Islam and the West
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 5, 2006
Such words seem carved at the heart of our Western view of free speech and civil liberties. We pride ourselves on casting the circle of free expression very wide indeed—and allowing even ideas we find disreputable, disagreeable, and distasteful to be aired, and to have their day in the court of public opinion, as it were. Most of us, I daresay, would agree with Milton:
“I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That may be the ideal of the Western Enlightenment of which we are the great-grandchildren.
Unfortunately, to some, the response of too many in the West to the controversy that swept some Muslim lands following the publication of cartoons (supposedly) “slandering” the Prophet Mohammed was more akin to: “I disagree with what you say and even if you are threatened with death I will not defend very strongly your right to say it.”
When the republished cartoons stirred Muslim violence across the Muslim work from Pakistan to Palestine, Western (especially British and American) officials seemed to line up to denounce the cartoons as “disrespectful and unacceptable” (the U.S. State Department) ; ”insensitive and unnecessary” (British Foreign Minister Jack Straw); “a manifest provocation” (French President Jacques Chirac). Even Pope Benedict XVI offered his opinion that all people have the responsibility to be respectful of the faiths of others.
These few cartoons seem to have brought to a head a culture war of epic proportions (a clash of global civilizations, even). They seem to have once again turned up heat underneath the boiling kettle of Muslim rage against the West.
To many of us in the West, where the separation of church and state (long may it stand!) has guaranteed an amazingly free market of religious ideas, we take it for granted that we have the “right” to be disrespectful of other people’s religions. This is hardly an edifying human preoccupation, but it is the price we pay for all of us having the right to practice the religion of our choice. We have not had a state churches in America since the early 19th century. Interestingly, Massachusetts was the last state to abolish, or “disestablish” its state church, back in 1833. In the Colonial period, the Minister of the Established Church (or First Parish) in any given town [that would be I, currently] also served as the Superintendent of Schools and the Protector of Public Morals. (That alone—not having your truly as “Protector of Public Morals” is perhaps, reason enough to celebrate the separation of church and state!)
One would hope that the freedom to practice one’s own religion would also engender within us the responsibility to respect the religions of others; human nature being what it is, that is not always the case, alas. So, along with our religious freedom, we have come to take a lot of “religion bashing” for granted in the West: anti-Semitism is endemic to Western society; in the light of the pedophilia scandal, Catholic bashing is more common today, perhaps, than ever; the religious right derides liberal religionists like us Unitarian Universalists as nothing more than heathen and heretics, doomed to burn in hell. We, in turn, deride them as narrow-minded Neanderthal-brained bigots and hypocrites, without ever bothering very much to delve deeper into what their religions may be saying.
There is also, at times in the West at least, something of a double standard when it comes to religious free speech. In eleven countries of Central and Western Europe, it may be legal to print a cartoon calling the Prophet Mohammed a terrorist; but it is illegal to deny that the Holocaust happened and that Hitler did not murder millions of Jews. In Vienna recently, the British author Clifford Irving was recently sentenced to three years in jail for saying in 1991 that the concentration camp at Auschwitz was a hoax. Last month in London, the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza was sentenced to seven years in jail for inciting religious hatred for urging his followers to “butcher those who mock Islam”; yet, the very same week, in that very same city, the leader of Britain’s far-right National Party was acquitted of racial hate speech even though he had admitted to calling Islam “a vicious, wicked faith”.
We are not bothered so much that Muslims should take offense at cartoons picturing the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist. Indeed, it is a violation of the tenets of Islam to picture the Prophet in any form whatsoever, and Muslims have long taken umbrage at pictorial representations of their leading religious figures (though they don’t seem to object to published pictures—or cartoons even—of Jesus and Moses, both of whom, their Koran also venerates). What bothers us in the West—and confounds us—is the vehemence of the objection. I mean, many Catholics, for instance, objected to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, just as they later objected to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (both pretty good movies, in my opinion, not that you asked for it). There was a great outcry among certain elements of the American Jewish community leading up to the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion two years ago (another worthwhile cinematic effort, in my opinion, whatever you might think of Mr. Gibson and his theology).
Our unfettered exercise of freedom of speech and freedom of religion doesn’t mean we have to like everything that other people dish out, either in the name of free expression, or of free faith. But the Catholic pope at the time (John Paul II that would have been; hardly a meek and soft-spoken fellow) sure as heck didn’t issued a fatwah, or death sentence, against the cast and crew of Monty Python when The Life of Brianappeared (he didn’t even excommunicate them). Catholics didn’t riot in the streets, and burn down the American embassy in Rome when Scorsese “blasphemed” against Jesus in his film, or when Mel Gibson, in their opinion, contributed to the climate of anti-Semitisim.
Why the rabid and violent reaction in Islam, then? What are the roots of Muslim rage?
For one thing, Islam brooks no equivalent of that principle enshrined and honored in the West by (almost) all of us: the separation of church and state. To the Muslim, Allah is the Creator and Lord over all—the secular world no less than the sacred; the political realm no less than the religious. Throughout the Muslim world, there is no such thing as religious pluralism, as it exists in the West. There are non-Muslims who live in Muslim countries, certainly—characterized as “non-believers”, religious minorities. These non-believers, the Koran teaches, are to be free from religious coercion. Within Islam, Christians, Jews, and people of other faiths are free to practice their own religions, as long as they submit to Muslim authority. When they resist this authority, then they forgo their status as “protected” (but distinctly inferior) minorities, and become instead kafir—non-believers, infidel, enemies of Islam. As kafir, their ultimate choice becomes either to convert to Islam, or to die at its hands. If one defames Islam, then (say, by printing cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed) then one becomes a kafir—subject to Islam’s righteous rage.
