What’s the point of lampooning religion? To upset the religious?

January 8, 2015

In the wake of the horrific massacre at Charlie Hebdo, debate has focussed on the issue of causing of offence to religious people. Is that the point of lampooning religion? Is causing offence to Muslims the aim of someone who draws a cartoon of Mohammad? No, usually it's not (though this point is usually lost on the offended).


The slaughter of Charlie Hebdo journalists by Islamists offended by irreverent depictions of Mohammad was discussed on the BBC’s main news programme Newsnight last night. That programme can be viewed here for a week.


Towards end of the programme cartoonist Steve Bell was interviewed alongside ‘moderate’ Muslim Sir Iqbal Sacranie, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Great Britain. Sacranie unequivocally condemned the attack on the Charlie Hebdo journalists. But he went on to suggest that there are limits to free speech. Sacranie drew an analogy popular with many Muslims between offending someone by insulting a dear member of their family and offending a Muslim by insulting their Prophet. Sacranie said he ‘would not dare’ to insult a member of your close family with the intention of hurting your feelings. He added that if he did, ‘I would perhaps get a punch on my nose’.


What did Sacranie mean by his ‘punch on the nose’ comment? Was he implying that, while the crime might be abhorrent, the victims bore at least some responsibility for bringing that ‘punch on the nose’ upon themselves? Or was Sacranie just pointing out the obvious: that some Muslims react in a predictably violent fashion when they feel the Prophet has been insulted?


Whatever Sacranie was getting at, I don’t much like his analogy. Is Sacranie's argument that, just as we ought to avoid lampooning those dearly loved by their families, so we should similarly avoid lampooning the Prophet? If so, it's an awful argument. After all, almost everyone is dearly loved by someone. Steve Bell, sitting beside Sacranie, regularly lampoons  UK Prime Minister David Cameron by drawing him with a shiny pink condom pulled over his head. Cameron's parents, wife, and young children no doubt love him dearly and find it upsetting to see him lampooned and insulted by Bell week in and week out. But of course that’s no reason for Bell and others not to do it.


Perhaps Sacranie will say there’s an important difference between Bell's lampooning of Cameron and the lampooning of Mohammad. Bell’s intention in lampooning Cameron is not to offend Cameron’s close family. Offence to family members is just an unintended consequence of the lampooning, not its aim. So what Bell does is acceptable. The lampooning of Mohammad, on the other hand, is done with the express intention of causing offence to Muslims. Is that what Sacranie thinks is unacceptable?


Actually, few draw pictures of Mohammad with the intention of upsetting Muslims. Of course Steve Bell knows Cameron’s wife and kids probably are upset by his cartoons, but that’s not why Bell draws them. Similarly, when people lampoon Mohammad, they know it will upset Muslims. It doesn’t follow that their aim is to upset Muslims. In fact, that’s usually not their aim.


So why lampoon a much-loved and revered religious figure, if not to upset his followers? Here are two reasons why.


The Hans Christian Anderson story The Emperor’s New Clothes ends with much mocking of the Emperor as he parades pompously around town while stark naked. The hilarity begins with that small boy who points and laughs. His laughter has a revelatory effect on those around him.  Suddenly, as a result of that one boy pointing and laughing, everyone else realizes they’ve been duped. The spell that held them captive is broken. They recognize the truth.


Laughter may not be the only way of getting people to recognise the truth, but it’s sometimes the quickest and most effective way. Satire and mockery are tools that can be employed entirely appropriately, particularly if we’re criticising figures and institutions that maintain a faithful following in part by fostering attitudes of immense reverence and deference. What the pompous and self-aggrandizing fear most is that small boy who points and laughs - and whose name, in this case, is Charlie Hebdo.


Religions and religious figures are mocked and lampooned for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s sometimes done for no other reason than to upset the religious. Let me be clear that I don’t approve of that (though I do defend the right of others to do it).


However, more often than not, the lampooning is done with the intention of shattering, if only for a moment, the protective façade of reverence and deference that has been erected around some iconic figure or belief, so that we can all catch a glimpse of how things really are. At such times, lampooning can become great art.


