As we now arrive at the one year anniversary of the day the ANU Chancelry censored its own student newspaper, there has been a renewed interest across the nation in the demented circus that is “religious sensibility”. The incorrigible triumvirate of white freedom fighters, George Brandis, Tim Wilson, and Andrew Bolt, have been waxing lyrical about how important it is for Australians to maintain their right to unbridled bigotry. And bigoted many Woroni readers thought the editors were for publishing “Advice from Religion: Islam”. Written by Jamie Freestone and Mat McGann, and designed by Todd Cooper, it was the fifth in a series of seven cartoons satirising the major religions of the world. However, there is nothing in either the Discrimination Act 1991 (ACT) or the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) which prohibits causing people offence as a result of their religious beliefs. For religion, being nothing more than an idea, like Keynesian economics or Sydney’s decision to buy Lance Franklin, is not meant to be legally protected from public scrutiny. As such, all the ANU’s Chancelry could do to censor the student newspaper was to threaten to withdraw its funding and begin disciplinary proceedings against any of the editors who refused to comply.
At this point the recent history of violent backlash by Muslim extremists towards critique of Islam finally became relevant to members of the ANU. More importantly, the manner in which such a history has lifted Islam to a point that it is nearly beyond reproach, provided the basic motivation for the course of action undertaken by Vice-Chancellor Ian Young and his subordinates. Defending his successful censorship of Woroni, Vice-Chancellor Ian Young went on national television and denounced the by now controversial cartoon as being “offensive” and “discriminatory”, claiming it “overstepped the mark”. Young concluded his brief press conference by noting that there have been a “number of cases internationally of satirical cartoons about the Koran which can have some very unfortunate side effects.”
On April 4 Fairfax Media’s Sam de Brito wrote about this very phenomenon in his article, “Mock Christian, get laughs, mock Muslims, get bullets”. In creating the series, Freestone, McGann and Cooper’s aim was to, with a wickedly impious grin, apply a blowtorch to the extensive foibles of the world’s major religions and their various texts. All seven of the “Advice from Religion” cartoons published in Woroni contained provocative language and were stridently anti-theist in nature. In semester one, 2013, the ANU Chancelry received two official complaints from Woroni readers regarding different pieces of religious satire in the publication they found highly offensive. While one complaint concerned the mocking of Benedict XVI and the other concerned the Prophet Muhammed, the Chancelry only felt it necessary to take action with the latter. In his book God is Not Great, published back in 2007,Christopher Hitchens went so far as to write that there has never been an attempt in any age to “challenge or investigate the claims of Islam that has not been met with extremely harsh and swift repression”. Indeed it is my opinion that the birth of this phenomenon, in its modern incarnation, may be traced back to 1989, when the late Ayatollah Khomeini placed a fatwa upon Salman Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses, a novel the Iranian theocrat had never even read. After being forced to live under police protection for nearly a decade, Rushdie reflected upon the issue of blasphemy in an interview with The Hindu.
“There is no right in the world not to be offended. That right simply doesn’t exist. In a free society, an open society, people have strong opinions, and these opinions very often clash. In a democracy, we have to learn to deal with this. And this is true about novels, it’s true about cartoons, it’s true about all these products. A question I have often asked is, ‘What would an inoffensive political cartoon look like?’ What would a respectful cartoon look like? The form requires disrespect and so if we are going to have in the world things like cartoons and satire, we just have to accept it as part of the price of freedom.”
Yet such blood-lust was by no means confined to Rushdie. In the early nineties, three journalists, the Egyptian Farag Fouda, the Algerian Tahar Djaout, and the Turk Ugur Mumcu, were assassinated in their own countries for battling against Islamism in the name of secularised society. In 2004, Dutch director Theo van Gogh was slain in public for producing the short film Submission. In 2005, Western embassies were burned and, according to the New York Times, two hundred people killed by protestors around the globe, in reaction to a cartoon featuring the Islamic prophet Muhammed published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
The legacy of such extremism is that gripped by fear, Western institutions will inevitably err on the side of caution when it comes to the critique of Islam. Following publication of The Satanic Verses, many religious leaders from other faiths and even some secular notables gushed with sympathy for Muslims who were ‘hurt’ and ‘offended’. Incensed by this, Richard Dawkins wrote in the New Statesman that year, “If the advocates of apartheid had their wits about them they would claim—for all I know truthfully—that allowing mixed races is against their religion. A good part of the opposition would respectfully tip toe away.” He continued, “…and it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel, because apartheid has no rational justification. The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’.”
