Monday, April 11, 2011

Violent Islamic reaction reveals deeper conflicts

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/19/2006

The violent responses of Muslims around the world to the publication of cartoon Muhammads by a Danish newspaper appear to bring into high relief the different worldviews of the Islamic East and the Christian West.

Consider the following religious text: “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

This is not the sacred text from which outraged Muslims base their righteous indignation on. This is one of Judeo-Christendom’s Ten Commandments. With such a clear and unmistakable statement, one might think we would understand. Yet last week, Rolling Stone magazine put Kanye West on its front cover dressed as Jesus Christ.

The Koran is not nearly as clear in its prohibitions against images of Allah or Muhammad. Chapter 42, verse 11 of the Koran does say “Allah is the originator of the heavens and the earth [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him.” It would seem this would be more open to interpretation than the commandment.

The point here is that it is not religion that makes the difference in worldviews. It is how people use religion to justify actions and legitimize earthbound practices. And there are both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists.

Before we paint Islamic people as crazy or evil, which we are so apt to do when we don’t understand others’ actions, we in the U.S. should keep in mind that we respond with ferocity to blasphemy ourselves. Look at the heat generated by the TV show “The Book of Daniel.” Recall the outrage when an artist produced “Piss Christ.” “The Last Temptation of Christ” wasn’t screened in Terre Haute.

No, I don’t think anyone threatened death to the blasphemers or burned an embassy, but boycotts and letter-writing campaigns were organized. In the West, our outrage at blasphemy is usually expressed through angry speech, not violence. There are exceptions. Bombing abortion clinics and assassinating abortion providers are violent overreactions and most of us condemn such actions regardless of religion, including and especially our government.

The different responses, angry letters of protest to NBC or the NEA in the West on one hand, or riots and fatwahs in the Islamic East on the other, are not because of religious differences. The differences have to do with the separation of church and state and then the protection of freedom of speech from government repression. These institutional arrangements then create (and protect) spaces for expressive freedom.

The societies in the Islamic East are governed, in general, by authoritarian regimes. Dissent in those countries is dangerous. There is little separation of church and state. Hence, politics is religious and religion is politics. Even in the United States, there is no free speech in religion; religion is about doctrine and obedience, even here in the expression-heavy U.S.

Think of the threats by some Catholic bishops to deny some Catholic politicians the sacraments. But when political speech is not free, political speech becomes “religious.” This is the problem in the Islamic East. It is not just a lack of free speech, it is also a lack of sufficient separation between church and state.

People riot over cartoons when their lives are such that they cannot freely express themselves about the things that really make a difference in their lives. Repressive rulers who mix religion and politics know this. What makes peoples’ lives harsh is the repression and lack of freedom that only benefit despotic leaders and royal families. It is simply harder to criticize leaders of the state who are either religious leaders or anointed by religious leaders.

Those countries where the rioting and violence have occurred in response to the Danish cartoons are not countries where people regularly exercise their right to protest. That the government doesn’t crack down on the lawlessness just shows how the leaders use such trivial matters as a distraction from what really ails the masses in the Islamic East.

When people can’t take to the streets to protest the policies of the religiously sanctioned leaders, that frustration expresses itself by overreacting to blasphemous cartoons. The real insult is the poverty and inequality that characterizes the societies in the Islamic East. The despots know the simmering anger of their subjects. The despots need to channel that anger toward blasphemous cartoons and away from themselves.

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