Saturday, January 31, 2015

Mohammed and the V&A

This story has been languishing a little because few people knew what to make of it. For reasons that will become clear, I still find it somewhat hard to work things out. However, it has to do with self-censorship in one of our largest cultural institutions so this blog has to get involved.

Last Sunday The Independent published a worrying article, entitled: V&A removes depiction of Prophet Mohamed from website amid 'severe security alert'. Uh, what? Just as we are hearing from various experts that early (pre-Wahhab) Islam had no problems about depicting not just human figures but the prophet himself, as for instance in this delightful 16th-century Turkish image of Mohammed welcoming Jacob, from the ‘Zubdet ut Tevarih’ by Lokman (1583):

In fact, anyone who has ever been in the British Museum would have seen Persian and Turkish paintings of Mohammed and various other figures from the Bible and the Koran (they often overlap).

So what's with this picture that has been removed by the Victoria and Albert Museum?
The Victoria & Albert museum has removed a depiction of the Prophet Mohamed from its website amid security concerns just three weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

The gallery mistakenly claimed not to have had any depictions of the prophet in its collection following the violence by extremists in Paris earlier this month.

But after a US expert drew attention to a poster with an Iranian artist’s view of the prophet in the V&A's collection it was quickly removed.

This has fuelled questions over censorship which scholars fear could undermine our understanding of Islamic art.

“The V&A has one poster in the collection which depicts the Prophet Muhamed," a spokeswoman told The Independent.

“The image of it has been removed from our online database but it remains in our collection and as with most of our reserve collections would be made available to scholars and researchers by appointment.”
All a little incoherent, especially as the image of the poster (not of great artistic value in my opinion but that is not the point) still appears to be there.

On Tuesday Barnaby Rogerson picked up the story in the Spectator and called the rather dubious poster "an historic image of the Prophet Mohammed". Well, it dates back to 1990 so it is historic but it is not one of the old paintings or miniatures and it seems to be easy to find on the website still.

However, Mr Rogerson goes further and enumerates various other examples of self-censorship, exercised by various people who ought to know better.
Last week, an art scholar friend of mine, who is incidentally a Muslim, told me that things are getting worse. He has been doing valuable work for many years, teaching the basic principles of Islamic design to young craftsmen who are keen to reconstruct in carved wood, plaster and painted tile their own Islamic heritage, which has been destroyed by war and revolution. You would have to say that he stands on the side of the angels in this work, for which he is paid only travel expenses. He packs in centuries of artistic development in an accessible three-day or week-long course of lectures, which is also a wonderful testament to his travels and taste, for they are beautifully illustrated by the slides he has taken over the years. You might have thought he would be honoured, but after one of these recent lectures he was arrested by the police of his host-nation and told that he had a choice: either destroy all the slides on his computer or be thrown into jail. His crime was to have shown a beautiful book illustration of the Prophet, veiled in a halo of light, ascending to the heavens.
An unpleasant story, whichever way you look at it but why is the "host-nation" not named? Could the Spectator be exercising its own brand of self-censorship?

This, however, is enormously interesting and gives the lie to the V&A's assertion that it holds not pictures of Mohammed:
We have become so inured to this process that it can be a shock to stroll into a second-hand bookshop and see how free the 1960s and 1970s were from this iconoclasm. To take an example, look at a copy of Emel Esin’s study of the two Holy Cities, entitled Mecca the Blessed, Madinah the Radiant. It is a book that oozes piety, scholarship and devotion, and also has dozens of beautiful illuminated images of the Prophet and his family. If you tried tracking down the various images from the dozen museums proudly cited in the acknowledgements to this book, including lots from the V&A, you would now enter a world of selective silence.
Or, in other words, it is all nonsense about Islam not allowing the depiction of human beings or even of the Prophet Mohammed. It is simply that the more vocal (sadly) section of the huge world-wide Muslim population is going through a violent iconoclastic phase. There is no need for the rest of us to abide by it.

Mr Rogerson's article is well worth reading in full. It is not long.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Just as you thought politicians could not get any stupider ....

.... along comes this item of information via the Adam Smith Institute blog, which is quoting an article from Monday's Guardian. To be fair to the Grauniad (not words you hear from me often) and its readers, the article makes no comment and merely quotes Scottish Labour MP Thomas Docherty and the readers are shouting his idiocy down.

Mr Docherty has realized that Mein Kampf is not a very nice book and considers that we ought to think of banning it.
Docherty has written to culture secretary Sajid Javid about the text, pointing out that it is currently “rated as an Amazon bestseller” and asking the cabinet member to consider leading a debate on the issue. An edition of Mein Kampf is currently in fifth place on Amazon’s “history of Germany” chart, in fourth place in its “history references” chart, and in 665th place overall.

