Play. Way back when, it seemed like a good idea to stop leading Republicans speaking to the public. Actually, that isn't even true, we weren't allowed to hear their voices. Actually, even that wasn't true, as out in the wilds of county Antrim we all got RTE, both on television and on radio, so were well aware what Gerry and Martin sounded like. Denying them the 'oxygen of publicity' merely gained them more column inches, allowed the embryonic cult of victimhood to be developed, and seemed even to me, as a fledgling adult, seemed rather a silly tactic.
Fastforward to September 2005. And some cartoons were published in a Danish newspaper I doubt anyone outside of Denmark had heard of, never mind read. Cue forward a few more months, let us say late January, and news wends its way to the most repressive and unequal societies in the world. So how does the Islamic world react to this? Shrug its shoulders, safe in their faith, and continue denying their citizens the freedoms we take for granted? Ignore the infidels who don't share their outlook?
Rewind all the way back to any point during The Troubles that I can accurately remember. From my earliest time wondering why the French flag was flying down the end of the road, and to pondering why round the corner on another lamppost there were flags from Biblical locations hung high. This all seemed odd to me. But then, I got confused when some of the bigger boys from the estate pushed me off my bike and asked if I was kafflik or proddy-sent.
Pause for a second. What can connect these events? The first two, it seems, are something to do with freedom of expression and thought. Something about the tectonic plates of cultures causing fractures. The last is twisted somewhat in the tribal drum-banging where red, white and blue is the be-all-and-end-all of one side, and the other a display of who gives the biggest discount on arms this week. But there seems to be a resonance here, reaching back and forward connecting it all together.
Frame one: Deliberately placing some media gagging order on anyone is at best witless, and worst totally counterproductive. Be it Gerry Adams making veiled threats that he knows where the lads with baseball bats are hiding in groups ready to pounce on those who disagree with him, or a rabble of Mufti-clad hatred spewing fundamentalists marching through London, nothing should stop either of them. If we were true to the principal of freedom of speech, we could easily say that. If we were true to the principal of freedom of speech, we would repeal the incitement laws. (We would enforce property rights, anti-discrimination laws and individual safety rigourously. Without question.) But we only have permitted speech in this country. We only can say what those in power think we should be able to say. Which is more than those in many regimes around the world are allowed. But not anywhere near enough.
Frame two: My first reaction on seeing the cartoons in question was that they were satire, making a political point, and to be honest, the thought that any of them represented Muhammed didn't cross my mind. Sure, stereotypical, making crude allusions, but aimed more at their regime and modes of thought. When it became clear what they were, it still didn't bother me. There have been far, far worse images of Jesus displayed, some even put up for major art prizes across the world. Imagine if there had been a 'Piss Mohammed' as an installation in Tate Britain? Imagine even the hoohah for me saying such a thing? I have, however, printed two of the cartoons on my own personal website. Why? Because I can, and I will rail against anything that will tell me how I should and shouldn't think, what I should and shoudn't be allowed to see. I have been told I shouldn't be going out of my way to offend, but the problem with offense is that it can be taken at any slight. Alas, these slights lead to the brutal murder in an alley out the back of a Belfast bar, and the torching of foreign embassies in the Middle East.
Frame three: Allegiances by birth, unquestioned and unquestioning, never advance anyone's causes. Unthinking adherence to one viewpoint your entire life seems insane to me. Unthinking opposition to themmuns on no other grounds than because it is themmuns is cowardly and, well, just plain unthinking. But it seems to be a common denominator in what we can euphemistically call trouble spots around the world. Herd mentality, backed by generations of reinforcement. Where intrinsic opposition to the perceived enemy is elevated to lifestyle. Where colours are appropriated for sectarian ends, where projection onto other struggles legitimises contact. Symbols and emblems to hide behind. Hatred fed with mother's milk. Easy to see in the riots recently in Dublin to the AK-47 wielding protests in the Middle East.
Stop. Despite the differences in freedoms and outlooks, the cartoon reaction out there isn't that an alien reaction, and us over here have been watching it in our own backyard for years, without even realising it. We have looked away from the denial of our own freedom of expression, and been aghast at the extreme reaction to some silly drawings from continental Europe. Offended? Me? You better believe it. Offended by the thought that people demand protection of their own sacred cows. Offended by those whose speak of freedom and repress their own. Offended that there is pandering to those who practice both. Offended that I even have to write this piece.