we know the story: 1- a mediocre film (laughable, a comedy?), financed by an individual, who happens to be a coptic christian, get 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.
predictably, one expect fallacious charges of guilt-by-association. so, coptic christians have become targets. in pakistan, violent protests have left 23 dead and hundreds injured, a christian church burned; even a minister put a bounty on the film director's head! on the other hand, muslims now are presented by the western media as violent, intransigent and dogmatic. we must be careful how to characterize these manifestations of condemnation. not all protesters have the same goals and motivations. not all protesters are fundamentalists.
is this newsweek cover stereotypical?
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, etc. which brings a comment like this:
“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 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 "we fundamentalists could care less about your arguments." another response is "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
theocrats differ: 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 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" 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).
this dogmatic side of religion is nothing new: we've been through it already!
blasphemy (theological anxieties aside) has been used as a weapon of coercion by the religious status quo for centuries: christianity has a dark history of religious persecutions (catholics as well as protestants). islam under the great al-mahdi had its history of inquisitorial policies. blasphemy laws are still part of the state laws in many muslim countries.
blasphemy, the act of insult, is related to heresy (any belief "outside" the authorized limits, since blasphemy is already "outside") which clearly expresses the force of religious dogma (those untouchable, unalterable, core truths). but historically, dogmas are constantly challenged, provoking 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, how could a self-avowed christian -or muslim- be a "heretic" for another christian -or muslim- unless someone is setting narrow & indisputable 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.
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. this is a metaphysical dynamic: the absolute 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. any limit beyond which nothing is permissible becomes automatically up for transgression. is it that bad?
take the case of new york artist andrés serrano's alleged desecration of christian symbols with his piss christ (late 1980's). incidentally, i'm glad i can see the image & glad serrano is still alive. one even could make the broader point that his desecration helped us to have an important discussion about the limits of freedom of expression vs. institutionalized religion. indeed, 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 governmental imposition of religion upon the people within a state that is neutral on matters of belief. having said that, to construe religion and secularism as opposites, is to be blind to the very metaphysical tenets that i have already suggested. is there a more interesting way of being religious 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 who has attracted some attention by burning korans? of course, i disagree with his bigoted views, but that's far from saying that he deserves to die. is this the view of a "westerner," a non-muslim "philosopher"? i can see many pro-secular muslims agreeing with me. in fact they exist. imagine now a muslim imam burning bibles at the entrance of a mosque in the US. would the imam be granted the same leeway?
if terry jones got killed by an avenging muslim fundamentalist, his killer would be as bad a bigot, plus a murderer: it's that simple. one cannot claim to have a right he/she denies the other. we must protect others' rights to ensure that mine -and yours- have a space. obviously, we'd have to protect the right of the imam to burn bibles as much as we protect jones' right to burn korans. my point is that as rificulous as it seems, this tit-for-tat needs to happen (wait and see). it's this uneasy trial and error that accommodates our differences.
here some have a different opinion. 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, hate-mongering, 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.
this is the proof. who would think the ACLU would defend the KKK? (even if the KKK stands for ideas that most of us find repulsive). in a secular atmosphere, even an enemy may deserve the same space he used to denied to others, which paradoxically guarantees the symmetry of an always perfectible justice.
what's your take? go on!
(i will close this post next monday at 11pm)