“Of course Amazon – and indeed any other bookseller – is doing nothing wrong in selling the book. However, I think that there is a compelling case for a national debate on whether there should be limits on the freedom of expression,” writes Docherty to Javid.
Right, let's have a national debate. This blog is weighing in on the side of NO. Or to be a little more detailed, "no, you stupid fool, we cannot ban books, especially those of historic importance, because we do not happen to like what is written in them". Will that do for a debating position Mr Docherty?

If Mr Docherty is worried about anti-Semitism he should think of banning the Koran and, indeed, certain parts of the Bible. The Gospel According to St John springs to mind. He should certainly think about banning certain deeply anti-Semitic publications that his colleagues in the SNP were quoting during the IndyRef campaign.

If Mr Docherty is worried, as he seems to be, that Mein Kampf led to some very nasty events and actions in twentieth century history (not that I believe that as who could possibly have got through that turgid rubbish?) then he had better start thinking about banning Das Kapital, The Communist Manifesto, various works by V. I. Lenin, I. V. Stalin and Mao Zedong. We could start with the Little Red Book, which was most definitely a call for hatred and violence.

Is it really surprising that the book is high on Amazon's list for history of Germany or history references, given its importance? What are students and historians to do in Mr Docherty's ideal society? Sign up, presenting credentials, to the one and only library that will be issuing the book to the right personnel? I do believe we have seen systems like that in certain societies in the twentieth century. Does Mr Docherty want to emulate them? (Maybe I don't want to hear the answer to that.

Sadly, it is against the principles of this blog to call for a ban on stupid pronouncements by politicians though I say this with gritted teeth.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Another non-reply from HMG

I am not sure how I feel about an English Parliament, being firmly opposed to yet another layer of government and bureaucracy but there are arguments to be made for a true federal structure of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom with special arrangements with the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. At the very least, we can discuss it as a possible post-EU structure.

Oddly enough, HMG has not the slightest interest in doing anything of the kind unless it is a question of bribing the Scottish Assembly.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked HMG
what plans they have to hold a referendum in England to ascertain the level of support for an English parliament.
A reasonable question and one that abides by the "rules" of parliamentary questions: never ask one unless you know the answer. Sure enough, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on behalf of HMG said:
The Government has no plans to hold a referendum in England to ascertain the level of support for an English Parliament. The Government has published a Command Paper on the implications of devolution for England which contains separate proposals from each of the Coalition parties.
Not that I necessarily want any more referendums but how is a Command Paper a substitute for a referendum in terms of popular opinion? Is that the sort of thing Professor William Wallace taught his students on the subject of government?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Plus ça change ...

One of the books I an reading at the moment is The Secret World, a collection of writings, published and unpublished by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre, an eminent historian with one or two lapses of judgement (well, one in particular) on the subject of the Secret Service in which he served during the Second World War and in which he remained interested ever after.

The articles, letters and book on Philby, reprinted here in full, are wonderfully well written. Professor Trevor-Roper was a stylist that few could rival. Much of it is of enormous interest but he also shows a good deal of closed mindedness of the kind he accuses his own wartime superiors and colleagues. On the whole, I'd say he never came to terms with the extent to which Communists agents of espionage and influence, penetrated various British and American institutions, displaying a certain amount of censoriousness towards anyone who tried to unravel this. (And I find it particularly infuriating that he and, I am sorry to say, his editor, Edward Harrison, refer to Russia when they mean the Soviet Union.)

The review of Andrew Boyle's The Climate of Treason, a crucial publication in the history of that unravelling is dismissive: no real need for it, nothing important in it and, in any case, the three rather sordid traitors (how right Trevor-Roper is on that adjective), Burgess, Maclean and Philby, did very little real harm.

Just as one despairs at such willful misreading one comes across this paragraph. Having analyzed why so many young people joined or supported the Communist Party in the thirties for what seemed like very good reasons at the time, he adds:
There was also another reason, less reputable, but not, I think, less real. Intellectuals often pretend that, as a class, they are advocates of liberty. This is seldom true. Intellectuals like the beauty of mathematical order. They like tidiness, symmetry. Liberty is untidy, asymmetrical. Consequently young intellectuals, even when they speak of liberty, really worship power. they generally grow out of this when they realise that they are less likely to exercise power themselves than to be the victims of it. But for a time they think that they respect it. Communism, as intellectually justified system of total power, has a fatal fascination for young intellectuals seeking short cuts to total solution.
One could point to other displays of total power that intellectuals or those who think themselves to be intellectuals, support. But, when it comes to Communism and its one manifestation in the thirties, the Soviet Union (not Russia), though the same would apply to the supporters of Mao in the fifties and sixties, there is another consideration.

