The Blanket

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The Blanket and the Cartoon Controversy: Anthony McIntyre Interviewed


Martyn Frampton • 9 May 2006

In March 2006, the online journal, The Blanket, took the decision to publish the cartoons that had caused such controversy earlier that year. As a result, the cartoons were published on a weekly basis alongside profiles of 12 writers who had signed an anti-totalitarianism manifesto – a manifesto written in response to the reaction that the cartoons had generated. Here, Anthony McIntyre, co-editor of The Blanket, talks to The Henry Jackson Society and explains why he felt the cartoons had to be published and the wider debate with which they connect.

Q. Anthony, can we ask by asking what it was that led you to publish the cartoons?

A.M. We decided to publish the cartoons alongside profiles of the 12 writers who recently signed a manifesto against totalitarianism. They themselves, as 12, had been selected to match the 12 cartoons that caused such Islamist fury. Earlier, when the cartoon controversy was generated – not September when they were first published – but earlier this year when there was a furore, we were asked to publish the cartoons and we declined. We felt then that the only reason for publishing them – at that time – would have been shock value. So we decided that that wasn’t what we were about – shocking people – we weren’t going to be providing any new information. But then, when the writers came out and made their appeal, and we had people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali asking for the cartoons to be published and criticising people who claimed to stand for free speech, but who at the same time were declining to publish them, it was put to us again. And this time we agreed.

Q. And what drew you to the manifesto?

A.M. Well, in the year 2000 I had written an article in defence of Taslima Nasrin. And in 2004 I wrote an article protesting the murder of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam. One of the people who were forced to go on the run around the time of Van Gogh’s killing was Ayaan Hirsi Ali who signed the manifesto – and I had referred to her in my article. So there were two people who I had defended directly or indirectly, who were involved now with the manifesto, and it was put to me that there was no real reason not to defend them on this occasion as well.

Q. When the initial controversy erupted over the cartoons were you surprised by it?

A.M. Well, no, because I have come to expect that this is the way that totalitarians operate. They demand respect, but in a sense this is a disguise for submission. And I think it was an interesting title that Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh gave to their film on the abuse women suffer within certain Islamic societies and cultures – ‘Submission’. So, I wasn’t surprised and, anyway, the fact is that the initial cartoons didn’t cause the offence that people claim. It was a Danish Imam, who, along with others, took the cartoons to the Middle East and added three cartoons and pretended that these had been the work of that newspaper in Denmark also. Now, these were never part of the original cartoons and some were even fake, but they were used to stir up hatred and this is why we had an outburst of what was really racism against Danish people.

Q. And then when The Blanket decided to publish the cartoons, were you surprised by the reaction you received? I’m thinking particularly of the criticism you received from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Palestine Solidarity Committee and the three writers (Eamonn McCann, Brian Kelly and Barbara Muldoon), who declared they would no longer submit work to The Blanket and actually wanted their previous articles removed from the web-site…

A.M. Well, for all that it matters, the Palestine Solidarity Committee didn’t have any business criticising me on this issue. Their remit is human rights not censorship. Human rights were what I defended – for all Muslims and not just those oppressed by Israel. The arguments put by some in the group suggested to me that they had lost the plot; plenty of emotion and little intellect. One at least has since ostracised me on the street! Others were more nuanced in their thinking, and while not siding with The Blanket felt that the issue was more complex and in need of further discussion rather than the clarion calls for censorship. I think overall the manner in which the Palestine Solidarity Committee expressed itself publicly left it open to much ridicule and accusations of Stalinism. Which is regrettable because it does great work. But I think the public denunciation, to which I remain obliviously indifferent, was the result of an individual harbouring some long lurking resentment against non-conformist personalities. I suppose they need structures that reflect their authoritarian personalities, their need to be obeyed, and feel insecure with any form of dissent. It is a common problem that you find with those who are pulled towards the ‘vanguardist Left.’ Which brings us to the objections from McCann and the others. I wasn’t surprised at the Socialist Workers’ Party criticising the decision to publish the cartoons, but what I was surprised at was the petulant response, when their members or associates asked that the articles they had previously written for The Blanket website be withdrawn. Now, the only person who had consistently appeared on the website anyway was Eamonn McCann, but most of the articles that he submitted to The Blanket have been published elsewhere – so Eamonn’s message would still get out and it’s right that it should. That is more important than the issue of where it appears. Brian Kelly on the other hand hardly ever wrote for The Blanket and Barbara Muldoon never did – one article she wrote, which was for The Other View magazine, was featured in The Blanket, but it wasn’t written specifically for The Blanket. Much ado about nothing. Their criticisms might have pricked more ears, but for the petulant Orwellian demand to obliterate written history. In the end they failed to rally any substantial swathe of opinion and managed only to download sneers. Some of the criticism directed McCann’s way, however, was nothing more than personal abuse and downright dishonesty. He at least is immersed in politics because of the issues he feels need to be confronted – not because of some authoritarian trait that can only be accommodated within a complementary authoritarian structure replete with totalitarian sentiments.