Secondly, the relationship between Islam and the West has been tortuous one, from its earliest days. It is not a relationship that began with the Ayatollah Khomeni seizing power in Iran in 1979. It didn’t even begin with the creation of Israel in the Middle East in 1947.
“The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted some fourteen centuries,” Bernard Lewis tells us. “It began with the advent of Islam in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests. For the first thousand years, Islam was advancing, Christendom in retreat and under threat. [Islam] conquered the old Christian lands of… North Africa, and invaded Europe, ruling, for a while, in Sicily, Spain, Portugal, and even parts of France.”
Crusades were launched by Christian authorities to reconquer lands lost to Islam in the Holy Land, but at the same time, the forces of Mohammed drove deep into Europe, overrunning the Balkans, and twice reaching the very outskirts of Vienna.
Lewis continues: “For the past 300 years, since the failure of the second Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683… Islam has been on the defensive, and the Christian and post-Christian civilization of Europe and [America] has brought the whole world, including Islam, within its orbit.”
Now, we have entered a new stage in this long and difficult relationship, and we are in the midst of rebellion against Western dominance. In the riots over the cartoon controversy, and in all the other manifestations of Muslim rage—indeed, in the very rise of Islamic radicalism itself—we are reaping the whirlwind of Western interference and exploitation of the peoples and cultures of other lands. For our part, we may not understand how thousands of Muslims can be provoked by a cartoon to riot in the streets. Yet, most Muslims the world over cannot understand how a nation thousands of miles away and its European allies can have the arrogance and hubris to send thousand of its troops to occupy Muslim lands and interfere in Muslim affairs.
The world seems to hover at a precipice, and one is reminded that the Chinese ideogram for danger is composed of both the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”. The danger our world faces is clear and present. But from whence comes the opportunity in this rather bleak state of affairs?
One glimmer of hope comes from within Islam itself—from within more moderate factions of Islam. We must remember that these Islamic radicals no more speak for “World Islam” than Jerry Falwell (or Benedict XVI for that matter; or the Archbishop of Canterbury) speaks for “World Christianity”. Islam is not the monolith we in the West often see it as.
In the wake of this current crisis, it is true, of course, that some radical Islamic leaders have attempted to fan the fires of rage. The latest riots themselves even seemed to have been occasioned by cartoons other than those which appeared (in the fall of 2005) in the Danish press. Much of the vehement reaction has been aimed at forgeries created by radical Danish imams, showing the Prophet Mohammed as a pedophile and a pig—something the original cartoons most certainly did not-- in order to create a pretext for a violent explosion.
On the other hand, a host of moderate Muslim leaders, from Iraq’s foremost Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to the head of the multinational Organization of Islamic Conferences, have called upon fellow Muslims to express their feelings peacefully.
There is a broad field of moderate Muslims, with whom we in the West should waste no time in engaging in dialogue. We need to find common ground with people of goodwill in all faiths to explore where we go from here along our common human road.
Now, I know that this might sound to you like little more than mushy, humanitarian “Jeff-speak””—the kind of thing you would expect a liberal minister to engage in. At times like this, there is something in us that will not be satisfied with less than an even shake. We might not want an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but we do want to find some great gesture for standing up for freedom in general and freedom of expression in particular. There is something within us that wants to fly the Danish flag (as our town manager did), or to go out and buy Danish cheese (as I did), in a show of solidarity with freedom loving people everywhere.
Better, I think, than these well-meaning (but ultimately meaningless) gestures, are opportunities for genuine dialogue. As Father Richard J. Neuhaus has written:
“It is imperative to work at better understanding, to clear up misunderstandings, to build bridges, and even, if possible, replace conflicts with peaceful dialogue.”
Such efforts might seem anemic and futile in the face of rage and burning embassies, but they deserve our prayers and our support and our active engagement. Where men and women of hatred conspire, may men and women of honesty and goodwill and sacrificial spirit join forces (and join our creative imaginations) in building something better for all of the world’s people. As Father Neuhaus continues:
“It is absolutely necessary that de-politicized space be created for conversation about, and mutual recognition of, our common humanity and our accountability to a judgment that transcends our animosities and [disagreements]. In no way should such efforts be dismissed as soft, idealistic, or utopian.”
In the early days of the Second World War, Stalin cynically asked: “How many divisions does the pope have?”
Let us note that, in the years that have come since, Stalin’s heirs have perished; but the heirs of Peter are still here.
“Imagine what might be,” wrote the poet Ted Conklin,
Since we are now so many souls, if we,
Using God’s best (perhaps God’s one real force)
Conspired to let God’s love loose upon the earth!”
Imagine what might be—how this old world of ours might change—what dangers might be transformed into opportunities—if we, with men and women of goodwill everywhere, became bold conspirators all—conspirators not of terror, but of love; not of darkness, but of light.
May we pray, as Jewel sings, that “there is a new army coming, and it is armed with faith”.
Armed not with a faith which oppresses and controls; but with a faith which liberates and frees.
Not with a faith which destroys, but which builds and rebuilds.
Not a faith which closes the mind, but which opens the heart.
Not one faith—but many faiths—all with their truths to teach-- all offering openly and fearlessly their promises of love and compassion and justice to a thirsting, eager, hurting world.