Stewart Lee is rapidly becoming the elder — or middle aged — statesman of comedy in Britain. He’s been on the scene for over two decades, but he’s only managed to earn a decent living in recent years. Now he is hugely respected and given a large platform on the BBC.
One of his standup routines was centred around ‘vomiting into the gaping anus of Christ.’ It’s a theme he riffs with, graphically, for quite some time. Needless to say, this routine will have been offensive to many Christians. But in a free society artists should be granted the right to cause offence. Freedom of speech usually begins with the right to criticise religion. Until that barrier is surmounted, you can safely assume that many other sacred cows will be off limits.
Lee co-wrote the musical Jerry Springer The Opera. It was a withering satire of Christianity that proved to be a controversial hit in London. Many Christian activists boycotted the show and called for dated blasphemy laws to be used. Fortunately, the British government decide that we are mature enough as a society to poke fun at Jesus.
Following on from the scandal created by his musical, Lee presented his set piece about ‘vomiting into the gaping…’
He has subsequently been asked why comedians always seem to attack Christianity but never Islam. He recently responded with a hilarious standup set. His answer was not to satirise Islam, but to satirise the banal style of so much ‘observational’ comedy that might be used as a vehicle to do so.
The routine is brilliantly done but he still made a point of ignoring the issue.
Ever since the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989, artists have censored themselves when they talk – or more likely don’t talk – about one of the monotheistic religions. The hounding of Salman Rushdie was not an isolated event. It was a catalyst for a broader assault on free societies.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a devastating and highly symbolic re-assertion of this threat. As well as killing twelve people, the attackers dealt a terrible blow to free expression. It was a supremely potent act of intimidation: If you criticise us publicly, this is what we will do.
Will satirical magazines now have to operate from underground bunkers if they decide to make a joke about Islam? Charlie Hebdo was under police protection when the massacre happened. The security on offer to the journalists wasn’t enough to halt two well trained gunmen wielding a rocket launcher.
It must be emphasised that Charlie Hebdo made a point of satirising all aspects of French society and all religions. We are now being ushered into an age where extremists are seeking to place one belief system beyond critique (on pain of death). It is unfortunate that many artists and journalists refuse to even admit that this is happening.
When Rushdie was in hiding, many leading liberal voices – including John Le Carre and Arthur Miller – refused to back the author. He was painted as a provocateur who had wilfully set out to demonise an entire religion. That would be the religion of his parents. Besides, the Satanic Verses was more a celebration of multiculturalism than a satire of Islam.
A former Charlie Hebdo employee has said to the BBC: This attack ‘has woken up an entire nation, because it’s a generation of artists (and) journalists who disappeared today.’
Salman Rushdie recently stated: “Religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam…religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
Terrorism is devastatingly effective. The only way the extremists will be defeated is through solidarity and defiance. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons should be shared on as many platforms as possible. Don’t allow the extremists and their sickly apologists impose an unseen, unacknowledged blasphemy law. If they manage to outlaw religious satire we’ll loose a lot more than our sense of humour.