Mohammed Cartoon Madness and Understanding

Imagine this: a small group of white supremacists collects in Strauss Park near where I live in New York City, and then marches up Broadway, past 125th Street, into the heart of Harlem, all the while chanting anti-African-American slogans of the vilest kind. They have a permit from the city for their march. They use the n-word, they call black people monkeys, they taunt them with reminders that their ancestors were slaves owned by the white people’s own ancestors. They call black people lazy, stupid, and repeat every stereotypical epithet from the centuries of historical insult and injury to which African-Americans have been subjected in this country. An angry crowd gathers around the marchers. African-Americans yell some threats at the marchers, vowing to hurt them. Words are exchanged, and a shouting match erupts between one of the march leaders and a black man. The black man’s mother is subjected to a particularly repulsive and obscene insult by the white man. Suddenly, the black man cannot take it anymore, and lashes out at the marcher, striking him down to the ground and kicking him until he is seriously injured. A few other young and hot-blooded black men jump into the fray and attack some of the marchers. The black men are arrested for assault and battery and taken to jail.

In an editorial, the New York Times very rightly blames the black men for responding to a legal expression of free speech with unnecessary violence, and calls for them to be punished severely. Articles in papers all over the country express the ultimate importance of free speech for all citizens, and correctly remind us that no matter how offensive we may find what people say, we must never respond with violence. They correctly tell us that we must not be cowed by the threats and irrational behavior of the African-Americans, who seemed unable to respond to words with words of their own, and instead resorted to threats of violence and even real violence. All over the world, decent people who wish to live in peace with all races wonder what it is about African-Americans that makes them prone to violence, and unable to engage in rational debate. Those who are particularly fair-minded, realize that it must have been the leaders of the African-Americans who manipulated them for their own ends. Others make the helpful suggestion that it is wrong to condemn all African-Americans and that it is only a few extremist elements among them that resort to violence whenever they see something that they find insulting. President Bush tells us that most African-Americans are peace-loving people, after all. Still others explain that it is poverty which has driven African-Americans to such violent behavior. A white professor at Harvard warns of an imminent and inevitable clash of black and white civilizations. Many black intellectuals also have the courage to condemn the violence of their people. Everyone reasonable agrees that the most important thing to come out of this is that free speech is something that must be protected at all cost. It is what makes us a civilized people.

What’s wrong with this picture? This is not just a rhetorical question. It is something to think about very carefully and deeply. One of the reasons that I am writing this (other than Robin’s urging me to do it) is that in the last few days, I have received quite a few emails from 3 Quarks readers asking me to explain what it is about Islam that makes it so intolerant and irrational. These are well-meaning individuals, hoping to figure out a way to avoid what many have come to see as the inevitable “clash of civilizations”. How should they be engaging the Islamic world when it appears to them so incapable of reasoned debate and discussion? They mean no insult, but I still wonder if they wrote to their black friends during the Rodney King riots, asking them to explain why black people behave so irrationally? No, they didn’t. Why didn’t they? Because while they do not give sanction to criminal and violent acts of looting and vandalism, they can understand how a collection of historically oppressed people can be driven to irrational rage by repeated acts of injustice and caricature. Look, one can say, “It was wrong of Adam to slap Bob,” but no one says, “I don’t understand why Adam had to stand up for his mother, and slap Bob.” As Edward Said said in a different context, to understand something is not to condone it.

But Muslims have resorted to death-threats against the publishers of the cartoons. Yes, unfortunately they have. Did you know that Michael Moore regularly receives death threats from right-wing nuts? Do you know that the Dixie Chicks have received countless death-threats from American patriots? Do you know how many death-threats Martin Scorsese received from Christians for making The Last Temptation of Christ? Did you know there were Christian bomb-threats to movie theaters right here in New York City that played the film? Well, there were. Is this, then, a defense of the Muslims who have made such threats? No, it emphatically is not. It is also not an attempt to say that there was anything like the globe-spanning demonstrations and death-threats that Muslims are engaging in now, in any of the cases that I mention. What I wish to say is that while there is a difference between those cases and what is happening in the Muslim world right now, it is a difference of degree, not a difference of kind. Despite their crusades and holy wars of the past, most Westerners do not any longer have an attachment to religion strong enough to easily give up their lives for it, and this is a good thing in my view. But it is not a good thing to forget what such an emotion can be like. Others still have it and one must deal with that reality.