Q. Can I ask you more generally how the experience has affected your political views? Also could you say something as to who has been supportive of you and who has been opposed? And has that been surprising?

A.M. Well, the journalistic community, in particular, have been very supportive and it’s interesting too the way the debate has broken down in ‘the Left’. The ‘irrelevant Left’, who are intent on remaining irrelevant, have attacked us. Those who are searching for a different ‘Left’ – a more creative, inventive and imaginative ‘Left’ have been supportive of us. So, in many ways, you find us appearing on websites and appearing in Indymedia, where you might not previously have expected to see The Blanket featured. And out of all this I think there is increasingly a huge cleavage developing here about human rights and freedom of speech, which doesn’t break down along the traditional ‘Left-Right’ divide. For instance, one could argue that people who’ve previously been very ‘war-like’ in their approach to countries like Iraq – such as those in the British Government and the American Government – were actually aiding those who wanted the cartoons repressed. Jack Straw, for example, was one of the first people out praising the press for actually not having the courage to print them…

Q. And in terms of ‘the Left’ specifically, do you think that it has changed in the last decade or so in terms of the values that animate it?

A.M. Sections of ‘the Left’ have actually become reactionary – that’s the reality of it. I mean, if I had to identify the two most racist parties in Britain at the moment I would say the BNP and the SWP. The SWP appears to have taken an attitude that there are some people in the world who are not as human as the rest of us, which makes them sub-human, or what certain people used to call ‘untermenschen'. The SWP has taken a view that they are not worthy of the same rights as other human beings and I think that is a very insidious form of racism. And I think maybe now we need to start redefining racism, so that instead of dressing it up as some form of ‘cultural relativism’, we recognise racism where it exists. If you want to exclude some sections of humankind from human rights then you are a racist.

Q. What do you think has led groups like the SWP to this position?

A.M. It’s basically opportunism and the SWP’s irrelevance to wider events. The SWP impacts on events in the way that Philip Gourevitch once described – using a beautiful French description - ineffectiveness: just like a cow standing in a field watching a train go by. And I believe that the SWP try to jump on any bandwagon that would maybe take them somewhere and lessen their irrelevance and they concluded that this issue would play well with Muslims and be useful to themselves as a party. I think also there’s an underlying motive here. The SWP claim this is about the Prophet Muhammad; I think it is about the Prophet Trotsky, who ain’t ever going to come again. And the problem here is that where you have an authoritarian structure, ruled from on high by a small priesthood, which seeks to impose a meta-narrative and teleological view of history that these self-ordained people will secure, you have clear similarities between different ‘select churches’. So, it becomes very easy for the SWP to identify with theocratic reaction. I recall, you know, that Hitler once said, when people were joining the Nazi party, ‘Don’t let the Social Democrats in, but let the Communists in – they can join because they think like us’…and I think there’s something there in the way all these type of ‘select churches’ work.

Q. Returning to the ‘creative Left’ you mentioned earlier, how do you think this can be taken forward? And how can ‘the Left’ begin to deal with Islamic grievances with the West?

A.M. Well, I think if a new ‘Left’ is to develop it can only do so around a Human Rights’ Agenda. And they have to push Human Rights within Islamic societies every bit as much as they push Human Rights within their own society. And they have to stop trying to impose a very monolithic view of the world – that there’s only one cleavage, between ‘Left’ and ‘Right’. There’s a huge variety of cleavages – I think it was best summed up by John Barry, co-leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, who said that there are many divisions within society – ‘class plus’ – and I’d agree with that ‘class plus’ analysis. The SWP almost fainted up in Derry when he made that point. Fraternal smiles gave way to demonic snarls. So it’s important that the ‘Left’ moves away from its old class determinism and the old vanguard authoritarian attitude, because I think vanguardism and authoritarianism are very dangerous as a means of going forward. In my view, ‘the Left’ must stop thinking about seizing power, which they’re not going to do, and redirect their intellect towards monitoring power and holding it to account. And they have to start thinking about a rights-driven, rather than a power-driven, Marxism. Before ‘the Left’ can deal with Islamic grievances against the West, they must first work out what those grievances are, instead of opting for the old knee jerk reaction that the grievances can be reduced to a liberationist impulse against Western imperialism. Some of those with grievances are fascists and would readily open the gas chambers to repeat the Holocaust all over again. And there are widespread grievances within Islamic societies that are directed against the theocratic fascists. People with these grievances must be supported, rather than being silenced in the interests of some fictional monolithic anti-imperialist struggle.

