Are We All Lebanese Porn Stars? On Freedom of Speech and Mohammed Cartoons

IN FOCUS, 26 Jan 2015

Michael Brull – New Matilda

If depicting Mohammed in a cartoon is a noble act of freedom of expression, then why isn’t porn on prime time? And a WARNING. This article contains an image that some readers may find offensive.

Mia-KhalifaS porn freedom expression charlie cartoonShortly before the murderous attacks in Paris, there was a lesser controversy involving offended Muslims. A Lebanese Christian porn star calling herself Mia Khalifa, currently living in the US, was covered in Newsweek. Mia, Newsweek reported, was doing “pretty well for herself”, having been “recently ranked the most popular actress on Pornhub.com, the 71st most-visited website in the world”. Every day, “millions of people around the world see Khalifa’s face — and other parts of her, as well.”

As the saying goes, everyone’s a critic, and her performances received mixed reviews in the Middle East. Some said she shamed her country with the Lebanese tattoos proudly displayed on her body in her videos. Her family strongly denounced her in the Lebanese press.

A story in the Australian Murdoch press observed that “Khalifa is seen performing sexual acts while wearing the hijab”. Some responded with outrage, saying it was disrespectful to Islam. Others defended her.

The British Independent reported on the death threats that Mia has been receiving from Islamists outraged by her videos.

This is a straightforward issue of freedom of speech. Before the Islamists came for our cartoons, first they came for our porn. So, passionate believers that we are in the sanctity of freedom of speech: how did we rise to the challenge?

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, many self-proclaimed liberals knew exactly what ought to be done. Reprint the cartoons! Show the fundamentalists we will not be cowed. We will not live on our knees! We stand in solidarity with the offensive. We won’t be silenced or intimidated. The Australian’s editorial was one of the many places you could read of disgust at the cowards who claim to believe in freedom of speech, but don’t “follow through”. That is, they didn’t run the cartoons of the Prophet.

The right-wing advocacy organisation, the IPA, explained the situation was even worse than media cowardice. We needed to change our laws because Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “would be banned in Australia due to free speech laws” (sic). At the very least, Charlie Hebdo would “struggle to survive”. So don’t dare call yourself Charlie, unless you support repeal of those laws.

Jason Wilson has argued that this interpretation of the laws against racially offensive speech is incorrect. However, if we do want to reform our laws, so as to be free to offend Islamists, why not also reform our laws in relation to classification of sexual material and porn?

Mia’s porn offends Islamists too. No one has been killed, but there were death threats. There was lots of media coverage across major outlets.

As the stuffed-shirt powers-that-be at New Matilda remind me, even if Australia’s major news outlets wanted to illustrate the stories of Mia with footage and images from her work, they would not be free to do so. At the very least, it would involve a lengthy classification process that would take months.

Why are they ok with those restrictions? Why don’t they offend the IPA and Murdoch press warriors for freedom of speech? Why shouldn’t readers be able to judge for themselves how offensive Mia’s “sexual acts while wearing the hijab” actually are? How can we call ourselves free as long as we let the terrorists win? Why aren’t the IPA, the Australian and the rest of the usual suspects solemnly declaring that they are all Mia and demanding the republication of her art?

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, the Australian expressed dismay at the cowards who “baulked at the need to share an image of this obviously newsworthy cover with their audiences.” After all, free speech “is exactly what the extremists strive to destroy. And in order to combat Islamist terrorism the first thing we need to be able to do is discuss and debate the realities of its motivations and consequences.” So why do we let the extremists prevent us from being able to discuss and debate the realities of Mia’s porn?

The answer is pretty obvious. Mainstream news sources aren’t interested in running porn, because they routinely show sensitivity to what might offend their readers. Even if there were no relevant legal restrictions, they would be unlikely to show full frontal nudity for similar reasons that they don’t feature the word “c*nt”. A handful of media outlets may even show respect to deceased Aboriginal people by not publishing their names or images of them.

