Dateline: Denmark

Dan Roche

I flirted this week with running the Danish newspaper cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad that have stirred such controversy in the last few years. No particular reason, I just wanted to do it. I will not, for reasons I will address presently. What made me think of doing so are the submissions and letters I have received of late regarding the work of one of my frequent contributors, Reem al-Zaim. Each transmission has touched upon the failures of Muslims to address the internal conflict introduced by its extremist currents, the Wahabists and fundamentalists. I agree that Islam needs to clean house before Muslims can complain about how they’re represented in “Western” media. Funny enough, our own Christian fundamentalists think the media are in bed with the terrorists. Ideology really is a funny looking glass.

What about how “The West” is represented in al-Jazeera? I should hope that the streets of my city are at least as safe to my Muslim friends as the streets of Karachi or Medina would be to me.

Running the cartoons would be the sexy thing to do. It would stir up controversy, hey? Maybe it would even start a few fistfights. Maybe there’d be death threats. I don’t care. That’s not what might persuade me to, but nor does it keep me from, running the cartoons. Doing so would certainly present the iron fist of free speech in all its up-yours-my-grandfather-lost-his-right-arm-on-Normandy-so-I-can-do-this glory. I could claim to be doing it for Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist who drew the offending articles and has received so much grief because of them, or I could claim to be doing it for Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered by extremists. Or for Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel laureate who was stabbed in the neck and, due to nerve damage, lost the use of his writing hand. All by Islamic extremists. It would be a good case. If I’m going to allow people space to expound upon the merits of their religion and defend it from attack, do I not have a duty to provoke, occasionally, also? More about that free speech: it can be a rough game.

I believe in civility, however. The cartoons are not run because it would offend someone’s religious sensibilities, and my sensitivity to that outweighs any glee I would feel in pissing people off. I like Whitman’s take: “I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god, I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies, are true, without exception.” Sure: it’s all great; the crazier, the better, in fact. I ask though, do Muslims in all cases show similar respect for opposing views, divergent beliefs?

Ask the Buddhas of Bamyan.

Muslim apologists often seek to separate “extremist” Muslims from all Muslims. May I separate myself from the Great Satan when some radical Imam in Britain is fomenting hatred and encouraging destruction? It helps, sure, if we here in America don’t see our Muslim neighbors as part of some monolithic international terrorist network (unless they are in fact terrorists). America was built on religious toleration. If Muslims feel they are being discriminated against, solely on the basis of their religion, it’s a tough case to make. We don’t give Scientologists a hard time about their beliefs. Is the caricature of the suicide bomber accurate? In some cases, yes. I don’t feel any particular need to apologize for saying that, don’t think it’s “intolerant”. If I’m not running the Mohammad cartoons, I’m also not showing pictures of the carnage of the Bali nightclub bombing, which is a thousand times more vulgar to any decent humanist.

Conversely, many of the stereotypes behind American economic expansionism are true. I fully grant that our influence in international affairs has often not been benign. But, the suicide bomber would have no more reason to hate me, to see me as just another white American who needs to die, than I do to hate him and see him as just some Haji. We’re responsible, to some extent, for the actions of the institutions we support, but I do not “choose” to “let” Halliburton plunder the oil fields.

I don’t stop them, either. So I’m at least partially directly responsible. I have some tacit compliance with the Iraq War, and so do you, and so do you, and so do you. Assuming we all pay our taxes.

Anyway, the distinction between faith and belief is important. With belief I take at least something as a premise, e.g. that God exists. Upon this belief I will likely construct a worldview, based on God’s existing. Now, I’m not just going to interpret “God’s will” arbitrarily. I’m going to need a blueprint. So I’ve got my holy book. If I believe that God exists and was responsible for writing this book, anything that I interpret as against the book necessarily goes against my beliefs, depending on how literally I take things. Atheists object to the imposition of one’s personal belief on another. And they’re right in doing so, we shouldn’t organize a government according to what even a majority of people think about what is written in some holy book somewhere. If even one person objects, if they can’t say “I don’t comply”, it’s not a just society.

Atheists have a tougher time uprooting faith than belief. They can’t themselves answer the question of God’s existence in the negative without admitting to some skepticism, and skepticism is only faith in a mirror. Faith is, yes, an unassailable affirmative flailing, bulletproof to questioning. Maybe that is why the attempt to impose supernatural beliefs on the order of society results in so much carnage and turmoil. “When communities use belief not as an aid to faith but as a means to establish identity, sooner or later the guns appear,” as writer Fenton Johnson tells us. Faith is internal, and seeks to reconcile. Belief seeks to impose.

But that is not why I decided against my whim to running the cartoons, because I felt it would rub raw against someone’s beliefs. I nixed it simply because it would be a jerk thing to do, for the same reason that I wouldn’t slip bacon into a Jewish dinner guest’s soup. I take my readers by the hand, caress them, slip Dove chocolates into their mouths and regale them with the music of my harpsichord. I would never harm them. Is that good enough? While I do feel that people should to some extent be held accountable for the workings of their allegiance groups, I also respect and admire other fruits of the faith traditions, bound up as they are, and attacked on all fronts by a world of skeptics. It’s a little like – how do you say? – sympathy for the Devil.

ADDENDA: This is a gratuitous plug. Over the last few months I’ve honed my reflexes and improved my memory with the help of this wonderful website, which touts itself as “The World’s First and Best Virtual Mental Gymnasium”. Maybe I should be a bit careful about getting sucked into the Matrix, but I’ve been glued to their games for very long now and do feel a bit quicker. Anyway, they’re holding a free-to-all-comers intercollegiate competition to see whose students have the juiciest braaains. You should go there and sign up because it’s fun, I’m not telling you to or anything…OK, again. What is going on at CPCS? At this point I’m not even interested in hearing from the students. I know what they have to say. I agree with them. Fire Awotona and address its organizational conflicts. Whoever will lay claim to being Awotona’s boss might explain themselves, because it seems for all the world like the school is intentionally being strangled. And it smells all the world like some covert ideological grudge being carried out. Which is a shame, because it’s a good program, even if studded with nutty Marxists. There are Marxists in the Philosophy department, and in Economics. Why don’t we gut those programs too? The Berlin Wall has fallen; I’m sure our market economy can absorb a few throwback red profs somehow, and that the typical UMass student is maybe a bit too smart to just be blindly indoctrinated. Yeesh. I’ll never get how grown-ups work…