Bennetton's new "UNHATE" campaign of Photoshopped images of world leaders kissing each other included an image of Pope Benedict XVII kissing Egypt's al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. The Vatican complained and the ad was withdrawn, but that wasn't enough for Vatican officials who intend to file a lawsuit.
The Sunni al-Azhar, in contrast, doesn't seem interested in doing anything about it -- a remarkable display of tolerance that the Vatican appears to be incapable of.
The Vatican "has instructed its lawyers, in Italy and abroad, to take appropriate action" to prevent the circulation of the image, including in the mass media, it said on Friday evening.
The image offended "not only the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church, but also the sensibilities of believers."
For its part, al-Azhar - the leading Sunni Islam institution based in Cairo - did say late on Friday they found the images "absurd," but as a result did not know whether they would issue an official response.
I'm sure the image of Pope Benedict XVII kissing an imam did offend some people, but merely offending people really isn't a sufficient reason to remove something from public view, never mind sue over it. The question we should be asking is whether the image causes or encourages harm of any sort.
Does an image of the pope encourage bigotry or discrimination towards Catholics? If so, that would be a good reason to remove it and possibly even for a lawsuit. I'd join complaints about an image in that case. Does such an image violate copyrights or trademarks? If so, that would also be a good reason for removal and lawsuit.
I notice, though, that no such arguments are actually being made. All the Vatican can say in defense of their position is that people are "offended," as if the mere existence of "offense" is obviously sufficient justification to demand something be censored. That's the assumption we must to challenge and eliminate -- the assumption that someone's negative emotional reaction to an image or an idea is sufficient reason for that image or idea to be removed from public view.
But a local cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Abdallah, in Cairo, said that such use "is to create controversy. I was in advertising before finding God and I understand what they were doing with the attempt, but they should have known better than to use religious figures in such a way."
The former American University in Cairo (AUC) graduate and marketing executive turned cleric told Bikyamasr.com that "for a clothing company to create this kind of tension will only do good things for their business. The Vatican should have just let it go and not worried themselves with such ordeal."
Of course the image was designed to create controversy -- but pointing that out isn't actually a criticism nor does it suggest that the stated goals of the UNHATE campaign are disingenuous. Quite the opposite is the case, in fact.
The mere fact that the image of two men kissing creates controversy and is offensive is itself a demonstration of why something like the UNHATE campaign is necessary. It's a demonstration of how much implicit hate there is which needs to be fought. If the image didn't create any controversy, didn't bother anyone, and didn't raise any eyebrows, then it would be a sign that the campaign is pointless and irrelevant.
So anyone who objects by saying "you're just doing this to create controversy" isn't making a substantive objection; on the contrary, they are helping point out why images like this can have value. What's more, the extreme Vatican reaction here underscores the need for the campaign, especially when contrasted to the subdued Muslim reaction.