Even more than fascism or Nazism, Communism is a political system that purports to be constructed on an intellectually coherent base. It is not anything of the kind, as it happens, but that is what a good many people, more intelligent and intellectual than the Cambridge five and others of that ilk have believed. Even Albert Camus differentiated between the "irrational terror" of fascism and the "rational terror" of Communism. In actual fact, Stalin was often considerably less rational than Hitler and the terror introduced in Bolshevik Russia and the Soviet Union was no more rational than that introduced in Nazi Germany, though often considerably more bloody.

On top of this, it seemed that the Soviet Union really valued and cherished its intellectuals while the higgledy-piggledy Western systems did not. Somehow, it did not appear to be important to many that those intellectuals, so cherished at first, often found themselves, as was well known even in the thirties, in prisons, in torture chambers, in labour camps and execution chambers. Other intellectuals appeared to take their place and the life of the intellect was still, apparently, cherished.

Naturally, the Soviet Union's propaganda machine played on the Western intellectuals' sense of grievance and treated them as highly honoured guests as well as highly honoured agents. The easiest person to fool is the man (or the woman but more often the man) who thinks he is the only one to know the real truth but nobody appreciates it. Too much has been written about various fellow travellers for me to have to reiterate any of it (though I may well do another time) but the intricate relationship between intellectuals and absolute power or what they see as absolute power needs to be studied now just as it was by Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A brief lighthearted interlude

The news from France continues to be sombre. The alleged assassins remain at large despite a huge police operation and another police officer (a woman this time) has been murdered in Paris when responding to a call though it is not clear whether there is any connection with the Charlie Hebdo attack.

There have been huge demonstrations in France and some in other countries, with participants identifying themselves as "je suis Charlie". More are planned, including one in London on Friday. As a symbolic support for freedom of speech, I can see the point; as anything else it is pointless. Large demonstrations may influence governments, they are hardly likely to influence a bunch of murderous terrorists.

A number of newspapers in Europe and around the world have published various "offending" Charlie Hebdo cartoons, this morning, with the German ones leading the way. Sadly, I have to report that the British media has bottled out again as it did over the Danish cartoons. (I don't need to link to the various postings I made at the time but can do if readers want me to.) Not a single newspaper put a single one of the cartoons on its front page. But they made outraged noises. It is no use, ladies and gentlemen of the media to say that you support Charlie Hebdo if you refuse to do so in reality.

And I spent a depressing evening listening to Alexander Podrabinek, a dissident now as he was in the Soviet Union coming up with little by way of solution in Russia. The subsequent discussions and conversations did not lift my mood. (I shall be writing about Russia soon.)

So, as people in the Soviet Union knew, we need some light entertainment. No, not films this time but a quotation from a first-rate detective story by Emma Lathen. For a project that is unconnected with this blog I have been reading Lathen's novels in order and have now reached Double, Double, Oil and Trouble, which takes place in the summer of 1976 and largely in Britain where the North Sea oil is about to be developed (hence the Scottish reference in the title) and the country is being destroyed by an unusual heat wave. There is a kidnapping and two murders but I can reveal no more. However, this amused me no end as a reaction to the second murder, that of the estranged wife of the first victim.

The tabloids have a field day coming up with colourful and entirely wrong-headed stories about her, him and everything else. When it comes to TV the situation is different (we are talking about American broadcasting but, mutatis mutandis, it could have been said about the BBC).
Television commentators had neither the time nor the desire to be fanciful. For them, it was yet another sordid example of the unscrupulous materialism they regularly espied in elected officials, business executives, blue-collar workers, suburbanites, and everyone leading a life unsanctified by a major network. 
And that is the end of the lighthearted interlude. Normal service will resume shortly.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It is not senseless - they know what they are doing

The news from Paris is horrific: twelve people killed in an attack on the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo as the journalists had gathered for their editorial conference. I have already seen one British politician expressing his disgust with this "senseless" outrage. Outrage it is, senseless it is not. It is a violent and horrific attempt to silence the media, to stifle free speech. All of us must stand with Charlie Hebdo now and stop wittering about the attack being "senseless".

I have written about that fantastically courageous journal before here, when it was firebombed, and here, when it once again defied the self-appointed spokesmen of a certain religion as well as a few times during my EUReferendum period.