Here’s a second reason for lampooning those demanding overweening ‘respect’ for some religious figure or institution.  What do the armed clowns who marched into the Charlie Hebdo offices want? They want to create fear, so that no one will ever dare lampoon their Prophet again. Many of us were already self-censoring for fear of such reprisals. Now even more of us will do so. Freedom of expression is being eroded.


But there’s an obvious way we can quickly reclaim that lost freedom. We can, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali nicely put it, ‘spread the risk’. If we all stand up and repeat what caused the supposed ‘offence’, then tomorrow any individual who might have self-censored out of fear will realize they’re not an isolated target, but just one target amongst countless thousands. The risk is spread between us to the point where the danger faced by any one individual becomes negligable again.


There are a number of sensible and thoughtful Muslims prepared bravely to stand up and do just this: to themselves commit the 'offence' of showing a cartoon of Mohammad, and so begin to take back a freedom that’s increasingly being lost to fear and self-censorship . We should applaud them. Their reason for repeating the ‘offence’ is very clearly not ‘to upset Muslims’.


#1 DougEBarr on Thursday January 08, 2015 at 9:30am

All religions should be harpooned as one of the steps we need to take to heal the cuts in the face of humanity. http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poems/2013/1/25/religion.html

#2 5cr0tum (Guest) on Friday January 09, 2015 at 12:10am

the article’s author lost me at “Offence to family members is just an unintended consequence of the lampooning, not its aim. So what Bell does is acceptable. The lampooning of Mohammad, on the other hand, is done with the express intention of causing offence to Muslims. That’s unacceptable.”

maybe it’s done with the express intent of entertaining non-muslims? I for one enjoy a genuine belly-laugh when anyone takes the piss out of any religion, Christiantity, Islam, or any other. I think the author has made a leap here that isn’t justified or supported in any way within the article.

#3 Stephen Law on Friday January 09, 2015 at 1:16am

5crotum - I think you may have misunderstood. The bit you quote is not my view, it’s a view perhaps held by Sacranie. I have edited it to make clearer. Of course you are right that lampooning can also be done just for amusement. But there are also more serious purposes.

#4 5cr0tum (Guest) on Friday January 09, 2015 at 1:28am

@Stephen Law - thanks, and now I re-read (and get past the point where I said “you lost me”) agree more strenuously. Thanks.

#5 Richard (Guest) on Friday January 09, 2015 at 1:12pm

I think we should have another Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.

#6 Ralph (Guest) on Friday January 09, 2015 at 4:21pm

Everytime terrorists do this, they get from a not insignificant portion of the intelligentsia professions of disavowal of that which the terrorists targeted - precisely what they want to hear.  Instead of that, a better idea would be to ask all publications all over the world to publish all the cartoons that were the target of the attacks on a daily basis for a period of 3 months( minimum )- every time something like this happens.  That way, we are not reinforcing it like what’s happening right now.

#7 Henry Page (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 1:35am

Muslims reacting to cartoons of the prophet by saying that they are offended and that they cannot help their reaction is more or less equal to the historic defence for rape where a man would say that the woman had at first agrees, but then changed her mind, but he could not stop himself. Such a defence for rape would be both shocking and risible now and that is how we should respond to such absurd pronouncements from Muslims.

#8 Gary (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 1:41am

As many people as possible need to publish the cartoons. Otherwise we’re going to find ourselves in a situation that when the dust has settled, we’re slightly less likely to insult Islam. That’s what these people wanted.

A hugely important reason for mocking religion is that it has a huge symbolic power when seen by religious people who are doubting their beliefs. In my own past, I always remember the fact that whilst I could tell not everyone took Christianity seriously, the fact that no-one criticised it, perhaps indicated they respected it. That’s why people are taught to defend these beliefs with emotional reactions. It’s a defense mechanism. Just another tactic that religion uses to exempt itself from the marketplace of ideas.

#9 Helen (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 2:41am

There is a distinction between lampooning a politician as a politician (including his physical appearance) and insulting him as a privat person and human being.

