Is nothing sacred? Muslims say some things are
By Margot Patterson, NCR' opinion editor
Before this past weekend, I hadnt spent much time thinking about blasphemy and I suspect many other Americans hadnt either. Blasphemy is really not much on our radar screen. Though there are blasphemy laws on the books, theyre not enforced, and the concept seems quaint and a little archaic.
Not so for Muslims. Obviously. Witness the events of the past week in which Muslims around the world protested the publication of caricatures of Muhammad, originally in a Danish newspaper in September and then, more recently in newspapers in Spain, Hungary, Italy, France, New Zealand, Ireland and Germany. Thousands marched. A boycott of Danish products picked up steam. A German was kidnapped from his hotel in Gaza, and over the weekend protesters in Syria torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and protesters in Lebanon attacked the Danish mission in Beirut and a nearby church.
Ive found the whole furor over these cartoons rather fascinating. First, the newspapers in Europe that rushed to reprint the offending cartoons on the pious grounds that they were upholding freedom of the press seemed to be so patently gleeful at the thought that they were sticking it to Muslims. Whatever justification the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had in originally publishing the cartoons has vanished in the subsequent guilt-free exploitation of anti-immigrant feeling and religious and ethnic resentments. All served up with a heaping portion of democratic self-righteousness.
In New Zealand, where The Dominion Post chose to reprint the cartoons on Saturday, its editor, Tim Pankhurst, said: We do not want to be deliberately provocative, but neither should we allow ourselves to be intimidated.
In Ireland, where the Irish Daily Star published the cartoons, columnist Joe OShea was quoted as saying, We thought it would be a good idea to make a stand for freedom of the press and democratic rights.
It was not the European press finest hour, I thought, although of course many newspapers did not print the cartoons that offended Muslims. Islam prohibits any depiction of Allah or Muhammad whatsoever, and the 12 cartoons that originally ran in Jyllands-Posten clearly added insult to injury. One showed Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Another showed a line of suicide bombers arriving in heaven, where the prophet Muhammad tells them: Stop stop, were out of virgins.
The U.S. government behaved rather well, I thought. The State Department spokesman said that of course freedom of the press is an important value but inciting racial or ethnic hatred is unacceptable.
That said, it still may be difficult for Westerners to fathom the intensity of Muslims reactions to the cartoons. Some of the anger expressed may be due to Muslims own anti-Western feelings; some to the feeling that they were being deliberately dissed as much as or more than their religion. But some of the outrage does seem to reflect a difference in sensibility between Westerners and Muslims. Once Europeans and Americans also found blasphemy offensive. Now far fewer do.
No doubt there are Westerners who would still be disturbed at blatantly anti-Christian caricatures, and no doubt there are secular Muslims who shrug their shoulders at the uproar over the cartoons, but it seems as if more Muslims than Christians still live in a faith-filled world where trifling with the Almighty is not acceptable, where God is serious business. Hence the Salman Rushdie affair. And now the uproar over the cartoons where Muslims feel their faith has been insulted, as in fact it has been.
Reverence is not a democratic value, of course. Neither is respect. Erasmus complained that the new Protestants he encountered didnt raise their hats when they left church.
I dont want to revive a society where people are prosecuted for blasphemy, although in the United States not many people ever were; I certainly dont want newspapers to be timid about challenging peoples opinions and assumptions. At the same time, attacking other peoples God seems dangerous not just because its a nasty form of bigotry but because it becomes an attack on the sacred itself. Yet if you tear down the temple of God, what do you put in its place? Something else usually goes up.
According to Wilkipedia, Blasphemy has been a crime in many religions and cultures, wherever there is something sacred to protect. Socrates was prosecuted for blasphemy, and Mosaic law prescribed death for cursing the name of God. Jesus was tried for blasphemy, while Christians regarded the action of the Jews in trying him as itself blasphemous.
With the torching of the embassies in Damascus, the Danish mission in Beirut and a Christian church, the Muslim protests clearly have gone too far. Still, despite the excess, the furor reminds us that respect for others is the basis for relationship. If we want a dialogue with Muslim societies, we cant disrespect their God, which incidentally is our God as well.
In our own society, blasphemy, like sacrilege, doesnt carry much weight, not because its unknown but because its seen as unimportant. Offending the gods hardly matters when youre too busy to notice them.
Is nothing sacred? Muslims are responding that yes, some things are. Perhaps the most intriguing question for Westerners is, do we agree? And if nothing is sacred but our own ability to say it isnt, can the global society survive?
Margot Patterson is NCR's opinion editor. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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