Benetton’s recent “unhate” campaign shows that hell hath no fury like a holy figurehead scorned.
The photos could likely pass as authentic if they weren’t so shocking. The affection looks genuine; lip-locked passion in all its glory. The images that Benetton, an Italian fashion giant, used in its latest international advertising campaign are clearly doctored, but the controversy they stirred is certainly real.
Images from the company’s “Unhate” campaign spread in November, attracting the attention of media outlets worldwide. They were all there – Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas – each in a distinct, but equally amorous, embrace. But the most controversial image, or at least the one that garnered the most backlash, was the one depicting Pope Benedict XVI mashing lips with prominent Egyptian Imam Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb (the Imam looked to be the better kisser). Known for its intolerance of homosexuality and “defamation,” the Vatican retaliated almost immediately, declaring the image an “entirely unacceptable use of a manipulated image of the Holy Father, used as part of a publicity campaign which has commercial ends.”
We have a hard time believing that the reaction would have been different if the image were published for non-commercial purposes, but Benetton’s ends are irrelevant. So is the fact that the Vatican may have reacted out of an age-old squeamishness (read: hatred) toward homosexuality. Intolerance is traditional papal doctrine in a nutshell, and homosexuality is Exhibit A – alongside the Vatican’s positions on abortion and contraception, its stubborn history of anti-Semitism, and its seemingly incurable phobia of the freedom of inquiry. More concerning than the papal peevishness with which we have all become accustomed is how the “secular” world reacts, and has traditionally reacted, to it. Benetton quickly withdrew the image in question from its campaign and issued a profuse apology to the Catholic community after the Vatican released a statement condemning the ad as damaging “to the feelings of believers.”
Interestingly, a spokesperson for the White House also expressed discontent with the publication of a photo of President Obama, citing the White House’s “longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president’s name and likeness for commercial purposes.” But the Obama image remains.
While such preferential treatment is not new, its continued practice serves to embolden the religious and erode secular values of free speech and freedom of the press. On what grounds do religious figures claim immunity from criticism not afforded to other world leaders? Let us remember that the Vatican is a state, under observer status at the United Nations, and that the Pope is thus a head of state. It is for this reason that author Richard Dawkins and others considered petitioning the International Criminal Court to issue a warrant for the Pope’s arrest after it was alleged that he had been complicit in the sexual assault of children by clergymen.
Religious figures of all stripes have been complicit in, and responsible for, innumerable atrocities, the child-abuse scandal being the most recent Catholic example. The rise of Islamic extremism has exacerbated (and perhaps been exacerbated by) a number of conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Europe during the last 30 years. Fear of reprisal has made criticism of Islam more and more taboo in the western world, to the point that airing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed – even dressed in a bear costume – may be taking one’s life into one’s hands.
The papacy, for its part, has reacted to such extremism in recent decades by routinely siding with religion. The Vatican tacitly accepted a fatwa (religious decree) that Iran’s former leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued in 1989 against author Salman Rushdie in response to The Satanic Verses, condemning not the threat on Rushdie’s life, but the novel itself. The current Pope, arguably more reactionary than his predecessor, chose to condemn the above-mentioned infamous Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed – which are considered blasphemous in Islam – just as Islamist groups issued death threats to journalists and protesters stormed Danish and other western embassies.
Benetton’s decision to remove the Pope’s image is a reminder of just how effectively religious figures can – forgive the phrasing – put the fear of God in us. Religions and their institutions are powerful players on the world stage and exert considerable influence in the public realm. But this is no excuse for the kind of complicity we see. The secular world bears responsibility for its misguided permission of religion’s self-proclaimed special status. Western heads of state also criticized Rushdie’s novel, while bookstores took it off their shelves. Media outlets apologized for the existence of the Danish cartoons, and refused to reprint them. The only Canadian with the chutzpah to reprint the cartoons was controversial writer Ezra Levant. We need to ask ourselves what kind of message this sends. What is free speech if it is only free so far as it does not offend the pious?
Benetton had it right the first time. Its biggest failure in handling the ad scandal was capitulation to those that claim immunity from public mockery because they are “people of faith.” Benetton grovelled the way so many, including us in Canada, have done before. Shame on them. Shame on us.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.