This distinction does not apply to gods and prophets. I can call Allah or Mohammed a criminal, not existing mumbojumbo or whatever I want to.

#10 Claude (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 3:06am

Even jesus christ (who never existed) was supposed to have ordered that there be no icons of him. (This iconography of mohammed is what is getting the muslims’ panties in a twist) But just look at what happened with christianity, we see the result of 2000 years of the most successful branding of anything around the world all with a simple icon of 2 straight lines (crucifix.)
Of course this act calls for showing all levels of hypocrisy. There was no mohammed. All these religions are fake stories for the feeble minded to follow, because the priests want to retain power over the masses. These cretins of this shit religion called islam are whores and pussies. They do not stand for anything except emptyheaded gestures to make them feel better about their sorry-assed lives, which the priests need to keep them in, so that they will continue to come and pray at the shitty holy place of worship.
Worshipping of any sort should be banned. 

Wake up you stupid fucks. There is no god. Your books are all imperfect. Of course they are imperfect, this is proven by you having multiplicities of INTERPRETATIONS and sects. DUH! Of course religion (ALL) is a lie. The books are imperfect, but yet they are supposed to be the word of their gawd. So, if the book is imperfect, then gawd is imperfect. And if gawd is imperfect then the shitstain called mohammed is also imperfect.
Well there ya go, are you going to allow THIS post about the stupid morons who call themselves religious stay up on your website? Or are fearful of the stupid little shitstain fucks called muslims. FUCK THEM and their religions.
I say bring it on and kill all the religious stooges anyway. Yes, all Billions of them. If they cannot trust their own senses and logic then they cannot be trusted with their own lives, so put an end to them.

Here is mohammed, and I don’t need a pencil

  ( )

And that is his little pile of shit right under him, because yes, he took shits.

Fuck them and their mohammed.

#11 Henry Page (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 3:53am

Claude: are you drunk? Are you proud of that post? You shouldn’t be as it is laced with swear words. Your claim that Mohammed didn’t exist is an interesting one, but whether he actually lived or not is irrelevant as what matters is the beliefs that are attributed to him. Proving his existence is almost as elusive as that of the ‘almighty’ and maybe Mo joins that select club, but it’s still irrelevant. Focus on the beliefs of the living, for it is they who contribute to the mess of mass religious belief.

#12 Stephen Law (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 4:00am

Claude - your comment is a crude and pointless attempt to insult and wind up Muslims. Which, as I say in my post (if you read it?), I disapprove of. Count me out.

#13 Yogi (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 4:57am

Very good piece, well articulated. Thank you.

#14 lydia (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 3:39pm

I like Ralph’s #6 idea to take action in response to their action. As an example of how this works well,one of my friends makes a habit, on his commute by a Planned Parenthood center, of counting how many protesters are outside.  He then engages with them ONLY to tell them that he made a prior committment to donate X dollars per protester to PP for women’s rights.  He, does the calculation out loud and walks into the clinic to make the donation.  He also tells the people inside his methodology.
It empowers the staff, who feel that their daily walk of the gauntlet has brought some good.  At the same time it creates confused frustration among the protesters, as it creates a completely different assessment of them than they are used to.

#15 Chris (Guest) on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 7:37pm

Thank-you Stephen Law for introducing me to philosophy at a young age; the motivation to ponder friendless questions has led me to Buddhism. And while this isn’t the safest forum to declare ‘religious’ belief, I’m sure if someone issued a distasteful image of the Buddha, the non-correlation between the Buddha’s teachings (at least in the Theravada tradition) and retributive action would dissuade me from violence. I’m uncertain that the Islamic texts similarly inoculate against potentially perilous interpretations, but that is maybe another matter.

