Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On being offended

Imagine a depiction of the central figure of a religion in situations diametrically opposed to the way in which that religion depicts and reveres the figure in question. What is the appropriate response? Ought the believers merely to protest those responsible for the depiction? Or, since we are here dealing with something sacred, central to the very belief structures of those who might be offended, is some stronger response mandated? Is a visceral, blasphemous and juvenile, attack on a religious figure the sort of thing that justifies violence? Is a disrespectful depiction of a central religious figure tantamount--as one of the participants in KPBS's These Days this morning, argued--to hate speech against all of those religious believers?

Of course, these are now central questions because of the recent uproar and uprisings caused by the republication of those infamous Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad with, among other things, a bomb as a turban. For the devout Muslim, even the depiction of the Prophet's face (or the face of any other person) is idolatrous, but the depiction of the Prophet in these cartoons goes beyond this, to the level of blasphemy.

So many issues are raised by this situation. Among them, there is an important question about what the role of a free press is, when certain editorial exercises of that freedom are foreseeably likely to cause violence. Was it responsible for newspapers to republish the cartoons when it was obvious that they were going to cause distress and, given the state of the Muslim world and the way in which leaders there seem able to incite frenzy, violence was likely to ensue? Perhaps not. And there was probably no good reason to publish the proposed cartoons that had not initially made the newspaper's cut. The justification that the editors of the paper wanted to see if their cartoonists could be as harsh to Islam as they were to other groups of believers verges on a middle-school mindset.

It's not enough, here, just to point out that much of the Muslim world, and almost all of its religious leaders and scholars have been silent on the terrorism that has been carried out in the name of Islam, the Prophet and Allah in recent years. While this may be true, the fact that others have acted irresponsibly is not a defense for one's own actions.

However irresponsible the editors may have been this episode points out a real difference at some level between much of the Muslim world and a good deal of the so-called Global North. In thinking about the treatment of religious figures in the media, I was not just considering the way cartoonists have depicted Muhammad. For of course, we have had depictions of Jesus in movies such as The Last Temptation of Christ and the upcoming The DaVinci Code that, from a traditional Christian perspective are certainly blasphemous. However, in spite of protests in the case of the former, I don't recall Martin Scorsese's home being burned or attacks on the Greek Embassy, I haven't heard of plans to abduct Tom Hanks for his part in TDC nor has anyone assaulted Dan Brown for writing the book. No violence ensued from the way Mel Brooks depicted Moses in History of the World.

There is something, then, about much of the Muslim world that is importantly different from the world in which I live. In Europe and the Americas, blasphemy causes a reaction but it a more moderated reaction, less violent, more civil. Why is this? Is it that we care less about the status of our religious figures (even when, in the case of Jesus, that religious figure is identified as God Himself)? Is it just a different traditional of public discourse? Is it that we are less likely to be worked into a frenzy or manipulated by public and religious figures?

This I doubt, given the ways in which political and media figures do seem able to manipulate public opinion in the US, causing people to become warriors in culture wars that don't exist, to support economic policies against their own interests, to believe that Christmas is under siege or to think that there was a unified Axis of Evil. (In fact, I worry that sometimes, particularly in the recent much-hyped debate over the "War on Christmas", we in the United States are on the verge of the same kind of angry victimhood that is being expressed in the Muslim world today.) So what is it, exactly, that leaves us differently moved by blasphemy? And how can we export that more laid-back approach to religious offense to the rest of the world?