religions when to him the other religions must be blasphemous, because they deny the tenets of his? Why did the Vatican consider deplorable this minor supposed attack upon that belief which the church had spent many centuries and shed a huge amount of blood attempting to surpress? And why, now, has an otherwise intelligent and reasonable (as far as medieval theocratic monarchs go) Pope similarly fallen in with the “they brought it on themselves, you know” brigade? The answer is related to the absence of fury over the Divine Comedy: it lies in the fact that these works seek to make us laugh; and that, in our post-Enlightenment world, with a viable secular agenda for power, this laughter threatens not just who holds power, but the very concept of religious authority as a right to power.

The Catholic Church didn’t always have such a downer on mockery. The second/third century church father Tertullian, a heresiologist and one of the first theologists to grope his way towards the sacred nonsense that is the Trinity, is feted for the scathing wit with which he demolishes his opponents, and the fourth century Hilary of Poitiers—orthodox enough to earn himself a sainthood—was bitingly savage in his Against Constantius. The current Pope’s namesake, though far gentler, was himself an adept user of mockery.

Early Islam was equally happy to cohabit with satire. The savage, obscene wit of the pre-Islamic poetic style hijaʾ (lampooning) was actually utilised by Muhammad’s companions, most notably by the poet Ḥassān ibn Thābit, in vicious attacks upon the unbelieving Quraysh; attacks which one Hadith reports as having been expressly endorsed by the Prophet himself. What is notable about this is that this endorsement took place in Mecca, prior to the flight to Medina and the subsequent return in military power. Tertullian wrote prior to the Constantinian conversion, and Hilary was writing in exile against the Arianizing Emperor Constantius. Francis of Assisi, though far later, was himself an outsider figure, attempting to turn the Church away from its increasingly terrestrial trajectory.

What’s the common thread here? That humour punctuates power. That humour is a strong weapon with which to debase and expose the absurdities of presumed authority, and that—when in opposition—both Christianity and Islam were more than happy to endorse it. And then, once the tables had turned, they moved against it: the Rule of Benedict prohibits levity, and though laughter appears in the Qurʾan it is usually reporting the foolish mockery of unbelievers and contrasting it with the laughter that believers will then direct back at them when sat in their thrones on high; it is also, given Muhammad’s endorsement of hijaʾ, careful to endorse poetry when in the service of God—as for other poets: “only the deviators follow them.” No lampooning except for the Prophet’s Companions, it would seem.

Until the Enlightenment, when directed at power, satire was directed at the holder of power, not the institution, not the grounds for power. Hilary’s invective attacked the emperor for his Arian tendencies, but did not question the basis of imperial power . Dante and his illustrators may have drawn the undrawable, and named him a schismatic, but they did so in fervent support of an apostolically-justified papacy. However, it appears that, now, when it comes to the crunch, the religious close ranks to vilify the non-believer, even if it means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people whose beliefs they explicitly reject. I would argue that this is because, since the Enlightenment, secularism (not even necessarily atheism) has become a viable narrative for “Earthly” power.

Now that the right of the religious to wield power simply for being religious is no longer a social given, mockery need no longer be targeted at the specific holders of power, but actually at the very institutional grounding of power. The satire of The Satanic Verses contrasts the absolutist claims of monotheism with the inherently interpretative requirements of textually-based dogma. The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were not because the cartoonists disagreed with the specific claims to prophethood of Muhammad, but was mockery of the very idea that temporal authority is granted by religious adherence. The stakes have changed, the allegiances shifted, and, now, the enemy of any religion is secularism, not because it denies specific tenets of their faith—because the other faiths with whom they now stand side-by-side do so too—but because it denies the very right to legislate on the actions of other people simply by virtue of being a faith. The Muslims and the Catholics and the Church of England may disagree on who should be on the top of the pile, but they are in total agreement as to why they should be there. They require us to believe, not in their words, but in their grimness; they justify their terrestrial authority from the fervency of their own belief: and satire, denying anyone status through grimness, is a common enemy to them all.

Bring out the fowl’s feathers!

A to Z blogging challenge: Z

On offence

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Pope Francis—until then doing pretty well, as far as medieval theocratic monarchs go—stated that “One cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.” The presumption of religious people that they should be entitled to protection from offence, that the sincerity or depth of their belief provides them with some kind of right to protection from ridicule is hardly news. But there is an element which I think is not often stressed when this is discussed, and so I’m going to do it here.

As I’ve previously mentioned, when I indulge myself in a little poking of fun at religion, I generally choose the leaders, institutes, and dogmas as my targets, and avoid directly mocking individual believers: but this is largely because I’m a nice person, because I think the ends are better achieved by exposing the system to ridicule rather than the practitioners. But I am utterly convinced of my right to ridicule individual believers should I choose and, of course, even when I am directing my mockery at the institutions, it is not a hugely inaccurate inferential jump for willing members of those institutions to take this personally. And if you think I’m calling you a fool then you should bear in mind, for starters, that this is precisely what your religion calls me.