Following the violent backlash to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005, Andrew Mueller conducted an interview with Sir Iqbal Sacranie for the Independent on Sunday. While Sacranie praised British newspapers for not reprinting the Danish cartoons, Mueller voiced the widespread suspicion that “the restraint of the British newspapers derived less from sensitivity to Muslim discontent than it did from a desire not to have their windows broken.” Sacranie highlighted that the Prophet is “revered so profoundly in the Muslim world, with a love and affection that cannot be explained in words. It goes beyond your parents, your loved ones, your children.” This was meant to explain why it was so shattering for believers to see the Prophet satirised, and therefore why such an act should be prevented. However, as Mueller correctly pointed out, this assumes that the values of Islam “trump anyone else’s.”
Yet fault does not lie with intransigent believers alone. It lies equally with the cautious institutions who give air to such misgivings, and furthermore with those sympathisers who actually try to persecute secularist criticism. In his memoir, Joseph Anton, published in 2013, Rushdie documented the decade he was forced to live in hiding as a result of Khomeini’s fatwa. “A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticise the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system that boasted over one billion followers worldwide.” Such a phenomenon could be witnessed at the ANU as throngs of readers accused Freestone, McGann, and the editors of being racists who, despite arriving at Islam after already satirising Catholicsm and Judaism, were somehow intent upon discriminating Muslim students. Rushdie continued, by asking when it became “irrational to dislike religion, any religion, even to dislike vehemently?” “When did reason get redescribed as unreason? When were the fairy stories of the superstitious placed above criticism, above satire?” A religion is an idea, not a race, he concluded, and ideas “stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it.”
So the phenomenon taking place is an ongoing clash between two opposing world-views, something which will continue indefatigably, until the ‘middle-man’ finally resolves to either outlaw blasphemy or stand up to religious intimidation. The problem is that this ‘middle-man’ wants more than anything else to avoid having any “windows broken”, as Mueller put it. For example, in a bid to ingratiate himself with his Islamic constituents, Jack Straw, a member of Tony Blair’s Labour Government, proposed new legislation to the House of Commons in the late nineties as a response to the ‘Rushdie affair’. Fortunately the bill fell short of becoming legislation by a single vote, for otherwise Britain’s then blasphemy laws would have been extended to cover Islam, resulting in the potential prosecution of Rushdie banning of The Satanic Verses. Around the same time, the Oxford University Press refused to publish an extract from Midnight Children’s in an English-language teaching text, on the grounds that it was ‘too sensitive’. Similarly, in 2005 when Yale University Press published a book covering the Jyllands-Posten controversy, they elected not to include the actual cartoons in the work. Meanwhile, the Egyptian writer Alaa Hamed, together with his publishers and printers, was sentenced to eight years in prison for writing the novel A Distance in a Man’s Mind, which was deemed to be a threat to social peace and national unity.
Plus ça change! One can see that the stage for the “Advice from Religion: Islam” drama had thus been set long before the President of International Students’ Department (ISD) lodged an official complaint against Woroni to the Chancelry in April 2013, resulting in the censorship of the publication. However the position taken by the Chancelry and other institutions mentioned above ultimately satisfies neither party involved. For at the end of the day, secularists will continue to mock and challenge religion, which will invoke the continued chagrin of the faithful.
In their cartoon, Freestone and McGann backed up their satire with references to individual suras in the Koran. While conceding it wasn’t their “best work”, Freestone outlined his reasons for the cartoon in a letter to the editor subsequently published in Woroni. “When a second-hand reproduction of an oral story, of dubious veracity, from over a thousand years ago is used as a justification for being sexist towards women here and now — well, that idea is not only open to criticism, but is almost ostentatiously asking for it.” In hindsight I think the cartoon’s crude language might well have proved too distracting for some readers, irrespective of whether they were Muslims, and regret allowing that that to happen. Nevertheless, Freestone and McGann were making a worthy point in good faith.
Arguably, the Islam piece was no more provocative than anything else Freestone, McGann, and Cooper had produced. The contentious parts of the Islam cartoon in question were the assertion that “Muhammed f***ed a nine year old girl” and a reference to “rape fantasies”. Meanwhile, they satirised Catholicism by turning to it for the answer to the question, “I’m a man…Can I have sex with this person?” The answer provided included references to the molestation of children by priests, and suggested one could easily forgo consent during sexual intercourse. The same method of satire was set up for Judaism. This time the question was, “How should I treat other cultures?” The answers included “exterminate them,” and “segregate them and claim what’s yours”. No concerns were ever raised with Woroni by either the ISD or the Chancelry about these pieces. It is terribly difficult to see how Young differentiated satire from discrimination and where the line between the two was drawn. One can’t but wonder if the Chancelry also had an eye to protect the generous funding provided to the university by AusAID/DFAT, philanthropy manifested in the form of the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy. Not to the mention the handsome sum of revenue provided by the unknown, but presumably sizeable portion of Muslim students among the ANU’s 4,000 full fee-paying international students.
