” Who is Mohammed?”
This was the rather arresting headline on the front page of Brother Ivo’s free local newspaper. With such an attention grabbing front page it thereby avoided being cast aside unread, and partial answers were seen to be offered in the words of George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Carlisle and others, all offering respectful opinions telling us how unique, compassionate and utterly admirable he was.
How much these alleged character witnesses knew of the man is not entirely clear, yet their high opinion of the Muslim prophet was plainly advanced to whet our appetites.
If the present tense of the headline had not alerted him, the offer at the foot of the page gave the game away, with a website offering to take the reader to the Qu’ran online and a telephone number to call to obtain a free copy.
This was paid advertising.
It was all very enterprising.
Who this man Mohammed was, is indeed an interesting and important question in the modern world, so putting the question into the public domain is superficially to be welcomed, and yet, it brings with it, a necessary corresponding question. Can any alternative view be safely advanced examined and published?
Can it be said in a local newspaper that , for example , Mohammed was a trader whose travels around the Arabian peninsular brought him into contact with the Gnostic Christian heresies which fled and established themselves there after being rejected by orthodox Christianity at the Council of Nicea?
Could one advertise, or respond through the letters page that his reporting of Christian historic belief and doctrine was/is demonstratively false and misleading – something which God is not likely have got wrong had the Qu’ranic revelation truly been a Godly revelation?
Might anyone say that Mohammed became a warlord capable of generosity and mercy, yet also according to Islamic sources, responsible for the murder of prisoners, a whole tribe of Jews, the poisoning of critics and the sexual abuse of his 9 year old child bride?
Will anyone explore the circularity of his truth claims? Mohammed is God’s final prophet, so says the Qu’aran, brought to you exclusively by Mohammed who is to be believed because he is God’s prophet etc..etc
Would the paid advertisers allow others to engage with the question by pointing out that if Mohammed lived today, the principle question raised by the modern secularists would be whether he should appear first before the Central Criminal Court, the International Court at The Hague for modern day war crimes, , or the Child Protection Court?
It may be unduly sceptical, but Brother Ivo will not be looking at the letters pages over the next few weeks in expectation of vigorous theological jousting, neither will he encourage others to offer paid advertising of a contrary opinion to those encouraging us to embrace Mohammed and his reported revelations.
It is much to be welcomed that Muslims have taken the trouble and paid the costs of putting the question “out there”. The problem is that a full engagement will not occur because the newspaper will censor serious critical engagement with the chosen question, not least, lest some of Brother Ivo’s identified issues be raised.
None of them are new, yet all are legitimate questions.
Nobody is similarly inhibited over questioning Christianity.
If Brother Ivo declared” Jesus is Lord”another can, and doubtless will riposte “Oh no he isn’t”, and Brother Ivo accepts that as a price worth paying for the freedom to speak the truth as he sees it. That is the Faustian bargain that believers and non believers have struck in order to create the largely tolerant free flow of ideas within our society and this is precisely what differentiates it from the intolerant regimes that many have fled, together with the violence and strife that follows soon after.
It is not that we have avoided intolerance; rather we have learnt to live with challenges to our values as the least worst option.
Even if the newspaper were to be willing to put its editor and staff at risk, many in the community will have taken note of what has happened in Paris and Copenhagen to those bold enough to apply criticism to the object of Islamist veneration. Many will avoid engaging with the question posed – and that too is a betrayal of our most valued contribution to peaceful society – the honest and peaceful acceptance of difference of opinion.
When historian Tom Holland wrote and presented a critically acute historical examination of a Islam for Channel 4, ” Islam The Untold Story”, it did not make it to a public screening: such were the sensitivities of Mohammed’s admirers which the broadcasters were at excessive pains to protect. Most people know this and act accordingly, censoring criticism rather than risk controversy. That is how religious freedom dies, not with a bang but a whimper.
All this presents a Brother Ivo with another of his many paradoxes.
He wants to welcome the decision of some Muslims to ask their question, but can only do so provisionally. Engaging in public religious discourse in a pluralistic society carries responsibilities as well as rights. If one asks open questions about one’s faith, all involved have to expect and accept an uncensored and potentially offensive subsequent debate.
So do we have it – or do we walk away?