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Press: Free speech no longer for the awkward squad

08 October 2021

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A NOTABLE obituary this week: Lars Vilks, the Swedish artist whose drawing of the prophet Muhammad as a dog on a roundabout was received with an outpouring of Islamist violence. He died in a car crash, together with two of the policemen who had accompanied his every step since 2010, three years after al-Qaeda put a bounty of $100,000 on his head, with an extra $50,000 if his throat was cut.

Niklas Orrenius, of Dagens Nyheter, who is one of the best journalists in Sweden, had a long, thought-provoking memoir of the artist and how he had been forced to live for the last decade of his life: “He became radioactive in Swedish public life. His appearance reminded people of terror and death. If he appeared with his bodyguards, lunch guests could change their tables with panic in their eyes.

“In his home country [as opposed to Denmark], the word ‘unnecessary’ would often come up. It was ‘unnecessary’ for him to draw that dog. For some people he was politically suspect. His reluctance to distance himself from antimuslim and hate-filled movements — who were eager to use his roundabout dog — could frighten and bewilder people.

“He thought himself that ‘most Muslims are ordinary decent people’ — but that it’s no part of an artist’s work to denounce things . . . people can believe what they like about me, but I am not going to take the knee and say I’m not like that.”

Dagens Nyheter, which had published the cartoon that caused all the fuss, also had a leader comment on the subject: “Looking back on the years after the Mohammed cartoons, one thing is clear: the really disturbing thing is not the fanatics’ desire to silence uncomfortable voices with knives and bombs: that’s just what defines them as fanatical.

“The worst thing is all the people who are ready to listen to them, consider their point of view, and nudge the world a little further in the direction of silence. It is with their help that the fanatics can succeed. They are the ones who always object: ‘But don’t we have to understand their fanaticism? Don’t they belong to a marginalised group? Aren’t their feelings at least as important as the great democratic freedoms?’”

Sweden is itself an astonishingly conformist society, and the range of acceptable opinions in Stockholm society is narrow. Before the cartoons, Vilks was an awkward provincial outsider. “If you find you’ve dropped a clanger, do it again. Do it louder!” he once told an audience of art students.

But his death is a reminder of how far we have come from the belief that freedom of speech applies to the awkward squad as well as to the good people like us.

 

TELEGRAPH readers are upset about a General Synod paper on closing churches (Angela Tilby, 1 October).

This is significant, not just because it’s the first time that I can remember anyone quoting the number of a Synod paper in the national press. The first one last week was from Charles Puxley, in Newbury: “The green paper GS 2222 which says that the Church of England anticipates closing more than 350 churches in the next five years, is terrifying. In our case in Berkshire, I say let them try.

“If there was any suggestion that one or both of our parish churches were due to close, a decision no doubt made by an overpaid diocesan officer who most likely never visited us, the parochial church council simply would not accept it. We would run the churches ourselves for the benefit of the whole community, and, although sad to lose our incumbent, I am certain we would get on very nicely.”

This drew a response from Colin Snow, in Somerset: “I am the treasurer of a very small Grade I listed church that you have to cross a field to get to. It has no electricity or water, is lit by gas lamps and heated by a gas stove.

“A few years ago our parish had to raise £80,000 for the upkeep of the tower. We did that without any help from the diocese, and I wonder to this day if it knew anything about it.

“The fact is that we could quite easily stand on our own if pressed, as Charles Puxley suggests. We are lucky to have two services a month, one Communion and one Evensong or Matins, which adds up to three hours, including an incumbent’s travelling time. If that time was costed at £120 per service, we could cut our parish share by more than half. If we were allowed to take the Matins or Evensong ourselves, we would only need an incumbent for one service.

“The Church really has no idea of the strength of feeling of determined parishioners at a local level.”

It’s natural to assume that the most committed churchgoers are found in the largest, most “vibrant” churches. But they also have the best support networks. Perhaps the ones who are really committed are found in the smallest congregations. The election results will show us.

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