I particularly enjoyed the clarification here that one needn’t approve of hurtful freedom of speech. By permitting freedom of speech, there is no implication that a given society approves of potentially hurtful views - some expressions intimate enough violence as to be unlawful. For me, if Charbonnier ‘invited’ anything, he invited pitiless estrangement from religious and secular public spheres that considered his papers repulsive or in poor-taste.
Just because the colour red exists, doesn’t mean I have to like it - I may truly despise the colour red. But if we were to somehow completely eliminate the colour red from the perceived light spectrum due to popular condemnation, not only would this be an infringement on the human right to see things in a particular way, it would perhaps be a less colourful world.
Located this article in the nuclear incandescence of Richard Dawkins’ Twitter page, but will be here again of my own accord. Refreshing clarity.

#16 BillZBobb on Saturday January 10, 2015 at 8:23pm

This is a total cop out. What is the offense? Depicting Mohammed as less than holy. What was the cartoonist out to do? To depict Mohammed as less than holy. The cartoonist’s larger purpose in commiting this may be mitigating, it may confer a virtuous quality to the offensive act, but it doesn’t negate its negative quality of being designed to offend.

You know, free speech does not protect child pornographers. I am no lawyer, but I believe a photo of an as-if erotically posed child would be illegal even in the context of a piece of art, including one with an important political message. Should we who are offended by such photos, publish them en masse to protest this abrogation of our freedom? I think that’s a lot to ask, and I could understand if many would take such a request as an offensive denigration of the fervency of their beliefs. Are we thought police? Feelings police? Is it in fact our business how fervently other people believe what they do? Is it all right with you if I walk around believing that I look reasonably attractive, or must you present me with unflattering photos of myself? I ramble. But this post is just so wrong.

#17 Henry Page (Guest) on Sunday January 11, 2015 at 12:16am

@BillZBobb: ” Are we thought police?” Surely you have this the wrong way round? It is those who misinterpret our thoughts, or challenge our right to hold our beliefs that are the ‘thought police’.

Here is a bit of mocking humour: The name J-E-S-U-S said backwards phonetically produces ‘sausage’ (S-U-S-E-J) and the word G-O-D produces ‘dog’ (D-O-G) so I maintain that the third (Holy Ghost)member of the trinity is a sausage dog. As the three parts actually equal one. I prefer the sausage dog to god or Jesus because of his cuddly, loving persona. That allusion to the Trinity is enough, especially with the dog in it, for me to be sentenced to death in Islam for blasphemy. Do you believe that is a just punishment?

I am an apostate from Islam and one who became a ‘kaffir’ on leaving the religion - I prefer to call myself an atheist but kaffir will do if those who use it are so desperate to show their ignorance. Again, that is enough for me to be sentenced to death in Islam (the sin of Apostasy). Do you think that too is a just punishment?

Exactly who are the thought police, people like me and the other Je Suis Charlies or those who would attack us?

#18 BlasphemyChamp on Sunday January 11, 2015 at 7:38pm

@BillZBob: The best reason for legal prohibition of child pornography is not because it is offensive, but because it is reasonably well established by research that the process of producing most child pornography is damaging to the children, and they do not have the capacity of informed consent to possible damage*. Adult pornography is free speech in most cases because of informed consent, not because it is never offensive. Religious people want to claim that blasphemy per se damages them beyond just offense, but have not been able to demonstrate that to anyone who does not already share their beliefs.

Even in Sacranie’s example in the original article above, insulting someone’s family with intent to cause offense does not justify a punch in the nose. The insult is free speech (though impolite), the punch is assault. Physical violence is not an acceptable response to words.

* Prohibition of child pornography that does not involve any actual children, such as paintings or digital images created purely from imagination, is possibly a debatable though still detestable area, as are some of the widest-ranging hate speech prohibitions.

#19 John-Mark (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 9:29am

A recent and interesting article from Newsweek:

The Koran Does Not Forbid Images of the Prophet

#20 BillZBobb on Monday January 12, 2015 at 1:31pm

@BlasphemyChamp, we agree on the best reason for the ban on child pornography, and I’m sure it’s an important reason, but sociologically, legislatively, and judicially I don’t know in what place it figures. Anyway, I was challenging the claim that the purpose of these cartoons is not to offend. Maybe I can work with the analogy to mocking a loved one, which I suppose is where I should have started. The analogy is to the intensity of feeling, not to (I don’t know what to call it, say) a logical structure. And the analogy is not so easily dismissed by Stephen Law’s point, that prime ministers and presidents have loved ones too, because, if you accept that the intensity of love or fealty is comparable, in the case of a published cartoon we are talking about slandering hundreds of millions of people’s loved one, not just one person. I assume Stephen Law would would at least be sympathetic to the ethical approach of weighing the good against the harm, and yet he has grossly underestimated the weight of religious feeling in his interpretation of the analogy to feelings for real people in our lives. Could a cartoon be so offensive as to deserve a punch in the nose? Maybe not. But that’s not my concern. It’s dismissing religious people’s feelings as-if out-of-hand, which this post seems to do.

#21 sam (Guest) on Monday January 12, 2015 at 3:18pm

“Is it in fact our business how fervently other people believe what they do?”


“Is it all right with you if I walk around believing that I look reasonably attractive,”

Yes, that’s fine.

“or must you present me with unflattering photos of myself?”

No, I personally wouldn’t do that.  That would be rude.

But let’s say that, instead of keeping your beliefs to yourself, you insist repeatedly that I must affirm your beauty daily, and must support legislation requiring that these daily affirmation be codified into law.  Not only would I deny your requests, but I might use sarcasm and ridicule in order to match your own rudeness.  Even if you are the most beautiful person in the world, I might use ridicule as a teaching method to deflate your misguided belief that I must subscribe to and validate your beliefs.

“The analogy is to the intensity of feeling,… if you accept that the intensity of love or fealty is comparable, in the case of a published cartoon we are talking about slandering hundreds of millions of people’s loved one…”

The intensity of feeling of hundreds of millions of people has no judicial weight.  None.  Grown adults hold other grown adults responsible for controlling their emotions and refraining from violence.  That is the way civilization works.  For example, not only is Holocaust denial factually incorrect, it should be deeply offensive to anyone who cares about history and avoiding past mistakes.  But a person who kills a Holocaust denier, someone who offends the feelings of millions of people, solely for their denial, is still a murderer.  We hold the murderer accountable for his actions.  We hold living Holocaust deniers accountable by public ridicule and social censure, not by physical harm.

Similarly, you could use public ridicule and censure against someone who attacked your physical appearance (or religious feelings) when you were making no attempt to impose your beliefs on them.  But you couldn’t use violence.

“ yet he has grossly underestimated the weight of religious feeling in his interpretation of the analogy”

So far as I can see, religious feeling has no weight.  Some people have deeply intense feelings for their sports team.  People have murdered others over athletic disputes.  Their feelings and emotional devotion to their team have no weight in a court of law. 

It would be reasonable to view the failure of a devotee, religious or otherwise, to control his emotions as a moral failure, something that is worthy of contempt, not something that is worthy of legal protection (i.e. blasphemy laws) or something that is a mitigating circumstance in a trial.  Can you explain in more detail the weight or moral heft that you think religious feeling deserves?

“Could a cartoon be so offensive as to deserve a punch in the nose? Maybe not.”

We in the Western civilization must insist that no ‘maybe’ belongs in that response.  Those offended might try turning the other cheek.

“It’s dismissing religious people’s feelings as-if out-of-hand,”

There are very good pragmatic reasons not to dismiss other people’s religious feelings, much like there are very good pragmatic reasons for a lone woman on a 3 AM subway not to dismiss other people’s feelings towards the dress she is wearing.  She still has the right to wear what she likes, and she still has the right not to be violated.  The moral failing lies with the person ‘provoked’ to violence, not with the ‘provoker’.

#22 BillZBobb on Monday January 12, 2015 at 7:11pm

In the U.S. we have the judicial concept of Constitutionally unprotected language known as “fighting words”:

” Words which would likely make the person whom they are addressed commit an act of violence.  Fighting words are a category of speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment.  Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).”

So the law does make concessions to the feeling that millions of people might reasonably be expected to want to punch a speaker of certain words in the nose.