What is of importance to understand here is that (however unfortunate this may be) one of the few remaining sources of dignity for many in the largely impotent world of Islam, unable to compete militarily or economically with the West and unable to remain free of interference from the West because of the curse of holding much of the world’s oil-supplies, is their religion. This is the last redoubt of their pride. And this is why they lash out so angrily against what is correctly perceived by them as a deliberate provocation and insult to their religion by their erstwhile colonizers and oppressors via crude and offensive caricature. Those of you who cannot stop yourself from loudly and continually proclaiming the right of newspapers to publish whatever they want (no one serious is really arguing with you there), please take a few minutes to condemn the cheap provocation of the Danish newspaper which published the revolting cartoon of Mohammad as a terrorist. If the New York Times publishes a vulgar and racist cartoon about African-Americans, for example, my first reaction will not be to proclaim that they have a right to do so, which of course they do. My reaction might be to boycott the paper and otherwise bring attention to what they are doing. Do this, condemn the racism of the Danish newspaper, then lecture me about free speech. If the Muslim world saw large-scale Western condemnations of the cartoons and demonstrations in which white Christian Danes stood shoulder to shoulder with their Muslim fellow-citizens in protesting these racist insults, it would have a much needed calming effect and demonstrate that the Danes truly are a well-meaning people. Instead, the endless prattling-on about principles of free speech and how Islam doesn’t care about it, only serves to confirm to many in that part of the world that the West sees all of the vast and diverse landscape of Islam only in terms of crude generalities of contemptuous enmity.

What I have written so far leaves unanswered the following question: what about the silencing of dissent within the world of Islam (as well as dissenting views on Islam, within and without) that giving in to threats from religious zealots may result in? This is a serious and genuine concern. Well, let me tell you something personal. One of the formative events of my mental life occurred on Valentine’s day, 1989: the Ayatollah Khomeini delivered his infamous fatwa asking for Salman Rushdie to be murdered. Having grown up a Shia Muslim, this shocked and saddened me beyond what I can describe. As a South Asian, Rushdie’s writings were a great source of pleasure and pride to me, and perhaps even life-changing for me, in the sense that I developed an addiction to literature at least partly through my enjoyment of Rushdie. I supported Rushdie wherever and whenever I could, as vociferously as I could, and still do. (In a private act of protest against those who failed to stand up for him, I even stopped reading books by John Le Carre and Roald Dahl, both of whom suggested that Rushdie got what was coming to him.) But that situation was different: a religious leader and a head of state had incited people to murder, and a whole country had gone along. No leader or country, to my knowledge, has done that in the present case. Of course, one must condemn anyone who calls for death or violence because of some stupid cartoons. One could also try to understand the historical and current sources of Muslim rage. That is the only way that we can encourage them to move toward more confident and more open and more tolerant societies. One could say much more about every part of this, but I must stop somewhere. More discussion is needed and one must deal with a real and dangerous situation and try to defuse it. But the media have more serious and pressing issues to discuss, like this from Slate: Where Do Muslim Protesters Get Their Danish Flags?

My other columns at 3 Quarks Daily:
A Moral Degeneracy
In the Peace Corps’ Shadow
Richard Dawkins, Relativism and Truth
Reexamining Religion
Posthumously Arrested for Assaulting Myself
Be the New Kinsey
General Relativity, Very Plainly
Regarding Regret
Three Dreams, Three Athletes
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President