Saturday, February 04, 2006

Laughing at Mohammed

My walking buddy yesterday morning was ranting about the reaction in the Muslim world to the publication in Danish newspapers of cartoons depicting and making fun of Mohammed. To Christian sensibilities, it is a brouhaha about nothing. As my friend pointed out, in the United States, we put up with Serrano's "Piss Christ," a picture of a cross in a container of human urine or with making an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, out of elephant dung and hanging it in the Brooklyn Museum of Art (not without our own controversy and inflammatory remarks by political and religious leaders.)

Without condoning mob violence, however, I think it is too facile to compare Muslim reaction to the depiction of Mohammed with Christian reaction to the depiction of Jesus. Among, apparently, fundamentalist Muslims, it is forbidden to have any images of humans or animals, because that is, or might lead to, idolatry. To depict the last and final prophet, Mohammed, and in a way that makes fun of him is the ultimate sacrilege. While Christians are against idolatry, icons of various sorts have been part of Christian culture for thousands of years. To say that Christians, for whom depictions of Jesus are no big deal, do not riot when confronted with negative depictions, therefore Muslims should accept the mocking cartoons of Mohammed is comparing things that are not equal. There is no rule (at least in mainline Christianity, my own background excepted) against images of Jesus. There is such a rule in Islam against images of Mohammed.

Perhaps I am more sympathetic to the Muslim position because of my own upbringing as an Amish boy. Amish, as most people know, believe it violates the commandment against graven images to have photographs taken of themselves, and do not like tourists snapping their pictures. Amish people do not riot when someone snaps their picture, but their religion does not have the same evangelicalism that Islam does.

Personally, I think the cartoons are funny. I particularly like the one with a flustered Mohammed facing a line of newly-arrived martyrs in heaven saying, "Stop, stop, we've run out of virgins." I believe in freedom of the press. I am not in favor of censorship of the media, even when the media publishes things that are offensive to a segment, or even a majority of the population. People who want the publication only of the "truth" want to be the bosses of what the "truth" is, and as citizens of many totalitarian countries have learned, when someone at the top is regulating the press, the end result is nothing but an accumulation of lies.

This is another one of those conundrums where there is no easy solution. How to balance respect for religious beliefs, sincerely and fervently held, with the need to permit publication of whatever people want to publish is very difficult. I would strike the balance with freedom of the press. We all need to be able to laugh at ourselves, and that includes those of us who are Muslims.


bin ich Amish? said...

ROBERT WRIGHT, in the 17 Feb New York Times, has an excellent op-ed about the need for self-censorship in a pluralistic society.

Among Robert Wright's points is the need to distinguish between what triggers and what fuels violence. The urban riots in US cities were triggered by specific incidents but were fueled by deeper social problems. He notes that in the wake of the mass urban violence, African-American issues got more attention.

The NAACP "had been protesting broadcast of the "Amos 'n' Andy" show, with its cast of shiftless and conniving blacks, since the 1950's, but only in 1966 did CBS withdraw reruns from distribution. There's no way to establish a causal link, but there's little doubt that the riots of the 1960's heightened sensitivity to grievances about the portrayal of blacks in the media. (Translation: heightened self-censorship.)"

Robert Wright's closing paragraphs:
"Most Americans tread lightly in discussing ethnicity and religion, and we do it so habitually that it's nearly unconscious. Some might call this dishonest, and maybe it is, but it also holds moral truth: until you've walked in the shoes of other people, you can't really grasp their frustrations and resentments, and you can't really know what would and wouldn't offend you if you were part of their crowd.

"The Danish editor's confusion was to conflate censorship and self-censorship. Not only are they not the same thing — the latter is what allows us to live in a spectacularly diverse society without the former; to keep censorship out of the legal realm, we practice it in the moral realm. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but worse things are imaginable.

Amishlaw said...

I haven't read the Wright piece, but I think I agree with the bulk of it, or at least the bulk of your summary of it.