In a way, this is an infringement on freedom of speech, in the sense that such practices restrict what can be said in certain places. Yet everyone places some restrictions on what they say in some contexts: out of respect, politeness, a desire to conform to social conventions and so on. When people go to funerals, they know that there will be social sanctions if they say certain things or behave in certain ways. Such restrictions are usually not regarded as unduly oppressive.

Western media outlets didn’t run Mia’s pornographic videos in solidarity, because one can support freedom of speech without reproducing the speech in question. Because in that case, pornography doesn’t just offend the sensibilities of radical Islamists, but also is regarded as inappropriate by many white people.

In the case of the latest Charlie Hebdo cover, featuring a cartoon of Mohammed on its cover, it was widely reprinted. As noted in the Australian:

The cover has also been published online by a number of media organisations around the world, including The Australian, the ABC, The Daily Telegraph, news.com, 7News.com.au and 9news.com.au in Australia.

In the United States, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, LA Times and Huffington Post were among organisations to publish the image.

In that case, reprinting images of Mohammed doesn’t offend ordinary white people – just Muslims. So all of those media outlets – including the supposedly more respectable, like the ABC – decided that it was no big deal to run something many Muslims find gratuitously insulting and offensive.

It is sad, if not surprising that so many media outlets have chosen to run something they know is so deeply offensive, when ordinarily they do nothing of the sort. In my view, it reflects the casual contempt which so many in the West have for Muslims, which they would never, for example, display towards Jews.

Mia Khalifa and friends… including the Australian media bosses who published the Charlie cartoon of Mohammed (anti-clockwise from bottom… literally), Rupert Murdoch (News), Mark Scott (ABC), David Gyngell (Channel 9) and Tim Worner (Channel 7).

Mia Khalifa and friends… including the Australian media bosses who published the Charlie cartoon of Mohammed (anti-clockwise from bottom… literally), Rupert Murdoch (News), Mark Scott (ABC), David Gyngell (Channel 9) and Tim Worner (Channel 7).

I consider my position a compromise one. I don’t believe that depictions of the Prophet should never be shown, just as I don’t believe that no one anywhere should ever be able to watch porn. Malise Ruthven, a respected scholar on Islam, wrote a blog about the controversy over Mohammed cartoons, where he commented that “representations of Muhammad, though absent from public spaces, appear in illuminated manuscripts up until the seventeenth century; they still feature in the popular iconography of Shiism, where antipathy to pictures of the Prophet is much less prevalent”.

As Ruthven observed, “Traditional Islamic doctrine offers little explanation for” the “violent response” to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed.

Interpretations of Islam, like other religious traditions, have evolved over time. Just as Judaism went through the Haskalah, and Christianity had the Reformation, the way Muslims interpret Islam today may yet change radically in the future. As the great intellectual Mahmood Mamdani observed,

Blasphemy is part of an important historical practice that involves critiquing a tradition from within. That kind of capacity for self-critique, for laughing at oneself, is absolutely necessary for the ongoing reform of traditions and cultures in the face of changing realities, changing mores and changing intellectual constructs. In Islam, the right to critique tradition from within is known as Ijtihad. It has a long and honourable history.

As anyone who has read JS Mill’s On Liberty will know, the sacred beliefs of today may become the embarrassing shame of tomorrow. Toda’s blasphemy may become tomorrow’s conventional wisdom. I don’t believe it’s wrong to criticise or challenge the religious or political beliefs of Muslims, or anyone else for that matter.

I simply think that we should show the same respect to Muslims as anyone else in our society. The same kind of etiquette that makes so many media outlets not run pornographic videos, should have sufficed to stop them from running gratuitous insults to Muslims.

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Michael Brull is a regular columnist for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC’s Drum, The Guardian and elsewhere.

Go to Original – newmatilda.com

 

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One Response to “Are We All Lebanese Porn Stars? On Freedom of Speech and Mohammed Cartoons”

  1. rosemerry says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article (and the picture!).
    I am an Aussie living in France, and do NOT consider the offensive (even pornographic, in the “forgiven” case) cartoons to be satire, which should target the rich and powerful, not those already discriminated against and on the lower levels of society, without political, media or popular support.

    France does NOT have freedom of speech, and is especially severe against any criticism which the authorities can deem antisemitic.