I’m sorry, kinda, if you’re offended. But the point of this post is to say that if you are, then you’re also kinda missing a trick: because there is, at least as far as the monotheistic creeds are concerned, nothing that I can say about them that is as offensive as what they say about me. On this side choirs of angels, on the other, the gaping maw of hell: and there can be little doubt which gate I am headed towards. That’s not a very nice thing to say, but especially not when coupled with the regular assertions of the supreme mercy and justice of God. Yet no atheist demands defense from this most abusive of insults: we are routinely condemned to deserving hellfire and damnation in churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the world—and it is not hard to see how many have interpreted this (not without scriptural authority) historically and contemporaneously as a call to enact God‎’‎s vengeance in this world.

Your faith, my monotheistic friend, says that not only will I suffer an eternity of agony but also that, given the supreme mercy and justice of God, this is precisely what I deserve. So next time you fret that I have suggested that I think that you may be credulous, a fool, or a hypocrite; that the dogmas of your institutions are incoherent and their practices perverse; just stop a moment before crying offence: because your religion freely and repeatedly says about me—expressed not even as an opinion, but as a matter of fact—that I am so hideously, egregiously, despicably vile that even a merciful and all-loving God cannot find it in Himself to save me from perdition.

There’s not a lot, really, that I can say about you that equals that.

A to Z blogging challenge: O

On Žižek on Charlie: Chicken soup for the liberal democratic soul

Slavoj Žižek has penned a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in the New Statesman. It purports to be a view, from the “radical Left,” of the psychology of fundamentalist violence and the failure of liberal democracy to confront this meaningfully. Denuded of its eloquent language and erudite references, however, Žižek provides us with nothing more than a few trite clichés that fit well within the liberal democratic paradigm.

Žižek opens his argument with an “unambiguous” condemnation of the attack, “without any hidden caveats.” He does, however, assert that we need “the courage to think” in response to the attack. There have been other responses to the attack that one might consider thoughtful; Žižek, presumably, considers them otherwise. One wonders how he comes to this conclusion. Perhaps because they do not come to the same conclusion as he does.

So what is his conclusion? Žižek summons Horkheimer’s critique of Fascism into the modern era: “those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.” As “hidden caveats” go, this is a doozy. We must, apparently, condemn the Charlie Hebdo attack without any caveats, but can only do so if we are also willing to criticize liberal democracy.

Žižek wants us to believe that liberal democracy on its own is insufficient bulwark against religious fundamentalism; it needs “the brotherly help of the radical Left.”

The heart of Žižek’s argument is that the fear that liberal democrats have of religious fundamentalism is misplaced because the frequent contrast between the soft contentment of democracy and the “passionate intensity” of the religious fundamentalist is likewise misplaced.

Žižek wants to convince us of two related claims. First, “authentic” fundamentalism does not preach violence or hate; it has benevolent indifference towards non-believers. Secondly, and consequently, the Hebdo attackers must have lacked true faith. Žižek of course expresses his arguments much more elegantly than this, but stripped of cultural references to Nietzsche, Yeats, Horkheimer and Tibetan Buddhism, this is what remains. It is fatuous, and it is wrong.

There is much serious psychological research on the psychology of violent extremism, and while existential concerns certainly play a role in the account they give, there is far more to it than this. Indeed, Žižek’s claims here look more like a trite liberal democratic platitude than any thoughtful radical alternative. Real faith is peaceful and tolerant; people who preach violence lack real faith.

This would be nice, but there is little evidence to support it. Of course there are certainly “fundamentalist” religious movements that preach “indifference” towards non-believers, but this is really insufficient to claim that all violent fundamentalists hence lack faith. Short of offering a radical leftist critique, this is steeped in a contemporary liberal Christian ethic that wants to convince us that all faiths are, in essence, united by peace, tolerance and harmony.

There is no need here to rehash the extensive exhortations to violence against non-believers in the scriptures and theologies of many of the world religions. Žižek points us to Tibetan Buddhism as an example of the kind of tolerant fundamentalism he considers “authentic” and he does well to attach the Tibetan qualifier: in Myanmar, some Buddhist monks have been central to a coordinated campaign of religious violence against the Muslim Rohingya. Žižek might arrogate to himself the ability to pronounce of the respective “authenticity” of these two varieties of Buddhism, but his grounds for doing so seem little more than a desire to sneer at those we fear. “The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.” All bullies are really cowards; all religious extremists lack real faith.

Žižek solution to the problem of violent extremism points to the necessity of engaging with a “renewed Left.” Yet his own analysis is little more than the “smug self-satisfaction of a permissive liberal” that he derides. If all the radical Left has to offer is cheap platitudes dressed up in cultural references and erudite language—Chicken Soup for the Liberal Democratic Soul—then I think liberal democracy can do quite well without it.


This is a guest post from Graham Brown, who shares my DNA and, apparently, ranty infuriation with posturing old pseuds. Unlike me, however, he gets paid to use big words, and actually seems to know what he’s talking about too.