we know the story: 1- a mediocre film (laughable?), financed by an individual (who happens to be an egyptian coptic christian), finds its way through You Tube. the film vilifies, distorts sacred tenets of the muslim faith. this is a fact. 2- caveat: if a desecrator knows he can get you, that's exactly what he/she'll do over and over (this french satirical magazine just published cartoons mocking the prophet mohammed). 3- the film achieves its goal of enraging believers throughout the muslim world.
in a situation like this one could expect a vicious cycle of guilt-by-association misperceptions. so, coptic christians have become targets. in pakistan violent protests have left 23 dead and hundreds injured, a christian church burned; even a minister puts a bounty on the film director's head! on the other hand, muslims are presented by the western media as violent, intransigent and dogmatic people. not all protesters have the same goals and motivations. not all protesters are fundamentalists.
is this newsweek cover telling the truth or hiding it?
these events happen at a moment of perceived denigrations of muslims and their faith by the US's military, which are detailed extensively in the arab news media: the invasion of iraq on a discredited pretext, the images of abuse from the abu ghraib prison, the burning or desecrations of the koran by troops in afghanistan and a pastor in Florida; detentions without trial at guantánamo, the deaths of muslim civilians as collateral damage in drone strikes, etc, which justifies this comment:
“We want these countries to understand that they need to take into consideration the people, and not just the governments,” said Ismail Mohamed, 42, a religious scholar who once was an imam in Germany. “We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offense against our rights,” he said, adding, “The West has to understand the ideology of the people.”granted. but killing people & destroying property on the grounds that the film is blasphemous -or that it was made in america- becomes as obtuse as the film itself. the counterargument to this is: "you don't understand our anger" which self-defeats (denying me, a westerner, the understanding such muslim has of me, us). is there a middle point? (more of this later).
blasphemy is as old as human civilization. when will we learn to live with it?
writer salman rushdie
in iran the bounty for salman rushdie's head rose to $3.3 million (though rushdie has nothing to do with the film). this is the statement from the ayatollah hassan saneii:
As long as the exalted Imam Khomeini's historical fatwa against apostate Rushdie is not carried out, it won't be the last insult. If the fatwa had been carried out, later insults in the form of caricature, articles and films that have continued would have not happened.in case you're interested, here is rushdie's answer. what sort of religious argument that is not redundant and self-defeating would condemn rushdie to death (again?) over a film produced by someone with no connection with the writer. rushdie and his books have already been a target of bombings (this is before 9/11, before the word "terrorism," as we use it today, was coined). he survived an attack on his life when a bomb exploded prematurely, killing the perpetrator (this site identifies a mostafah mazeh & justifies his action).
the dogmatic side of religion is nothing new.
the unforgivable insult is related to heresy (any belief "outside" the authorized limits). blasphemy is already "outside," the unequivocal force of religious dogma (those "untouchable," "unalterable," core truths). historically, dogmas are constantly challenged, provoking the big religious schisms: mahayana vs. vajrayana (in buddhism), catholics vs. protestants (in christianity), sunnis vs. shia (in islam).
for a neutral observer outside of the fray the question is: how could a self-avowed christian -or muslim- be a "heretic" for another christian -or muslim- unless someone is setting incontestable theological limits? time and again these factions end up persecuting and killing each other. the sad state of sunni/shia relations in countries like iraq & pakistan reminds one of europe's thirty years' war, though one shouldn't rule out other factors besides religion, as marx would point out, such as class struggle, political equality, etc. even as they seem antipodes, the lesson is that religion (against the received view) has never been far removed from people's political aspirations.
in fact, the possibility of an alliance between powers that be is always forthcoming, which makes the more difficult to know whether religion -as it describes and defends "the nation" as a whole- is a freestanding and well integrated body of belief and practice, or merely a rhetorical dimension of the polity. it's hard to know whether one is dealing with the religious aspects of the political system or the political aspects of the religious system.
an open minded secularism
let's propose this lemma: once a principle becomes sacred, "enforceable by law," it opens up the possibility of its desecration. the sacred would not have to be incontestable unless there was a possibility of challenging it. looked at it this way, desecration is immanent to the absolute sacred.
being that the multiple tensions between different religions over matters of doctrine and blasphemy, desecration, etc, are ideologically and metaphysically unavoidable, the limit beyond which nothing is permissible becomes automatically up for transgression.
take the case of new york artist andrés serrano's desecration of christian symbols with his piss christ (late 1980's). one even could make the broader point that his desecration helped us have an important discussion about the limits of freedom of expression vs. institutionalized religion & politics. the tension is ongoing, which is a good sign.
secularism asserts the right of people to be free from religious rule and interference, and the right to freedom from government's imposition of religion upon the people. the state is neutral on matters of belief. having said that, to construe religion and secularism as total opposites, is to be blind to the very metaphysical tenets that i have already suggested above. secularism sets limits which, metaphysically speaking, are meant to be challenged by religious rule.
is there a more interesting way of being religious and/or secular? let's think of religion and secularism as an economy, an ongoing process of exchange.
so, how do you deal with this loony by the name of terry jones (above) who has attracted some attention by burning korans in his backyard in florida? that one disagrees with his bigoted views doesn't mean that he deserves to be imprisoned or to die.
is this my view as a non-muslim "westerner"? that's ridiculous. there are pro-secular muslims that agree with me. imagine now a muslim imam burning bibles at the entrance of a mosque in the US. would the imam be granted the same leeway we defend for mr. jones? if terry jones got killed by an avenging muslim fundamentalist, his killer would be as bad a bigot, plus a murderer. one cannot claim to have a right he/she denies the other.
we must protect the other's rights to ensure that mine -and yours- have a space, which means we'd have to protect the right of the imam to burn bibles as much as we protect jones' right to burn korans. this symmetric -childish- tit-for-tat must be guaranteed.
can so-called freedom of speech be changed a little? erich bleik writes in al-jazeera:
Freedom of speech is a core liberal democratic value. It must be upheld even when words cause offense. And no amount of violence should intimidate the United States into changing its laws. But it is vital to recognize that America is a dramatic outlier when it comes to the freedom to express inflammatory, hatemongering, racist speech. In this regard, we are different from virtually every other liberal democracy; we are different from what we used to be; and we are different from what many Americans want us to be.the problem here is that tweaking free speech is already suppression of speech.
racist speech cannot carry the day. who believes in hate speech? the community of hatemongers, which is why KKK has so many fans? we already lived through hate speech during slavery and a good part of the 20th century in america! the problem back then was that discrimination against blacks was encouraged by the status quo. discrimination & freedom of speech are not the same. the first denies what the second defends (which is not to reject that discrimination exists and the more reasons to fight it).
this is the proof. who would think the ACLU would take the side of the KKK? in a secular atmosphere, even an enemy may deserve the space he denied others, which guarantees the symmetry of a perfectible justice.