Anyway, what I protested in the first place as a “cop out” was the suggestion that the Hebdo cartoonists weren’t actually trying to offend Moslems. I suppose mainly it’s more a question to do with the philosophy of language—one that I suspect resolved well and long ago that pleading you didn’t mean your words to have the effect they did, under circumstances like this this one, is a cop out. 

Nobody else here is copping out. I think often there are good reasons to allow yourself and others to offend.

But to be dismissive about gravely offending people—not to be ready to justify your choice and tactic—is disrespectful toward your offendees and seems like a dangerous self-delusion besides.

For me, the important context here is that the Hebdo cartoons I’ve seen strike me as pointlessly over-the-top offensive. In the language of war, it seems disproportionate. In war, we have war crimes. In rhetoric and propaganda, I think there is behavior that we may do well to regard as propaganda crime. Even if we don’t choose to criminalize it in legal terms, there’s speech we should chastise speakers for, and for the victims of which we might show some sympathy. I think there a tit-for-tat sense of justice at work here in the way we think about offending devotees of religion—because they evangelize us and may have suckered us as children. But generally speaking, I would say it’s only poetic justice, and not true justice, if we cause these people pain. Supposedly, we don’t torture even religious terrorists.

#23 BlasphemyChamp on Monday January 12, 2015 at 8:39pm

Though I am by no means a constitutional lawyer, reading the court opinion you cite* seems to indicate it was aimed at “face-to-face words” and allows “A statute punishing verbal acts, carefully drawn so as not unduly to impair liberty of expression”. And even then, the redress of the aggrieved party seemed to be to have the police arrest the offender, not to themselves assault the offender. In the case of a satirical newspaper, the analogy would seem to be the use of libel laws. But there is a very slippery slope in allowing a group to declare that certain words or expressions cause them so much pain that they should be prohibited - free speech may then die the death of a thousand cuts. This is the danger of overly broad hate speech prohibition, expanding beyond calls to offensive action to expression of offensive opinion.

If something is truly “pointlessly over-the-top offensive”, then targets of it who discuss the offense in an angry yet reasonable manner to get others to recognize and shun the offense, or who in extreme cases file lawsuits, or who call for economic boycotts against the offender, might deserve some sympathy depending on the case. But offendees who resort to violence do not. Most Moslems are not offended to violence by depictions of Muhammad, just as most Christians are not offended to violence by insults to Jesus. Just because there is a larger number of people calling themselves Moslems who are offended to violence does not mean that their beliefs deserve special treatment (except, sadly, in a pragmatic sense as sam pointed out). If anything, this is exactly the reason why the supposed sacredness of Muhammad (or anything else) needs to be punctured - so that hopefully, eventually, fewer people believe that insults deserve violent response.

* Compare the more recent US Supreme Court decision allowing the Westboro Baptist Church to protest (http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/09-751.ZO.html), where the court says free speech rights “turns largely on whether that speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case. ... That is because restricting speech on purely private matters does not implicate the same constitutional concerns as limiting speech on matters of public interest”. Social commentary or satire is different than simply insulting individuals in the street, which is a reason why insulting millions deserves more protection than insulting a few. Admittedly drawing the line is not always easy.

#24 BlasphemyChamp on Wednesday January 14, 2015 at 8:24am

See this as a good example of reaction to perceived insult. I agree with the second part of this statement by a prominent Muslim regarding the new Charlie Hebdo cover:

Abbas Shumann, deputy to the Grand Sheik of Cairo’s influential Al-Azhar mosque, said the new image was “a blatant challenge to the feelings of Muslims who had sympathized with this newspaper.”

But he told The Associated Press that Muslims should ignore the cover and respond by “showing tolerance, forgiveness and shedding light on the story of the prophet.” An angry reaction, he said, “will not solve the problem but will instead add to the tension and the offense to Islam.”


#25 DougEBarr on Wednesday January 14, 2015 at 8:37am

All this meaningless discussion over make/believe is incredibly depressing. The hot air has to be contributing to climate change. http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poems/2013/1/25/religion.html

#26 Henry Page (Guest) on Wednesday January 14, 2015 at 11:30am

@DougEBarr ... you don’t have to come here and no, I won’t be using your link

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