Provocation, martyrdom, and Muhammad.

I’d planned to wrap up my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series by New Year’s, but I prolonged it so I could publish this old essay in time for the fourth anniversary of the event it was written to commemorate: January 2015’s Charlie Hebdo massacre.

In 1994 my teenage punk rock band performed a song called “Pee on Jesus” at a battle of the bands at our high school in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

As a co-writer of the song I can attest that it had no coherent satiric agenda. It was pure juvenile provocation. The first verse began,

Pee on Jesus, pee on me
How I love the taste of pee

This was one in an escalating series of futile attempts to achieve some kind of high school martyrdom, all of them thwarted by the indifference of the authorities and my fellow students. True, halfway through our song, the vice-principal jumped from his seat and hustled backstage with the intention of unplugging the speakers. But the song was only a minute and a half long, and ended before he could censor us. Afterward our singer was given a mild lecture. Nothing at all happened to the rest of us. The singer went on to be elected senior class valedictorian.

I think of “Pee on Jesus” whenever someone gets killed or threatened with death over some supposedly insulting depiction of Muhammad or the Muslim religion. A few years back, during the flap over the Danish cartoons, it occurred to me that I ought to put up some Muhammad cartoons of my own, out of solidarity with the persecuted cartoonists. I didn’t, because first off, I couldn’t think of anything witty to say. Also, as you’ll see, I can’t draw. I’m the last person who should be making cartoons for any reason.

Secondly, I was hindered by a residual sense of white guilt. Who am I to be taking a dump on Islam? I don’t really know what it’s all about. My familiarity with Muhammad is limited to a couple brief biographical sketches in western history books. Based on those sketches, and compared with what I know about founders of other world religions, Muhammad has never struck me as an especially admirable guy. I don’t know much about Jesus either, or Buddha, but their reputations aren’t burdened with stories of child brides, assassinations, and mass executions. But some of the stories in the Old Testament are pretty bloodthirsty, too, and I don’t hold those against modern Christians or Jews. Who knows, maybe Jesus would’ve taken a bunch of wives and slaughtered a bunch of people if he hadn’t gotten himself killed so early in his messianic career.

Anyhow, it struck me as kind of gratuitous, drawing a Muhammad cartoon I didn’t really care about, merely to spite some zealots I was unlikely ever to interact with. Prior to the Danish cartoon controversy I don’t recall feeling the slightest interest in drawing Muhammad. In a more peaceful world I might go my whole life without the temptation once arising. If Islamist violence stopped today, as I hope and believe it someday shall, I would return within weeks to my default state of not giving a hoot one way or another about Muhammad, and thinking about Islam maybe once or twice a year, if at all.

So I can understand, in the wake of atrocities like the murder of the editor and much of the staff of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, why western political leaders would prefer if we’d all just please stop saying provocative things about Islam. If you and I could refrain from making inappropriate Muhammad jokes, the logic goes, maybe the more humourless Muslims would lose their enthusiasm for sawing our heads off, and after a few decapitation-free years we’d forget about Muhammad and go back to making inappropriate jokes about rape and the Holocaust like we used to, and the cycle of provocation and counter-provocation would finally be broken.

I don’t know, though. What keeps striking me is how not-terribly-provocative most of our side’s supposed provocations are. Take a look at those Danish cartoons again. Only five or six of the dozen could even be considered critical of Islam, and pretty mildly, at that. Or rewatch that hilariously incompetent YouTube trailer that was blamed for the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Hillary Clinton called that trailer “disgusting and reprehensible”. Is it really? I mean, as the co-writer of “Pee on Jesus” and half a dozen other punk rock songs whose titles I am literally too embarrassed to reproduce here, I know a thing or two about disgusting. I think I could come up with some disgusting things to have Muhammad do in a cartoon. Nasty, blasphemous, deviant, scatological things. I’m imagining some pretty hair-raising cartoons right now. You’ll have to take my word for it.

But it’s not just those disgusting imaginary cartoons that the guardians of sanctity would like me not to draw. It’s stuff like Muhammad petting a kitty cat:

kitty cat

…Or licking an ice cream cone:

ice cream cone

…Or receiving word that he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize:

nobel prize

That’s how easy it is to be edgy nowadays.

***

After scratching out the above masterpieces I checked out Peter Hitchens’s blog to find out how he would tweak our liberal pieties about the Paris massacre. He didn’t disappoint, reminding readers that the free-speech heroes of Charlie Hebdo were quite willing to enlist the power of the state to muzzle those whose opinions they found offensive:

The French Leftist newspaper Libération reported on September 12, 1996, that three stalwarts of Charlie Hebdo (including Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier) had campaigned in their magazine to collect more than 170,000 signatures for a petition calling for a ban on the French National Front party [the right-wing, anti-immigration party of Jean-Marie Le Pen]. They did this in the name of the ‘Rights of Man’.

In his Radio Derb podcast this weekend John Derbyshire mentioned an incident a few years back where a gang of leftist protesters assaulted some white nationalists who were meeting in a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Maybe I’d have heard of this event if the victims had died, instead of merely being hospitalized, but I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t have been much in the way of “I am a white nationalist” social media sloganeering afterward. Derbyshire’s point is that our culture has taboos too, and we’re willing to look the other way when our own hotheads act up, including in violent ways, in defense of those taboos.

In light of that, is it hypocritical of me to belatedly clamber onto the Muhammad cartoon bandwagon? While acknowledging it was brave of Charlie Hebdo to provoke Muslims as it did, Hitchens asks:

And what was the purpose of this bravery? What cause, anywhere in the world, was advanced by it?

It’s a question that deserves answering. I don’t claim any allegiance to, or knowledge of, whatever idiosyncratic and contradictory cause the Charlie Hebdo artists thought they were pursuing. Let alone a share of their undoubted bravery. My own cause is merely that a kid in Mogadishu or Damascus or Peshawar or Prince Albert ought to be able to get up onstage at his high school battle of the bands and sing “Pee on Muhammad”, or something equally stupid, and nothing gets burned, and no-one gets killed. I honestly don’t know if drawing Muhammad is helpful to that cause. But our current strategy, repressing and censoring ourselves in deference to Islamic sensibilities, doesn’t appear to be yielding great results either. I think we should try the alternative: free expression and open debate.

M.

April 2018’s Toronto van attack made me reflect on how my teenage surliness might have taken a dark turn in the internet age; also last year I tried to take an empirical approach to Hollywood’s purported stereotyping of Muslims; and in 2017, re-reading Kurt Vonnegut prompted some thoughts on the blurry line between principled free expression and just being an a-hole.

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