Q. Can I also take this opportunity to ask you about your views on ‘free speech’, which is obviously one of the other issues to arise from this matter? Where do you think the line should be drawn? Should boundaries be placed on the notion of ‘free speech’?

A.M. Well, my personal view is, ‘would I say anything that would directly lead to your death?’ No, I would not. Of course there are boundaries in that sense. Nevertheless, I am totally distrustful of the ‘Free Speech, but…’ school. I mean, Orwell made this point many years ago – many of these people who attend ‘Free Speech’ marches also have a censorial impulse driving them. So what I tend to do is identify with a purely ‘Free Speech’ impulse and I’m always looking for ways to push out the boundaries and expand ‘Free Speech’. There are enough people trying to impose boundaries as it is, so I don’t go looking for them. I accept that ‘Free Speech’ is not an absolute, but I don’t go searching for the limits. That’s the vocation of the censor not the writer. Sometimes the accusation is made that people like myself are free speech or secular fundamentalists. But this is a stratagem employed to confuse the issue. Free speech and secularism, because they seek to impose no grand narrative, actually de-fundamentalise society. They are the antidote to fundamentalism.

Q. Finally, how do you see this debate playing in relation to wider ‘liberal society’? What does it tell us about the future of liberal democracy, or the dangers that it faces?

A.M. Well, one of my problems with liberal democracy is that it is not participatory enough and it can lead to terrible grievances and inequalities like those in American, British and European societies. But I do think the values and freedoms that liberal democracy provides offer the opportunity to change society – almost in spite of those who might rule us. And I think we have to protect those values and also try to develop a more democratic ethos within society. This is one means of ensuring that we do not swap one set of democracy-deficient administrators who wave little blue flags for another set who wave little red flags. And I felt that what we have seen here with the cartoons’ debate is an effort to encroach on that democratic freedom by the imposition of an anti-secularist, religious fundamentalism, which I see as a major threat to democracy. I don’t oppose religion in the sense of arguing for it to be suppressed but I think it should be pushed very much into the private sphere – everybody can have their own God, or as many Gods as they like – but they can’t bring their God into the public sphere and try to impose it on the rest of us. As the writer Wafa Sultan says, they can worship stones if they like – just don’t throw them at me.


See also, "The Blanket, the Cartoons and the End of Left and Right", by Gabriel Glickman




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

22 June 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

The Framing of Michael McKevitt
Marcella Sands

Foreward to 'The Framing of Michael McKevitt'
Fr Des Wilson

Demagogues and Demigod
Tommy Gorman

Getting It Tight
John Kennedy

The Restoration of Restorative Justice
Marcel M. Baumann

DUP Analysis
Dr John Coulter

Father Faul
Fr. Sean McManus

Aiden Hulme Repatriation Picket
Paul Doyle

Prison Protest Begins
Republican Prisoners Action Group (RPAG), Republican Sinn Fein, Newry

New Hero, and a Legacy
Dr John Coulter

Charlie's Angel
John Kennedy

The Letters page has been updated.

Profile: Mehdi Mozaffari
Anthony McIntyre

The Blanket, the Cartoons and the End of Left and Right
Gabriel Glickman

The Blanket and the Cartoon Controversy: Anthony McIntyre Interviewed
Martyn Frampton

A Welcome End
Mick Hall

Anthony McIntyre

Freedom of Speech index

14 June 2006

The Mark of Cain
Anthony McIntyre

Debris of the Dirty War
Mick Hall

More Claims
Martin Ingram

Case Unproven
Anthony McIntyre

Chain Gang
John Kennedy

Better to Put the Past Behind US
David Adams

The Gamblers
Dr John Coulter

Diarmaid Ferriter's The Transformation of Ireland
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Profile: Caroline Fourest
Anthony McIntyre

Le «manifeste des douze» fait réagir
Caroline Fourest

Reaction to the Manifesto (English Translation)
Liam O Ruairc

Freedom of Speech index



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