06 February 2006

I Slam a Phobia

(I Slam, You Slam, We All Slam for Islam)

It's hardly a new observation, but I find these days that I have altogether more in common with liberal atheists, agnostics and members of other faiths than I have with hardline members of what's nominally my own religion. Certainly the organisation known as "Christian Voice" -- spuriously, since it appears to be a platform solely for the unpalatable views of one Stephen Green -- made me furious with its denunciation of Jerry Springer: The Opera.

It wasn't that JS:TO was necessarily any good (I haven't seen it, but opinions I read ranged roughly from "brilliant and inspired" to "inane drivel"), or that it wasn't offensive (again, not having seen it I can't comment, although it sounds as if some of the material would have been difficult to stomach even for an heretical christian like me) -- it's the idea of someone having the arrogance and gall to object to its existence on the grounds that they personally found it made them uncomfortable.

It's a work of fiction! It can't hurt you! Even if the author has different beliefs from yours, even if it makes jokes about your faith, even if it personally insults you, your God, your mother and your dog, IT CAN'T POSSIBLY DO ANYONE ANY HARM!

...I wanted to say.

Jesus himself was mocked, bodily humiliated and tortured to death for speaking his beliefs. Christianity seems to have survived that incident, and indeed could arguably be seen to have done rather well out of it. Is it really incumbent upon us, two thousand years later, to protect Jesus from verbal insults, to the extent of attempting to silence the beliefs of others?

(That was a rhetorical question, the answer to which is: "Of course it bloody isn't. Jesus Christ!")

All of which (apart from the Jesus-specific stuff, obviously) pretty much sums up my response to what the media assures us has been the "Islamic world"'s reaction to the cartoons of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper. They're just funny drawings, people. They can't do you any harm, and unless you're actually Danish you would (originally) have had to go to considerable lengths just to find and be offended by them. The idea that the Danish government should override the right to free speech enshrined in its law and punish the cartoonists or the editors, in order to satisfy the calls for retribution emanating from people living for the most part thousands of miles away, is so wrong as to be grotesque.

There seems to be a conflation of two separate but linked issues. One is the fact of the newspaper printing images of Muhammad, which are forbidden in Islam; the other is the fact that some of the cartoons the newspaper chose are offensive, in a satirical sort of way, to Islam itself. To anyone other than a fairly fanatical Muslim, the first issue is pretty clearly a non-starter: non-Muslims in a non-Islamic country can hardly be expected to follow a moral code in which they have no interest whatosever. It's as absurd as the attempts of the religious right in the U.S. to impose christian values upon its secular population, except that there isn't even the justification that Denmark is historically an Islamic country.

The second point -- essentially, that freedom of speech brings with it a responsibility not to say gratuitously offensive things about other people's cherished beliefs -- is on the face of it a more reasonable proposition, and it's here that most of the more sympathetic Western commentators are focussing their attention.

As I've already suggested, I do understand what it's like to have one's beliefs insulted by other people for fun, although I haven't really felt it very strongly since I was about sixteen. (Watching The Life of Brian pretty much shook me out of it, to be honest.) Christians living in modern secular Britain have to develop a thick skin about the public representation of their faith, and rightly so. Our beliefs thrive through challenge: if they're worth anything at all, opposition will strengthen them, and that's no less true of opposition through mockery and satire, painful though it is to be on the receiving end of the same.

Some of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are offensive, puerile and petty. I would feel hurt by them, were I someone who held Muhammad as a figure of reverence[*]. However, the gulf between "feeling hurt by something" and "calling for retribution to be visited upon the perpetrators of something" is one which would, I think, bear some degree of exploration.

If I seem to be suggesting that the Muslims who feel offended by these cartoons need to grow up and get the hell over it, then I'm afraid that that seems to me to be not a million miles from the truth.

Holding onto a religion -- any religion -- in the modern world means accepting that the vast majority of the population will disagree with you in principle, and differ from you (often radically) in practice. In prior centuries, individual societies may have been able to get along -- not usually very admirably -- as monocultures, suppressing the dissidents within their boundaries and having as little as possible to do with the infidels outside. The history of the twentieth century has ruled out this kind of isolationism forever.

It's almost too obvious an observation to actually make, but any philosophical system -- be it Christianity, Islam, communism, capitalism, anarchy or Flying Spaghetti Monsterism -- could be a utopia, provided everybody freely assented to it. The moment it imposes itself upon someone who doesn't, it becomes a tyranny.

It's equally obvious that no system is ever going to win over the souls of every human being on the planet. Although certain belief-systems have a built-in assumption that they can, whether the mechanism be the Second Coming or the triumph of the proletariat, the real problem comes with the assumption that any dissenting voice can safely be dismissed as that of a damned heretic, a victim of false consciousness, or (in extreme cases) the Devil himself.

This means, unfortunately, that contemporary Islam can only do one of three things:

1. Take over the world, suppressing dissent wherever it finds it and becoming the first global theocracy (assuming the Americans don't get there first). [NB: This would not be a good idea.]
3. Reform itself, abandon many of its proscriptions and absolutes and become a strong, liberal voice speaking up for basic human and spiritual values. (I'm convinced that this will happen, but hardly in my lifetime.)
3. Adapt to the contemporary pluralist global environment in the way that other belief-systems have had to, and stop throwing tantrums because other cultures refuse to play their games the way it wants to play them.

That last one is, I'm afraid, the only realistic option in the medium term. The more Muslims worldwide who come to realise this, the more congenial the twenty-first century will be for everybody.

And just in case it isn't obvious, all this goes for bloody Stephen Green as well.

[*] I confess that I have certain difficulties with the figure of Muhammad himself, as perhaps the most problematic of the founders of major world religions. Heaven knows Jesus' celibacy (as far as his recorded life-story goes) has caused christianity some difficulties down the centuries, and his pacifism is generally brushed under the carpet -- but at least he never led an army of conquest, and nobody has ever claimed that he married a nine-year-old. Still, I'm willing to accept that my mental image of Muhammad is very likely no more accurate than those presented in the Jyllands-Posten.

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