Of Blasphemy and Secularism

Many, many years ago I read an article which made the case that Europe is a time bomb waiting to explode. The author noted the negative population trends of white, mostly secular, Europeans and the positive population growth of immigrant and guest worker populations in European countries.
Why this mixture makes for a time bomb is based on the views held by these different groups, or perhaps more importantly by the decision makers and opinion shapers of each community. On the one hand, many European countries are extremely, one might say militantly, secular. France is the most egregious offender in this regard, going so far as to ban headscarves for women in secondary schools.
And on the other hand, while many Muslims, from Lahore to Toronto, accept a pragmatic and conciliatory secularism in public life, extremists in their midst often make moderate positions untenable for the community as a whole.
So, if one does the math, the riots in Paris this summer and the recent uproar over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad are not at all surprising, and we can expect worse to come, I fear. What was somewhat surprising last year were the London train bombings. From afar, it seemed to me that Britain at least attempted to accomodate immigrant populations better.
This post is not, though, about the excesses of secularism rampant in Europe, many of which I feel are simply unjust. It is about something fundamental at the heart of Islam, and not just radical Islam, I believe, which has lead to the furor over the cartoons of Muhammad. First, some background.
Muslims do not believe Muhammad to be divine, but they do reverence him extremely highly, uttering the blessing “Peace be Upon Him” every time they utter his name. This belief lead to the Pakistan blasphemy laws which indicates death for anyone who “by words or visible representation or by an imputation or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiled the name of the Prophet Mohammad of Islam.” And as problematic as this law is when properly administered, i.e. with accusations being judged in a court of law, it of course led to accusations followed immediately by vigilante killings and sometimes even that order was reversed.
Islam, in fact, frowns on any representational art of the human form, though I do not think it is absolutely forbidden. Unflattering representations of the prophet Muhammad, then, clearly are highly problematic. That is understandable and I would choose to be very sensitive to these issues when addressing Muslims. Civility is a generally virtue, and there is no point hurting anyone unnecessarily even if I am in a country in which my life might not be directly in jeopardy but rather I am protected by law to say my peace.
The Islamic response to these cartoons, though, highlights a problem intrinsic to Islam. For better or worse, and to the best of my fairly limited knowledge, Islam does not have the internal framework to allow individuals such freedom of expression if it is the majority religion in a country or community. There is some Koranic support for the toleration and accommodation of the other “people of the Book,” Christians and, ironically, Jews to live and worship unmolested in Islamic societies, but I cannot envision any support for the Voltarian notion of, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Mind you, I do not agree with Voltaire on that one either. If you say something that leads people to pick up stones to kill you, well, I think it might be a case by case thing whether I put my head up do some catching. Actually, If I am brave, I hope would intervene peacebly and then, if necessary, choose to catch some stones, or a bullet for you, but not for your right to say stupid or inflammatory things.
Once on NPR, I heard the author V. S. Naipaul say that of the three major Judeo-Christian religions, only Islam has not experienced reformations that have served to mediate and moderate the temporal power lodged in the religion. I hope that is a fair restatement of his view.
In truth, though, I think that Christianity at its very beginning made that dissociation, but lost it at around the time of, say, Constantine. Think Ananias and Saphira dying without a hand being laid on them and Paul’s deference to civic authorities, even desperately wicked ones, in matters that did not impinge upon the faith. Moreover, as I read the New Testament, God’s family itself shifted from being a regional theocracy to a transnational family not married to any one state, while being instructed to “salt” and better all states through its influence.
Finally, the belief that all people are created in the image of God with dignity to make choices, many which I may believe to reject God’s law, added to the reasons listed above, is the basis for my “toleration” of people with behaviors and words which I might dislike or abhor. [Note: Shots at my views on opposing abortion may be inserted here, but that will have to wait until another post.] My “toleration,” then may mirror secularism but it does not spring from the same root.
Islam, though, as far as I am aware, has no such a framework, perhaps appropriately so if it is to be consistent with its founding principles. And, hence, the problems in Europe. I do not really have a solution. I do believe that some of the secularism in Europe, and especially France, is rather totalitarian and unjust, but the reaction of the Islamic world in and outside of Europe cannot really be excused.
On one level, the Islamic response is juvenile and immature, like a prince demanding that his desire must be met and nothing short of it will do. That characterization may be somewhat demeaning, but I believe it is accurate. And the response then, as my vast experience in childrearing tells me, is not to simply roll over and acquiesce. That makes for spoiled and dangerous children. No, I think that, despite what might be ensconced in the tenants of Islam, that Muslims should simply ignore the Danish journalists. If it were a government oppressing their rights to worship, that might be another matter, but it is not. At the risk of chasing my tail in circles, though, except for some more or less secular Muslims, I do not think there is a framework in Islam for doing that.
Out of respect for Muslim brothers and sisters I will not post a cartoon out of the twelve on my blog, but I will provide a link to where they might be viewed. I do find some of these stereotypical, offensive, and juvenile in their own right, and none particularly insightful. But nonetheless igonring them would have been the best option for Muslims. In fairness, it should be noted that at least one Jordanian newspaper has done exactly that, even publishing one of the cartoons (YIKES!).
This just in! (02.03.06) Thanks to that great and biased aggregator of news, Matt Drudge, we have this story (make sure you watch the video) of a painting depicting Osama Bin Laden as Jesus in New York, which also hosted the showings of Serrano’s famous “Piss Christ” and the Virgin Mary in mixed media, which included elephant dung which, then Mayor, Rudi Giuliani
wanted to shut down. Still, on a societal level, the reaction of the Muslim world to the cartoons are very different in scale, if not substance.