You can see below that I've published a couple reader comments about the Muslim cartoon controversy in Europe. I should say, as I've said before many times, that when I reprint something a reader writes in to me that does not necessarily mean that I agree with it in every respect. Certainly, it's not random that I pick out one comment over another; the ones I pick have struck some chord for me and I want to pass them on. Still, don't read the reprinting as a proxy for agreement.
In any case, there is a hint of the absurd in this story, the way continents of people get swept up in reaction to some simple pictures. But this episode seems like a model for what I imagine we'll be living with for the rest of our lives. There's something peculiarly 21st century about this conflict -- both in the way that it's rooted in the world of media and also in the way that it shows these two societies or cultures ... well, all I can think of to use is the clunky 21st centuryism -- they can't interface. The gap is too large. The language is too different. One's coming in at 30 degree angle, the other at 90.
There were episodes vaguely like this in India during the Raj, probably in other parts of the British empire (read Churchill's The River War) and other European colonial empires. But the outraged Muslims were thousands of miles away from the colonial centers. So it was a problem of Imperial management. It didn't hit home.
For Europea and North America, this hits home.
A number of readers have written in this evening and explained that the source of Muslim outrage is not that Muslims are being stereotyped as violent. It is that there is a specific and deeply-held taboo in Islam against graphical portrayals of Mohammed. You're not supposed to draw pictures of Mohammed, to put it quite simply. And you're especially not supposed to draw pictures that are insulting of the religion or portray him in sacrilegious ways.
I know that. I already knew it. I know the whole backstory.
In isolation, in the abstract, it's certainly a taboo I'd want to respect, or at least not needlessly offend.
But all of that is beside the point. An open society, a secular society can't exist if mob violence is the cost of giving offense. And that does seem like what's on offer here. That's the crux of this issue -- that the response is threatened violence and more practical demands that such outrages must end. It's back to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses (which, if you're only familiar with it as a 'controversy' is a marvelously good book) -- if on a less literary and more amorphous level.
The price of blasphemy is death. And among many in the Muslim world it is not sufficient that those rules apply in their countries. They should apply everywhere. Perhaps something so drastic isn't called for -- at least in the calmer moments or settled counsels. But at least European governments are supposed to clamp down on their presses to heal the breach.
In a sense how can such claims respect borders? The media, travel and electronic interconnections of the world make borders close to meaningless.
So liberal mores versus theocratic mores. Where's the possible compromise? There isn't any. On the face of it this gets portrayed as an issue of press freedom. But this is much more fundamental. 'Press freedom' is just one cog in the machinery of a society that doesn't believe in or accept the idea of 'blasphemy'. Now, an important cog? Yes. But I think we're fooling ourselves to reduce this to something so juridical and rights based.
I don't want to imply this is only a Muslims versus modernity issue. I know not all Muslims embrace these views. More to the point, it's not only Muslims who do. You see it among the haredim in Israel. And I see it with an increasing frequency here in the US. Is it just me or does it seem that more and more often there are public controversies in which 'blasphemy' is considered some sort of legitimate cause of action -- as if 'blasphemy' can actually have any civic meaning in a society like ours. Anyway, you get the idea.
Much, probably most of what gets talked about as the 'war on terror' in politics today is a crock -- a stalking horse for political power grabs, a masquerade of rage and revanchism, a running excuse for why we've made so many stupid decisions over the last five years. In some cases, on a more refined plain, it's rooted in intellectual or existential boredom. But beyond all the mumbojumbo about how we're helping ourselves by permanently occupying Iraq and running the country's finances into the ground, there is a conflict. There is a basic rupture in the world.
(Along these lines, read this short Talk of the Town piece in this week's New Yorker. A lot of meaning is packed into a very short space.)
It's not the US or the West versus Islam. At least it's not that simple. In any case, the government in this country is too close to illiberalism, militarism and theocracy for that to work as a model. But it is there -- liberalism and authoritarianism, modernity and theocracy.