There’s a headline in the Guardian today, reporting that Pakistan’s Supreme Court has quashed the death sentence imposed in 2010 upon Asia Biba, a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy in that she allegedly insulted or disparaged the Prophet Mohammed. The decision is likely to cause deep trouble in Pakistan, where blasphemy is taken ultra-seriously, carries an automatic death sentence and, whilst no-one convicted has actually been executed, the death sentence frequently gets carried out by lynch mobs.
I’m not going to start making caustic comments in my usual manner, because I don’t think anybody needs telling what to think here. This is too serious a subject for levity: the lady herself has been in solitary confinement for eight years – eight years – under the threat of this sentence and there are political parties demanding her death, and the death of the Judges who have taken this situation. You don’t have to be an atheist to find all this horrific. At least, I hope you don’t.
The return of Asia Bibi to the headlines awoke a memory of a short piece I offered to the Guardian at the time her story was in the news. It was considered but rejected by implication (i.e., it never got printed and I didn’t make any money off it). Given what’s happened today, and the piece’s transition from the micro to the macro, I’m giving it here:
“I’m not a stranger to insecurity: that undermining sensation that whatever you say or do, you’ll reveal your ignorance, your inadequacy, your lack of… well, whatever seems important at the time.
But, years ago, I first noticed a form of insecurity that only seems to be growing, despite the fact that it’s based on massive, unalloyed success.
I’d moved to a new branch, done the usual ‘what do you do/what do you watch/what’s your music?’ questions, and slightly flummoxed my new manager by mentioning Shawn Colvin. Her reaction – as soon as she actually heard her first Colvin song – was to start having a dig at me every opportunity, over how Colvin was ‘bloody rubbish’. Then came the fatal moment.
Diana Ross was in town, and my manager was going. What did I think of Diana Ross, then? With some care, I avoided giving her a true but unflattering response and settled for the ameliatory, “She’s not my kind of music, really.” “She’s better than Shawn Colvin!”
After that, it got bad. I endured endless snide remarks, all aimed at one end: getting me to admit Diana Ross was the better artist.
What I couldn’t understand, then or now, was why my manager was so vehement in her efforts. Diana Ross was, and for decades had been, an international star, beloved by millions. She sold out concerts world-wide. Every album she released probably sold more than Shawn Colvin’s entire career. Even at the height of her commercial success, Colvin was, and would stay, a cult artist. And an enthralling one to this day, needless to say.
If you saw it as some kind of contest, Diana Ross had already won. My manager had backed the victor, agreed with the majority. So why did it matter so much to her that one person preferred a nobody? Make no mistake, this wasn’t fanaticism, which we more often see in the young, defending their choices against the most fleeting criticism. I knew insecurity when I saw it.
So, when you follow a mainstream, majorly successful artist, where does the insecurity that keeps you from just enjoying your favourite, that compels you to howl down even the slightest criticism, come from?
Multiple examples of this were seen in response to Alex Petrides’ review of the posthumous Michael Jackson CD. Collectively, it can seem hilarious, but when you read fans proclaiming ‘My life is better for having lived during his era’, the laughter starts to sound hollow. The same fan, asked why no MJ fan seemed able to accept any criticism, replied that he ‘would defend MJ in the same manner (he) would defend a family member, such was (MJ’s) impact on (his) life.’ (He also claimed that MJ made Quincey Jones, which is equally worrying.)
It was the same as the cries of pain from Take That fans responding to Johnny Sharp’s article about Deep And Meaningless Pop Epics. We can all cite similar examples (is life actually worth living when you cross a Robbie Williams fan?)
But whilst it can be amusing to watch fans of the biggest acts clamber over themselves to get a lonely non-believer to take back what he said, that still leaves the question of why they can’t accept less than 100% approval. The religious parallel is immediate, especially given some of the comments of the Michael Jackson fans.
Worrying as it is to think of today’s Pop Idols – even the dead ones – becoming the fount for someone’s spiritual needs, it is equally worrying to recognise the even greater depths of insecurity underpinning religions themselves. The women of Asia Bibi’s village claim that “She is Christian, we are Muslim, and there is a vast difference between the two. We are a superior religion.” Yet they also demand, “Why hasn’t she been killed yet?” If their religion is superior as they state, why are they afraid of the ‘damage’ one woman can do?
The East is not the only part of the world where superiority hasn’t managed to convince the superior that they are actually so superior after all.
Can we think of a country, not further than an ocean away, which has enjoyed unparalleled military, economic and cultural dominance over the whole planet, for more than half a century, yet acts with childish bafflement and complete incomprehension – shortly followed with anger, outrage and rank bullying – whenever someone so much as smiles, nods and says, ‘very nice, but I think we’d prefer to keep doing it the way we’re used to, thank you.’
And given that this country is going to lose it’s economic supremacy in the foreseeable future, are we entirely comfortable at how it’s going to react?
Would you find Take That fans quite as risible if you knew they were armed, and really, really wanted you to take back what you just said about Gary Barlow?”