February 07, 2006

When cartoons aren't funny

A friend and I were discussing the other day the recent violent demonstrations over the Danish cartoon about Muhammad. "It's a lot like this friend of mine who is really sensitive so that I have to watch what I say," she said. "But I resent that I can't say what I think. I hate having to deal with someone else's problems."

And lately it's Denmark who has been having to deal with other people's problems -- sorta.

So, why are Muslims so outraged? Why are they being so darn overly sensitive about something so trivial as a cartoon in an obscure Danish newspaper?

First, this isn't about the West versus Islam specifically, but rather a secular society versus a traditional one. If you would have dropped Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ," a photograph of a crucifix dipped in the artist’s own urine, in much of Europe or the United States a hundred years ago, I venture there would have been a fair bit of violence. Less than twenty years ago the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, provoked enormous outrage in supposedly secular Europe and North America, including the bombing of a cinema in Paris that resulted in several badly burned people. Even that same provocative Danish newspaper that published the cartoons of Muhammad chose not to publish cartoons lampooning Christ for fears that it would offend some of its readers.

The Qu'ran itself does not prohibit physical depictions of people (though, just like Catholicism, Islam is not a "sola scripture" religion -- hadith or sayings of the Prophet, as well as tradition all play a big role in Islamic theology), but the tradition developed during the founding of Islam as part of the Semitic fear of graven images. It hasn't always been adheared to. In Ottoman or Mughal art, you do see paintings and drawings of people, though I can't think of any offhand that had anything to do with the Prophet or other figures of Islamic reverence. But mostly it's a lot of animals and arabesque art along with lots and lots of flowing Arabic calligraphy. Christianity also struggled with this in the Iconoclast controversies, and more recently during the Protestant Reformation. While Christ nor the Bible ever encouraged icons or statues, needless to say, it has become a very important part of Christian worship and reverence.

And even though we praise freedom of speech in our society (as I'm glad we do), there is still some speech that we deem so offensive that it would elicit a huge uproar or worse in our tolerant, secular society. If the cartoons were making fun of abused women, blacks or Jews, there would be tremendous outrage (as well there should). In some European countries it is illegal to deny either the Holocaust or Armenian genocide (something Iran is well aware of and has now decided to see just how we'll respond when the tables are turned on us). And if you dress up as a suicide bomber as a means of protest, or joke about blowing up a plane in an airport, you will also probably find yourself arrested, if not shot under certain circumstances.

Second, and probably most significantly, I doubt this would have turned as vicious as it did if it weren't for the fact that the United States currently occupies two Muslim countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), transplanted Europeans and Americans occupy another (Israel), and the United States and Europe are threatening yet another with economic conflict or worse (Iran and sometimes Syria). Along with that has been two hundred years of British, French, Dutch, Russian, and Italian colonialism and occupation in which natural resources were diverted from the indigenous to fuel European economies and those who protested against this theft were thrown in prison, tortured, starved, executed and/or blown to smithereens. When there wasn't direct military rule, there was economic domination, such as the European takeover of the Ottoman economy after 1875 (imagine some guy in, say, France deciding what the U.S. Congress can and cannot spend -- while there are moments I might find some merit in the thought, most Americans would find it terribly demeaning).

For over two hundred years Muslims have felt humiliated as the West has raided and dominated their lands when Islamic empires throughout the millennia in Spain, Damascus, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Agra had been superior technologically and seemed more enlightened when compared to medieval Europe. Somewhat like an older relative who resents being treated like a child simply because he isn't as spry as he used to be. And now that we have dominated him militarily and economically, we are casually spitting on what he holds most dear.

Third, the Muslim world has become increasingly conservative in the last thirty years and, in addition to the reaction against imperialism, a lot of that is due to Saudi Arabia. Imagine for a moment that John Calvin and his theocratic state of Geneva was still around and suddenly came into unimaginable wealth. Then took over a lot of the Vatican, most Protestant seminaries, as well as started many, many more throughout the developing world. That's what's been happening in a lot of the Muslim world as the Saudis have been exporting their unique, reactionary form of Islam throughout the world. And frankly folks, we share complicity in this. Partly through our use of petroleum-based products, but also through our government's support of the Saudi family. It's one more reason for us to reconsider what our economic choices are doing to the world.

In any society, secular or traditional, dominant or controlled, people react emotionally to whatever grievance they have in ways that are often self-destructive. These protests have hurt Muslims far more than secular Danes as it has been Muslims dying during the violence. While I may not agree with some of their methods of protest, I do appreciate that I live in a secular society in which my country controls what goes on many of those countries where the protests are taking place, or is threatening violence against some of those it does not control. And because I live in a position of privilege, I know I have the choice to listen to what is happening behind the violence. Even if, on the surface, it might sound annoyingly hyper-sensitive.