Katy Perry was right to edit her video, but I wish she hadn’t
Poor Katy Perry. It seems that whatever she does, she’s doomed to upset a handful of religious extremists, with nothing but lots of media coverage and record sales to show for it. Fresh from her controversial performance of Dark Horse at the Grammys, she’s stirred up a whole new fuss over the video for the same song, managing to offend Muslims this time instead of Christians.
It appears that someone was watching the video and noticed that if you looked closely and paused the video at just the right time, a man appeared to be wearing a pendant bearing the Arabic “Allah” before he was turned to dust. Now, I’m not an expert in Arabic, but seeing how often people claim to have seen “Allah” spelt out inside a tomato or by any number of strange objects, I suggest that it isn’t trivial to demonstrate that this meaning was either intended or even really there. But let’s assume that it was.
The word itself didn’t cause the upset, but the fact that it and its wearer were destroyed. This apparently can be interpreted as carrying a specific message, connected with the idea of Allah being destroyed by another being. That’s not a necessary interpretation, nor does this need to be viewed as anything more than a representation of an idea. Nevertheless, following a spot of rabble rousing, the petition raised many signatures and a lot of interest.
An idea is not a statement. Imagery is not reality. And acted events are not really happening. To object to this video, on what look like purely subjective grounds, amounts to an attempt to censor artistic expression based on nothing more than personal opinion and kneejerk reaction, making it impossible for anyone to be sure that they aren’t going to accidentally stir up a similar controversy at some point. It’s a recipe for mob rule.
More than that, the charge of blasphemy is a dangerous and misguided one to level against someone who doesn’t share your beliefs. The moment you expect everyone else to conform to your arbitrary ideas of what is or isn’t respectful to your God, you claim the right to dictate the whole tone of public discourse. However respectfully you ask for things to be changed to fit your sense of propriety, that’s not sustainable in a world of 7bn people.
Even so, it makes perfect sense for Katy Perry and her record company to edit the video, as they have done today. Having stirred up a nice lot of publicity, it would be pointless to antagonise potential fans over a trivial and probably unintended detail. The customer is always right, so keep everyone happy and move on. Anything else would be needlessly provocative, even if it could be spun as high-minded adherence to principles about artistic freedom. There’s a fine line between having firm principles and being a dick.
Yet for all that, I wish the video had been left alone. Every time religious arguments like this are allowed to prevail, it strengthens the belief in their legitimacy, and the effectiveness of blasphemy charges in getting your way. It creates an expectation that religious objections alone are sufficient to veto any image or representation. They’re not, and that needs to be understood more widely. It’s unfortunate that this will have the opposite effect.