Blasphemy

The evangelism issue is above all a matter of consistency. It is scarcely reasonable for Muslim publications to boast at length of the number of converts to that faith while demanding laws that would make Christian missions more difficult. Equally, protections extended to Muslims should in theory apply to all other faiths, yet presently, they are not. If they were, this would be one area where Christians would actually gain more rights than they have presently.

This is especially true in terms of hostile representations of religious themes, and many recent examples illustrate the profound disparity of treatment, and of the official response. The controversies over the Danish cartoons and the film Submission taught European media harsh lessons about the limits of presenting controversial themes in the area of Islam, and overwhelmingly, they have responded with self-censorship. Other religious activists have also enjoyed great success in preventing the presentation of unflattering themes. In 2004, Britain experienced a debate quite as unsettling as the cartoon affair, when Birmingham Rep Theatre produced the play Behzti (Dishonor). The work, which was written by a young Sikh woman, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatt, depicted sexual abuse and murder in the context of a Sikh temple. Furious militants mounted protests and threatened to storm the theater. Giving credence to the threats was the presence among the protesters of members of aggressive Sikh militias and street gangs with long records of violence, some of which had already been proscribed under British anti-terrorism laws. After consultation with the police, theater authorities withdrew the play, handing the militants a resounding victory. The case proved that the religious sensibilities of Sikhs, like Muslims, must be regarded as sacrosanct.42

Such episodes stand in obvious contrast to recent fictional productions offering profoundly hostile or scurrilous portrayals of Christianity, or of Christian churches. One example of course is the vastly popular Da Vinci Code, which has as its foundation the theory that all Christian doctrine is founded on error, misrepresentation, or fraud, concocted by sinister clergymen and sustained through the centuries by an evil and deceptive church. Its supporters can of course claim that it was exploring important religious themes through the guise of fiction, though that defense did not protect the equally imaginative Satanic Verses or Behzti.

In 2005, Britain produced a blatant example of anti-Christian propaganda in Jerry Springer-The Opera, in which a sleazy (and gay) Jesus appears on the famous talk show, in a work marked by hundreds of examples of profanity. The show was televised on the BBC, a channel funded by a license fee that serves as a tax on all owners of television sets, whether or not they ever watch the BBC. The show drew tens of thousands of protests, the largest number ever recorded for a British television production. Critics carried placards denouncing the "Blasphemous Broadcasting Corporation." Far from conceding error, though, BBC authorities stressed that the work was a legitimate work of art and the decision to show it a proper exercise of free speech, a decision strongly supported by the left and liberal media, who took the opportunity to denounce critics for their bigotry and philistinism.43

The difference in response is striking, but the reasons are obvious. However incensed they became, Christian critics never threatened actual violence or even unruly demonstration. Archbishop Sentamu has denounced the BBC for its consistent display of religious double standards: "They can do to us what they dare not do to the Muslims. We are fair game because they can get away with it. We don't go down there and say, 'We are going to bomb your place.' That is not in our nature." The lesson for filmmakers or broadcasters is clear: when choosing religious topics to cover, only offend those groups who will respect legality. Might, in this instance, assuredly does make right, or at least the right to offend. A cynic might comment that critics of Jerry Springer could have ended the work overnight simply by allying with Muslims, who regard Jesus as one of the most venerated prophets, and by enlisting the publicity machine of an Abu Laban. In 1999, Omar Bakri Mohammed had indeed issued a fatwa against Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, which presented a flagrantly homosexual Jesus.44

Another difference separating works of art dealing with Christian themes is that they fit well into an old-established tradition by which Europeans mock their own culture, while attacks on Islam or Sikhism constitute an insult to ethnic minorities. In the cartoon affair, for instance, Rowan Williams complained that Europe's apparent "peaceful-ness and enlightenment seems to include license to express some very unpeaceful and unenlightened attitudes to minorities of various kinds. Just what kind of 'civility is this' the newcomer could ask?" That defense will wear increasingly thin as European Christianity acquires more of an immigrant cast and the protesters denouncing a future Jerry Springer are themselves "newcomers," African and Asian. If Christianity is a predominantly African and Asian religion, does it then deserve protection from public mockery?45

While incidents like the cartoon controversy have been reported in terms of the position of Islam, they also raise important questions about the treatment of other religious themes, particularly when there is deliberate attempt to shock. As European states, and the EU, consider the expansion of hate speech codes to cover acts of religious offense, changes cannot fail to have their effects on other religions, including Christianity.

Putting these various issues together, we can envision a near-future Europe that is anything but uniformly secular. While Muslims engage in critical debates about their relationship with modernity and argue how far their faith can be reconciled with national ideologies, Christians will also be redefining their faith and its public role. Though Christian numbers will decline, Christians will continue to organize in groups and movements that are if anything far more committed and activist than for many years past and will constitute more identifiable interest groups. We can reasonably expect a new sensitivity to depictions of religion and sacred themes. Religion will play a more intense role in public debate, especially when this is fueled by court decisions on critical and emotive questions concerning sexuality and gender, family and children, death and the shifting definition of life. "God's Continent" still has more life in it than anyone might have thought possible only a few years ago.

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