A reader sends me a card for sale in Scribblers in the King’s Road, Chelsea. It depicts two slices of cheese standing vertically on their thinner ends. On both, black beards and eyes are crudely superimposed, and above them two gold rings form haloes. The caption says ‘Cheeses of Nazareth’. The joke is pathetically bad, not least because, in order to achieve the cheese/Jesus pun, you have to have two cheeses, whereas there was only one Jesus. But my correspondent’s point is that the equivalent gag about Mohammed would provoke a storm, not only from some Muslims, but from much of the media. I recently watched an interesting example of this on Channel 4 News. It ran an item about Maajid Nawaz, the brave and moderate Muslim Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead, who had re-tweeted the now well-known ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon, saying that it was ‘not offensive & I am sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it’. Islamist activists had rustled up 20,000 signatures against Nawaz, hoping to dislodge him from his candidacy. Channel 4’s treatment of the story was an interesting case of having it both ways. Ostensibly, it was challenging Nawaz’s assailants to justify themselves, but it was also pushing the idea that they might manage to have him disciplined at a meeting with Nick Clegg the following day. (In this they later failed, though they seem to have succeeded in making Nawaz lie low for a bit.) When it came to depicting the cartoon, Channel 4 showed the Jesus half, but blacked out the Mo one, on the grounds that some viewers might find it offensive. The same news programme, I noticed, also showed a bare-breasted woman protestor, and several shots of the dead bodies of people killed by a drug gang in Mexico, without any such delicacy. So, in an odd way, the extremists achieved the censorship they sought, and the publicity.
It is hard to convey the innocuousness, indeed the charm, of the Jesus and Mo cartoon. If this column carried illustration, I would try to persuade the editor to let me show it to you. It is produced by atheists, but any believer of an ecumenical turn of mind would like it, because it shows the two men chatting pleasantly (over a pint of beer — doubly ‘offensive’ to some Muslims therefore) about matters of common interest. Given that ‘Mo’ stood in the tradition of Jesus and acknowledged him as a prophet, this fits. By the way, if offending Muslim zealots is truly the issue here, Channel 4 should have blacked out the face of Jesus as well. Since he is a prophet in Islam, his depiction is blasphemous too. In England and Scotland in the 17th century, Christian iconoclasts frequently destroyed images of Jesus in churches. How long, in the 21st century, before Muslim ones do the same?