Is everyone tired of the Mohammed cartoons story? Too bad, because that’s the topic of my newest Boston Globe column.
AS THE DANISH cartoons satirizing Mohammed continue to cause violent protests throughout the Muslim world, and Western newspapers grapple with the issue of whether to publish the offending cartoons, many people are asking what this incident says about the ability of Islam, at least in its current state, to coexist with modern democratic civilization and its cherished freedoms. That is a legitimate question, and we should not be deterred from asking it by either political correctness or intimidation. But the tension between traditional religion and modernity, between piety and freedom, are not limited to Islam alone — though Islamic radicalism today represents a uniquely deadly form of this tension.
In a New York Times column, David Brooks contrasts the Islamic extremists’ attitudes with ours: The West, with its ”legacy of Socrates and the agora” and its ”progressive and rational” mindset, is open to a multiplicity of arguments, perspectives, and ”unpleasant facts,” while radical Muslims cling to ”pre-Enlightenment” dogmatism and shrink from the ”chaos of our conversation.”
Yet Brooks overlooks the fact that a large segment of the population in the West, and especially in the United States, rejects the progressive, rational mindset and embraces pre-Enlightenment values as well. Fundamentalist Christians, traditionalist Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not, with very few exceptions, call for violence in response to heresy; that is a key distinction. But they too often equate criticism (let alone mockery) of their beliefs with ”religious bigotry” or ”hate speech.” And they, too, often seek not simply to protest but to shut down offensive speech.
In 1998, when a Broadway theater announced the production of Terrence McNally’s play ”Corpus Christi,” depicting a gay Jesus-like character, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a letter-writing campaign against it. There were also threats of violence and arson, which at one point swayed the theater to cancel the play. The Catholic League reacted with jubilation, and while formally deploring the threats it also warned that if another theater picked up ”Corpus Christi,” it would ”wage a war that no one will forget.” (The theater eventually revived the production.)
Interestingly, the head of the Catholic League, William Donohue, recently applauded the decision of most American newspapers not to publish the Mohammed cartoons and lamented only that his group’s protests against offensive material have been less successful. Many of the same newspapers that decided — quite wrongly, in my view — not to reproduce the cartoons even as part of a news story about the reaction to them have run photos of controversial works of art considered sacrilegious by Christians, and defended the display of those works in tax-funded museums.
Donohue makes an important point when he says that this double standard reflects fear of violence by Islamic extremists, and that caving in to such intimidation is a deplorable message to send. But he, too, agrees that freedom of the press should take a back seat to respect for what is sacred to believers. Respect is of course a fine thing, but where does one draw the line between insult and criticism or questioning? A few years ago, the charge of ”Christian bashing” was leveled at the ABC show ”Nothing Sacred,” which questioned Catholic doctrine on birth control and priestly celibacy.
Others from the Christian right, such as Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, have echoed the notion that the media should show the same deference to conservative Christians that they show to Muslims. And a few have openly voiced sympathy even with violent manifestations of Islamic extremism. Pat Buchanan recently wrote:
”When Bush speaks of freedom as God’s gift to humanity, does he mean the First Amendment freedom . . . of Salman Rushdie to publish ‘The Satanic Verses,’ a book considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith? If the Islamic world rejects this notion of freedom . . . why are they wrong?”
The truth is that modernity with its ”chaos of conversation,” its chaos of lifestyles, its attitude that there is nothing more sacred than freedom of expression, is profoundly threatening to many religious traditionalists of different faiths. (Last year, quite a few American conservatives applauded Pope Benedict XVI’s assault on ”the dictatorship of relativism.”) At the present moment, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, radical fundamentalism holds a particular sway in the Muslim world, where it is wedded to political violence in ways that have no parallel in other religions. To ignore this difference and this danger would be foolish. But it is also unwise to ignore the religious backlash against modernity right here in the West, and its own tensions with individual freedom.
I am not, as some have implicitly or explicitly done, equating the Taliban or the Al Qaeda with the Christian Coalition or the American Family Association. They don’t have similar goals or similar means. (The Christian Reconstructionists who do have a Talibanesque theocreatic agenda don’t wield any political influence to speak of.) But I do think that it’s ludicrous to deny that ther are forces in the West, in America in particular — and, sadly, in David Brooks’s own political camp — that do represent a traditionalist backlash against the Enlightenment. (The left, of course, has its own anti-Enlightenment faction, but that’s not the point here.) To equate Jerry Falwell and Osama Bin Laden would be an absurd exercise in moral equivalency; but Brooks goes to the other extreme of exaggerated Western self-congratulation.
I agree, too, that many of the people lamenting the offensiveness of the Mohammed cartoons have had little to say not only about the steady stream of Nazi-style Jew-baiting cartoons in the Arab world, but even about anti-Israel cartoons in the European press that have had a clearly anti-Semitic tint. At the same time, there is no denying that some of the response to the cartoon controversy has had an anti-Muslim (not just anti-extremist) tint. For a good response, see this column by Steve Chapman.
To assume that Muslims in Europe universally aspire to rule by ayatollahs is like assuming that Christians in the United States would all love to see Pat Robertson elected president.
It’s true that vicious extremism does occasionally emerge — as when a Dutch filmmaker who publicly disparaged Islam was murdered by a radical Muslim in 2004. But the killer is hardly typical of his co-religionists on the continent.
In Denmark, local Muslims responded to the cartoons in law-abiding ways — gathering petitions, talking to the newspaper editor, filing a criminal complaint, marching peacefully in Copenhagen. Only when the issue got attention in the Middle East did mayhem erupt. Even then, it occurred in only a few places, not all across the Muslim world.
There is no reason to believe that Muslims in Europe favor the torching of embassies. The head of one of Germany’s biggest Islamic groups denounced what he called “an incensed and thoughtless mob,” and said, “We abhor such actions.”
There is no doubt, though, that Europe has a Muslim problem, stemming from its reluctance to embrace immigrants as full citizens. …
If Europe wants to remain a free and tolerant place, the answer is not to treat Muslims as a dangerous alien presence. It’s to get busy turning them into Europeans.
Oh, and that criminal complaint filed by Danish Muslims against the cartoons? As Chapman notes, the law that enabled them to do that was not passed in deference to Muslim sensibilities:
Well, it turns out that some parts of Europe already ban the sort of blasphemy at issue here — under laws written to protect Christian sensibilities. Denmark, as it happens, provides up to four months in jail for anyone “who publicly offends or insults a religion.” In Germany, reports the broadcast outlet Deutsche Welle, one magazine has been sued eight times under an anti-blasphemy law enacted in 1871.
The danger, I gather, is that Europe’s Muslims will be just as intolerant of criticism of their faith as Europe’s Christians used to be of theirs. That would certainly be a bad thing. But to assume that more Muslims will inevitably turn France or Germany into a turbaned theocracy brings to mind the bumper sticker that says, “I get all the exercise I need jumping to conclusions.”
A popular exercise, that.