The plot thickens. On March 14, 2013, ANU lecturer David Catanzariti wrote an official complaint to the Chancelry, regarding the fake advertisement for a new Pope written by the editors themselves, published in Woroni’s Edition 2, 2013. As this piece of satire had made the unfortunate insinuation that Benedict XVI had voluntarily joined the Hitler Youth, Catanzariti rightly pointed out that his involvement is historically “attributed to the obligations placed on teenage boys” during that period in Germany. However, Catanzariti also complained that he found Woroni’s portrayal of the Catholic Church as racist and sexist “deeply offensive and inappropriate”. He asked the Chancelry to make a press release making it clear that the views espoused by Woroniin the fake advertisement “are not the views of the University” and that the University itself “apologises for any offence caused”.
The Chancelry responded to this official complaint simply by suggesting to Catanzariti that he raise the matter with the editors before the Vice-Chancellor himself actually became involved. While the Woroni editors apologised for the inaccuracy regarding the former Pope’s participation in the Hitler Youth and any offense caused, they did not redact the fake advertisement. The Chancelry did not issue the requested press release. Nor did it raise any concerns with the editors about factual inaccuracies or offensive content. So were the factual errors and concomitant insinuations Catanzariti spoke of were somehow less offensive or discriminatory than Freestone and McGann’s pointed commentary related to actual sections of the Koran?
Hoping to gain some insight to the Chancelry’s actions, I wrote to Jane O’Dwyer, the Director of the ANU’s Strategic Communications and Public Affairs, once while still an editor of Woroni, and twice again in 2014, while preparing this article.I specifically asked O’Dwyer whether the Chancelry recognised any inconsistency between its crackdown on the Islam cartoon and its indifferent approach to Catanzariti’s complaint. However on all three occasions O’Dwyer elected not to address Catanzariti’s complaint, and instead sent me an official statement from the University, which she said she hoped would clarify “exactly what the issues are” for me. According to this statement, the University responded “promptly” and “correctly” to a formal complaint from the ISD about the publication of an “offensive and discriminatory article” in Woroni. If only O’Dwyer had entitled her emails to me “To know and not to know”, for then, with an Orwellian wink, the two of us would have understood each other perfectly. This would have all but confirmed my suspicions that the Chancelry was indeed was more than capable of using “logic against logic” and to “repudiate morality while laying claim to it”. If this little Winston and his pals wanted to continue their amateur publication, as well as their individual right to attend the ANU, they had no choice but to play ball.
So the ANU made its own small contribution to the growing international consensus that, for fear of backlash, Islam ought not to be satirised. In doing so, as former Woroni editor Farz Edraki wrote in Crikey, the Chancelry bought into the “tired trope that all Muslims will immediately take up arms when they’re upset and/or offended”. Freestone took the argument further in his letter to the editor where he wrote that it’s “hugely condescending to assume that other people are so fragile that they can’t handle an opposing view.” To say that any religious person can’t cope with “subtle or blunt refutations of their beliefs”, Freestone continued, is a “calumny against humanity and people’s innate talent for thinking.”
In no way did Freestone, McGann, and Cooper discriminate against any actual students at the ANU, instead treating each faith with equal irreverence throughout their series. Anti-theism, in any form, does not a racist attitude make; especially when it is being consciously dished out in equal portions. For Islam, like any religion, is something you consciously choose to participate in. This is what fundamentally separates religious satire from racism. On April 11, Giri Sivaraman and Jessica Mclean wrote in Crikey that one of the “fundamental stupidities of racism” is that it “seeks to differentiate between people on the basis of factors that are out of their hands, or may have no effect on their behaviour whatsoever.” Muhammed Ali and Cat Stevens chose to become Muslims, but as outlined in the Eatock v Bolt case, the eight individuals had been offended and humiliated by Bolt did not choose to be Aboriginal.
On the other hand, in censoring Woroni, it appears that the Chancelry’s aim was predominantly risk management, and in hindsight it was probably naïve of the Woroni editors to think that the “Advice from Religion: Islam” cartoon would have resulted in anything but censorship. Nevertheless, such institutional cowardice only perpetuates the myth that Islam ought not to be dealt with too impiously. This behaviour is to be always detested and resisted, especially when fear of backlash is being unctuously dressed up as a display of ‘religious sensibility’. Ultimately, the key to achieving the freedom Rushdie speaks of is to be braver in the face of dogmatic intimidators of any kind.