One rule for Jesus, another for Muhammad?

Equality is essential, but complicated – that is why some Christians feel that Muslims get an easy ride

Simple things can be so difficult. Take equality, for instance. Britain now has an Equality Act, to promote that good thing. But when you start looking at what it means in practice, matters get more complicated.

by Timothy Garton Ash

I’ve been thinking about this because of some media reaction to a conversation I had recently with Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, for our Oxford University project on free speech. After we talked about the BBC’s broadcast of Jerry Springer: the Opera, which provoked angry protests from evangelical Christians because the satirical musical depicted Jesus as a petulant overgrown baby in a nappy, I put it to him that the BBC wouldn’t dream of broadcasting something comparably satirical about the Prophet Muhammad. He replied: “I think essentially the answer to that question is yes.”

This was picked up, first by the Daily Mail, then by the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and at least one Christian website, with headlines such as“BBC director general admits Christianity gets tougher treatment”(Telegraph) and “Should Christians kill Mark Thompson?” (Spectator). On Mail Online, a reader identifying him or herself as D Acres of Balls Cross, West Sussex, posted the comment: “This man is disgusting. He should be taken out and put up on a cross. That would teach him not to disrespect this country and its Christian faith.” Plainly a fine patriotic Christian, Outraged of Balls Cross.

Difficult though it is, we must never abandon the quest for equal liberty under law. Everyone is entitled to what the philosopher Ronald Dworkin calls “equal respect and concern”. That does not mean treating everyone exactly the same in every circumstance. But whenever you hear anyone (including me or you) arguing for unequal treatment of any kind, shine the searchlight and take a closer look. The same evangelical Christian who complains of unequal treatment from the BBC will vociferously oppose gay marriage. The same European liberal who argues passionately that newspapers should be free to publish cartoons of Muhammad will defend laws criminalising genocide denial. Double standards are the warning signals of a free society.



5 replies

  1. Free speech has its advantages and its disadvantages. Advantages of free speech are well articulated and in fact, some times, over articulated but disadvantages are often ignored. One of the disadvantages is that some folks using their full right of free speech just ignore the boundary, the thin line, that separate decent from indecent. So they get to indulge in indecent talk including at time lewd references to entertain their audience.
    A stark example of this kind of misuse of free speech occurred when Mr. Rush Limbaugh, a “conservative” talk show host in the US, suggested that women who wanted insurance to pay for contraception should prepare videos of them having sex as a payback. He also used his, somewhat obtuse logic to conclude that such women were sluts and prostitutes. There was a, justifiable uproar at the suggestion. I too jumped into the fray and wrote the following:
    The last paragraph, in the above post, does not quite say it all but, gives the reasons why some folks protest. I copy it below to keep the argument going:
    “Of course the women can make videos of them having sex and make them public, but demanding an otherwise decent girl to put her sex video on the internet as a payback for the insurance paying for the contraception is insensitive and indecent, so is calling a young female a slut or a prostitute. Mr. Limbaugh has all the freedom in the world to think and say what he wants but it has to be acceptable and it should not impinge on someone else’s honor or rights.
    In the end let me admit, I am not supposed to know and I do not know much about my adopted society, my name says that. I could have stayed put but it was hard to see a bulldog maul a young girl and not try to help. As a way of helping, let me ask this question: Do we have any norms and standards of decency? I am sure we do. I may not know that for sure as most of my life I have been more interested in studying x+ y = something or some variations of that. But if we do why don’t we make sure that Limbaugh and the like of him, i.e. the GOP do not maul them? (As the Republicans have not denounced Rush Limbaugh I believe they are in it.)”
    The point of this comment is that Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them, or any other religious leaders for that matter, are dear to some folks. If you do not respect them it is your choice but you should be mindful of the feelings of their followers. As I said in the above post: “Mr. Limbaugh has all the freedom in the world to think and say what he wants but it has to be acceptable and it should not impinge on someone else’s honor or rights.”
    Let me put it this way: In the old days when the rights to free speech were carved in the US, it was considered lawful to challenge to a duel someone who had crossed the boundary of decency in some way. Now it is not acceptable, hence the protests. Also, there is free speech and there is free speech. It has been my experience that when a newspaper or journal publishes something biased against Muslims or Islam the responses from Muslims trying to refute it do not see the light of day. I have a feeling this kind of biased use of free speech could be one cause of someone loading an AK47 or arranging a violent protest.

  2. Words can hurt. Right to free speech is a great power. But with any great power, comes responsibility. It is sad that denigration of holy men is acceptable in popular culture today. What is worse is that the media propagates this farther with their own bias. Why would it be okay to belittle Jesus (peace be on him), one of the most successful holy man in human history?

  3. The video reminded me of a very old article that I wrote around 2004 and later posted at:
    As I was not quite addressing the topics the main article or the video, posted here, do, you would have to hunt for relevance. Here are the passages that could be deemed as relevant:
    “Now, the unseen walls that our religious affiliations have built around us are extremely difficult to get rid of, unless we decide to do away with the religion altogether. But getting rid of religion is easier said than done. Even those who say, and act to indicate, that they do not care about religion have a soft spot in their hearts for some religious affiliations. So, the only way left for us is to work out an approach that allows us to live peacefully with other religions, staying within our walls if we want to. This actually means that we will have to face our demons and come up with a comprehensive plan of making the world a peaceful place. One way of doing this is to call a number of multi-religion conferences all over the globe in which scholars of each religion present the best aspects of their religion and talk about the sensitivities of the followers of that religion. It may be made clear that this is not a comparison, so no attacks on other religions, yet questions can be asked about a religion and answered by the followers of the same religion. If we honestly want peace, these conferences, if properly publicized, will provide us with a, hopefully small, set of unwritten rules of religious tolerance that would not be hard to follow for anyone.
    Once we know that all religions ultimately teach living in harmony with other humans, we will be much better prepared to handle mischief perpetrated in the name of any religion. My reasons for proposing this global awareness of other religions is that we humans have at our disposal enough destructive power to render the whole globe lifeless for a very long time, and in our heart of hearts we do not want to destroy what we have. So, why not try to remove misunderstandings before it is too late? Why not render religion unusable by the terrorists and mischief mongers? It would be a terrible shame if mischief mongers, who use the name of their Creator for waging wars, destroy the world, His creation. (I know that He will not let them succeed, but He has His own way of doing things.) I am not the first one to propose multi-religion conferences, for a similar conference in the past look up the notes at the end of this article.”
    “I would like to conclude by saying that usually walls mark the lines of separation. We like to live with some of these lines of separation because they provide us a sense of security and we have to live with some lines of separation because they define who we are. The walls are not good or bad in themselves, what makes them good or bad is our approach to them. Let us not make these lines of separation a reason for oppressing others. Is it too hard to realize that we are each of us, on this globe for a brief sojourn? So, if we cannot make it pleasant for each other let us at least try not to make it unpleasant.”
    If you can find time to read my article, do let me know of your criticism of it. (My criticism is I have a roundabout way of getting to the point.)

  4. The goat’s kid episode that I mention in my post took place in Qadian, around the partition of India and Pakistan. Where else would it be so important to placate a crying kid? I wish I could personally thank my first ever (unrelated) benefactor! I do pray though that Allah Almighty treat him kindly, wherever he is.

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