I was reminded, in the aftermath of last week’s disagreement between the Vatican and Benetton, and thinking about Benetton’s absurd ‘Unhate’ posters, of a Stewart Lee routine from his 41st Best Stand-Up Ever show.
Discussing 2007’s Celebrity Big Brother racism row, Lee let rip at what he saw as the naked hypocrisy of the show’s sponsor, the Carphone Warehouse.
'This is a genuine press statement from the Carphone Warhouse: "Racism is entirely at odds with the values of the Carphone Warhouse". Entirely at odds. I don't know about you, Glasgow, but I was was hugely relieved to read that press statement, because prior to reading that press statement , I had suspected that the [falsetto Irish] Carphone Warehouse was in fact a front for a white supremacist organization. And I have in my hand a piece of paper bearing the true values of the [falsetto Irish] Carphone Warehouse, the true values of the [falsetto Irish] Carphone Warehouse.
The values of the Carphone Warehouse. The sheer transparent naked hypocrisy of even imagining for a moment that such things exist as the values of the Carphone Warehouse. Do you follow the values of Jesus or Buddha or Marx? No, I follow the values of the Carphone Warehouse, committed as they have been these past twenty years to fighting racism through the unusual medium of discount phone retail, a sure method which for so long eluded the ANC and the Rock Against Racism movement. The values of the Carphone Warehouse.’
- Sell phones.
- Sell more phones.
- Deny the Holocaust.
- Sell more phones.
- Deny the Holocaust again, this time by texting your mates.
- Lobby for the return of the Golliwog and the Black and White Minstrel Show.
- Sell phones, sell phones to cars, sell as many phones as... quickly, sell phones, sell the phones, sell...!
The Point Being?
There is, of course, a profound irony in a company such as Benetton, whose exploitative labour practices have been called into question more than once over the years, whose sweatshops in North Africa and the Far East are hardly something of which they can be proud, daring to stand and tell anyone else how they ought to behave, but I suppose hypocrisy has always involved vice paying some kind of tribute to virtue. The fact is, of course, that Benetton is a company far better known for its advertising campaigns than for its clothes. That they’re in the news seems to be yet another disturbing example of how the eighties, somehow, are back.
On the face of it, the Benetton campaign is just silly. ‘Unhate’ say its posters, festooned with digitally created images of the Pope kissing the highest authority of Sunni Islam, Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque, or of Nikolas Sarkozy kissing Angela Merkel, or Barack Obama kissing Hu Jintao. It’s clearly nonsense: Merkel and Sarkozy don’t need to be told to ‘unhate’ each other; they’re working almost as a unit trying to figure out a way out of the mess that may yet shatter the Union, and the global economic system with it. Given the first amendment to the American Constitution, I can’t imagine President Obama getting upset -- at least publicly -- about how his image has been used by Benetton, and I’m pretty sure this advertising campaign isn’t being run in China.
So it’s silly. Fine. Is that grounds for the Vatican being annoyed? Can’t it take a joke?
Well, the first thing I’d say is that I can’t imagine that the British government would have been happy if Benetton had plastered half of London’s billboards and Tube stations with a giant photoshopped mash-up of the Queen snogging the face off Robert Mugabe. I think they’d be miffed, and rightly so, and that some sort of action would be taken against Benetton. What’s more, I think you can imagine British papers calling on British people to boycott Benetton. We all know this would happen, so please, don’t be tempted to ask why the Vatican doesn’t have a sense of humour. And let’s face it, if Benetton really wanted to make a meaningful point with these posters, they’d be using them in Egypt, wouldn’t they?
But they’re not doing that, for two very sensible reasons: they wouldn’t go down at all well there, and Egypt’s hardly their most lucrative market. This isn’t about changing minds, no matter what Benetton may say. It’s about selling jumpers and it’s about selling brightly-coloured jeans of the sort only children’s TV presenters can wear with any sense of propriety. I use that word loosely.
That said, I don’t fancy the Vatican’s chances in trying to restrict the offending image’s circulation: it’s already on countless newspaper sites and blogs, and I even know somebody who’s using it as his Facebook profile picture, even though he looks like neither gentleman. Now that it's out there it'll be unstoppable. That's the nature of modern imagery; as an old friend of mine used to say, digital photographs are 'pictures that never die'.
To be frank, this whole affair bothers me, and not because I think it's insulting towards the Pope and implicitly towards all Christians in communion with him. Rather, I think it’s a problem because it’s deeply dishonest, and arguably quite dangerous.
Why is it dishonest?
Well, bearing as it does the exhortation to ‘unhate’ the poster indicates that the Pope hates al-Tayeb, and quite probably Muslims in general. If anything, the opposite is the case. Inter-faith dialogue has been one of the great themes of Benedict’s Papacy, and Benedict has worked hard to build a healthy dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters.
One need but think of his praying in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Mosque – the famous ‘Blue Mosque’ – in November 2006, his role in establishing the Catholic-Muslim Forum, the first summit of which took place in November 2008, his visit to Amman’s Hussein bin-Talal Mosque in May 2009 and his addressing of Muslims in the cause of religious freedom and in opposition to religious extremism, his widely praised meeting in September with leaders of Germany’s Muslim community where he spoke on the possibility of building religiously-rooted political systems which nonetheless protected religious pluralism, and of the fact that at last month’s inter-religious meeting at Assisi, there were more Muslim leaders present than there were high-ranking Catholics!
There’s a case to be made that the Pope is doing at least as much as anyone else in the world to calm Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’. He’s certainly doing more than Benetton, at any rate!
Well, yes. There is indeed tension between the Pope and Ahmed al-Tayeb, and it relates to a great tragedy which has been happening on Europe’s doorstep and which we’ve basically ignored.
As you’ll remember, on 1 January of this year a car bomb outside the Coptic church of St Mark and Pope Peter in Alexandria killed 23 Copts, with a further 97 people being injured. This brought decades of persecution of the Copts to a head, and public protests by the Copts were brutally suppressed. The Pope condemned the attack in his New Year address, appealing for religious freedom and tolerance, and exhorting governments to protect their minorities.
In response, the Grand Sheikh spoke out against Benedict’s intervention, describing the Pope’s appeal for civil authorities in the Middle East to protect their Christian minorities as an ‘unacceptable interference in Egyptian affairs’ and dismissing his observations as biased and inappropriate.
The Vatican responded by stressing that the Pope has constantly condemned violence against all people, not merely Christians, and insisting that we need to work together if we are to live together in peace, stressing that ‘The Pope’s invitation to Assisi for this coming October demonstrates his desire to repeat the message that no war may be waged in God’s name, but only peace.’ Tayeb rejected this invitation, saying that such gatherings as that at Assisi did nothing for Muslims and serve only to help the West.
Since then, of course, we’ve seen the Arab Spring, and in the aftermath of the first phase of the Egyptian revolution, more than 90,000 Copts have been forced to flee their ancient ancestral homeland in the face of incessant violence and persecution.
It’s in this context that there’s tension between Rome and Cairo’s Grand Sheikh. Benetton’s puerile advert doesn’t merely insult and misrepresent the Pope: it trivialises the plight of thousands upon thousands of people being persecuted on Europe’s doorstep, and it does this to sell jumpers.