Saturday, February 04, 2006

A whole lot of strife because of some bad cartoons...

I haven’t been following the whole Mohammed cartoon con-
as closely as I should have because–let’s face it–it’s
a depressing, wretched affair. For anyone interested in free-
dom of expression and freedom from religious strictures, it’s
not too pleasant to witness thousands of people throwing the
mother of all tantrums over some ridiculous caricatures.
But I do think some perspective is in order here, so that we
here in the liberal, secular West don’t have to get too carried
away in our fantasies about a fanatic, fundamentalist horde
clamoring to steal all our cherished rights.

First, from what I can tell, it seems that many of the pro-
, especially those in Europe, have been peaceful, if
still extremely vehement. This must be allowed in free
societies. Along with freedom of expression comes free-
dom of protest. If we maintain the right to offend as
grievously as possible, we must also defend the right to
complain about that offense as loudly as possible. I feel
that the angry Muslims are wrong, dangerously wrong in
fact, but I wouldn’t deny them the opportunity to gather
and chant slogans and burn flags in defense of their religion.
At the same time, those who understand the value of free
speech should deplore, and be open about how they deplore,
any attempt to force the public at large to respect any group’s
particular religious sensitivities. To oversimplify things a bit:
on one side we have the people who believe that their Prophet
is too sacred to be made into a cartoon, while on the other we
have the people who believe that a free press and free speech
is too sacred to be beholden to their Prophet. There’s not
a lot of room for compromise here, so I just hope my side
doesn’t blink.

As for the tumult in the Middle East and Asia, I take a more
Marxist view of it. Religion is the opiate of the people, after
all. These young men calling for the cartoonists’ heads and
storming embassies live in places where the leaders surely
don’t mind the rageful young focusing their hatred on places
like Denmark rather on their corrupt, despotic regimes.
These rioters have nothing but Islam: no freedom, no sec-
urity, no money, no peace, no hope for anything better.
Obviously, then, attacks on their faith assume paramount
importance. This is the one outlet for righteous anger that
their governments haven’t forbidden outright, so perhaps
we shouldn’t be surprised when they strike at the scape-
goat with unnecessary, absurd zeal.

One of the worst aspects of this crisis is that it will only
exacerbate the already-commonplace bigotry towards
Muslims. Lost in the “clash of civilizations” and “west
versus east” chatter is the recognition that there are
millions of Muslims who have nothing to do with all this
rioting and censorious discontent. If the Danish paper’s
antics offended them at all, they took it quietly and have
since moved on with their lives. Unfortunately, at this
point in time, we are very willing to cartoon them as
part of a shadowy, sinister other who are plotting our
culture’s destruction. This mindset is not only ignorant,
it's also counterproductive. I believe that religious fund-
amentalism (and notice I didn’t specify Muslim fund-
amentalism) is one of the biggest threats to freedom
out there, but I also believe that, if the Islamic variety
is to be discredited and surpassed, this will have to
come from within Islam. Everyday Muslims will have
to take a stand against their beliefs being co-opted by
people with a retrogressive, oppressive agenda. The
“West” can encourage this process, of course, but so
far it hasn’t chosen this course. Instead, we’ve decided
to fight Islamic fundamentalism by feeding it, to attack
intolerance with intolerance.

It’s a big mistake, I think, and one we have to start re-
thinking if we don’t want to live in a world where people
have riots over a bunch of stupid cartoons.