My Globe column and blogpost on the Mohammed cartoons controversy caused quite a bit of displeasure among some commenters, who felt that I was unfairly comparing radical Islamists to Christian fundamentalists (and conservative Catholics) in the West, and specifically in the United States. In fact, I very specifically made a distinction between violent and nonviolent reactions to offensive speech. I agree that violence and threats of violence, which are a fairly common modus operandi for the radical Islamists today, exist only at the margins of Christian fundamentalism and other religious ultraconservatism in the West. (Though one can’t, in my opinion, entirely brush aside such facts as the threats of arson and other violence in 1998 against the New York production of Terence McNally’s play Corpus Christi, and the jubilant reaction from the Catholic League’s William Donohue when the play was temporarily canceled because of these threats.)
My point, which I will reiterate again, is that despite these important differences, there are certain common threads between different kinds of religious ultraconservatism. The backlash against Enlightenment values (tolerance, intellectual diversity, freedom of expression, scientific knowledge) exists not only among radical Islamists — as David Brooks asserted in his New York Times column — but also among Protestant fundamentalists and Catholic traditionalists. What’s more, many American religious conservatives are openly sympathetic to the radical Muslims’ effort to banish speech that offends them from the public square, though not to their violent means.
Is it impermissible or even absurd, as some of my critical commenters seem to imply, to see and analyze common threads and themes in violent and non-violent movements and phenomena? Hardly. No one, for instance, would say that it’s absurd to point out that anti-Semitism exists not only among neo-Nazis and Klansmen but among non-violent people and groups as well. Conservatives have not infrequently drawn parallels between communism and far milder varieties of leftist ideology. I also recall quite a few people on the right pointing out similarities between the Unabomber’s manifesto and mainstream environmentalist ideas, including the ones advanced by Al Gore in Earth in the Balance — even though, as far as I can tell, Al Gore has never mailed anyone a bomb.
Why, then, are such comparisons out of bounds when it comes to religions that reject modernity and intellectual tolerance, and regard criticism as blasphemy?
I might add, too, that some of the commentary on the Muslim response to the cartoons seems to conflated non-violent protests (i.e., peaceful demosntrations, boycotts against The Philadelphia Inquirer after it reprinted the cartoons) with violent ones.
Let me explain, too, why I think this issue is important. I absolutely believe that radical Islamism is a threat to civilization, and that it’s important to take it seriously. But I am also troubled by the fact that in too many cases, the reaction to radical Islamism does take on the form of bigotry against all Muslims. There is always, of course, the incomparable Ann Coulter, whose comments about “ragheads” got a standing ovation the other day at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference; but look at the email that Andrew Sullivan posted on his blog a few days ago, from a “liberal reader”:
“I’m honestly starting to suspect that, before this is over, European nations are going to have exactly four choices in dealing with their entire Moslem populations — for elementary safety’s sake:
(1) Capitulate totally to them and become a Moslem continent.
(2) Intern all of them.
(3) Deport all of them
(4) Throw all of them into the sea.
This sounds a bit shrill even to me — but what the hell else can you do with several tens of millions of potential Branch Davidians?
The whole worldwide situation would be SO much easier to deal with if Pakistan didn’t already have the Bomb. Think how much more interesting it will be when Iran has it, too.”
What I found especially troubling is that Andrew cites this email uncritically, as evidence of “some very hard thinking on the left.”
In the face of such attitudes, I think it’s time for some hard thinking on the right. Yes, modern Islamic radicalism has no exact or even close counterparts in Western Christianity; even Pat Robertson is not seeking the imposition of Biblical law that mandates killing gays and stoning adulteresses. But many conservative Muslims’ problems with an open, tolerant, pluralistic society are not substantially different than many conservative Christians’ and Jews'; and neither is their reaction to the mockery of their faith.
[Edited to add: Please note that the “many conservative Muslims” in the previous paragraph refers not to the violence-preaching (or -practicing) extremists, but to the far more numerous conservative Muslims — in Denmark, for instance, and here in the United States — who have protested the cartoons through non-violent means, whether through peaceful demonstrations or boycotts. As I noted above, the two have often been conflated.]
Commenting on the Mohammed cartoons, the Harvard conservative paper, The Harvard Salient, writes:
It almost goes without saying that similar depictions of Christ, or the pope, or a crucifix would have hardly elicited a response save a handful of letters to the editor. In the 21st century, a violent response would, in any case, be unfathomable.
I agree about the violent response part. But if a major newspaper such as The New York Times ran a cartoon showing, for instance, Jesus shooting up an abortion clinic, I don’t think it’s so farfetched to think that conservative Christian groups could have whipped up a major campaign against the paper, with boycotts, demonstrations, and demands for apologies. In other words, the same kind of response American Muslims had to the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in The Philadelphia Inquirer.