Monday, February 06, 2006

Homage to Peter Zenger

If Zenger means nothing to you, check the link. Meanwhile: I'm sorry, but I can't let go of the Cartoon Riots. First, they are getting worse -- deaths in Afghanistan today.

Second, and more important, I am troubled by the fuzzy thinking that surrounds them.

I am troubled by the apparent conviction that, because Muslims do not draw pictures of Muhammad, neither should anybody else. I am troubled by the implication that non-Muslims ought to obey the strictures of Islamic law. As Sullivan said today, I don't ask atheists to genuflect in front of a church. Or, more to the point: polygamy is against the law in every Western nation. It is legal, and not uncommon, under Shariah. So Muslims violate the Western sense of decency on a daily basis, but you don't see us rioting.

I am troubled that after decades of routinely publishing cartoons that depict Jews as hook-nosed devils, Muslims worldwide suddenly develop a passion for cultural sensitivity.

I am troubled by the number of Western governments, religious organizations and news outlets that seem willing to accept the idea that free speech shouldn't hurt anybody's feelings. The idea is nonsense, of course. Worse, it plays into the hands of those Western powers -- the Bush and Blair administrations, the Vatican
and now South Africa -- who have their own political reasons to put limits on free expression.

I am troubled that when
a Hizbullah official says that "If any Muslim had carried out the fatwa [against] Salman Rushdie, those despicable people would not have dared to insult the Prophet Muhammad - not in Denmark, not in Norway, and not in France," there are still Western governments and press organizations which ignore the danger of going wobbly on free speech. He is arguing that murder is the right way to shut up the people he disagrees with.

And I am troubled by how few of the news reports seem to acknowledge what is surely obvious: the rage of the rioters isn't really about perceived blasphemy per se. A drawing of the Prophet is at most the spark that lit the fuse. They may not like it, but other representations of the same man (such as the one at the
Supreme Court) have provoked letters and petitions, not mobs and torches. The rioters are enraged because the cartoons -- at least the one most widely reported -- draw a connection between Muhammad and violence.

Whether such a connection is fair or not seems to be, at the very least, open for debate. Unlike Jesus or the Buddha, Muhammad led troops in battle. While Christianity and Buddhism both have plenty of violence in their histories, of these three faiths only Islam has as its central historic figure a person who voluntarily engaged in combat. Not metaphorical battle, not spiritual warfare, but actual swords-and-bloodshed fighting. This doesn't translate into something simple-minded on the order of "all Muslims are violent." The evidence is clear that most are not. But it does leave open the possibility that for many adherents of the religion he preached, the example of Muhammad may seem to validate and even demand religious violence.

And no, I don't imagine it is very pleasant to be reminded of the fact. But don't blame the messenger. Or burn down his embassy.

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