Idolatry and modernity


in Politics, Writing

I’ve been thinking about the Danish cartoon row during the course of reading today, and I find it a difficult problem to deal with. My automatic response is to side with the Danes and others who are protecting the ideal of freedom of speech. It seems outside all proportion to be threatening violence in response to political cartoons.

That said, I really can’t imagine a mindset from which the simple depiction of a figure in such a way could create such outrage. The satirical modification of various symbols and icons is part of the stock and trade of western media and art. While such depictions can sometimes exceed the bounds of good taste, it’s hard to imagine them creating genuine anger – at least among the relatively level headed. Because I can’t imagine such agitation being a legitimate response, it seems like a contrived or artificial over-inflation to me: a sub-conscious conclusion based upon my own assumptions rather than an understanding of the situation, from the perspective of many of those involved.

The biggest question raised is about the appropriate boundaries on religious tolerance. At what point can we legitimately call a belief that someone holds unacceptable, at least insofar as it isn’t allowable to act upon it. A religious duty to make human sacrifices, for instance, few people would object to curtailing. On a matter like this, where there is a genuine schism of values between different groups, it’s much more difficult to make that kind of a call.

To me, it seems as though mature ideologies – whether political, ethical, religious, or otherwise – need to be able to stand up to legitimate criticism. That’s perhaps the defining characteristic of their maturity. While it may be incredible patronizing to say that Islam needs to develop an internal dialogue about the direction it is to take in the future, it still seems to me that such is the case. I hasten to add that a similar dialogue is necessary on the part of other ideologies that serve as a source of normative directions about how to behave in the world. Just like we need to rethink nationalism (if not abolish it entirely), there must be self reflection and fairness within ideologies that expect respect from those outside of them.

All in all, it’s an area I feel particularly hesitant about. I would be especially interested to hear what people think.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

B February 3, 2006 at 1:48 am

Is the question here:

1) Whether the Danish newspaper should be allowed to print such things.

2) Whether Muslims are allowed to be angry about it.

3) Whether Muslims are correct to be?

To the first question, I’d say the answer is “obviously” but with awareness of how people might feel about it.

To the second, again “obviously” though they don’t have the right to manifest than anger in the form of harm against others. Whether boycotting unrelated Danish companies counts as harm or not, I don’t really know.

To the third question, I don’t know if this is something that can be answered, but us at least. I agree that the world would be better off it people had a sense of humour and a tolerance for criticism.

B February 3, 2006 at 1:50 am

That last bit should be:

“To the third question, I don’t know if this is something that can be answered, by us at least. I agree that the world would be better off if all people had a sense of humour and a tolerance for criticism.”

V.A.K February 3, 2006 at 6:31 am

This post has been removed by the author.

MaryB February 3, 2006 at 5:10 pm

As a faithful Christian, I think a little humor and perspective is needed for religions across the board. It’s a pretty puny deity/prophet being worshipped if it gets its knickers in a twist over such “blasphemy.”

Freedom of speech/expression is a basic right to my mind (while knowing that it’s not the case for many people around the world). The Danish cartoon – whether right or wrong – expressed a sentiment that many people hold about Muslims and Mohammed. Was it hurtful? Certainly. Anti-Muslim? Obviously, according to the Muslim reaction. But worthy of violence and craziness? Hardly.

The Christian Right here in the US gets bent out of shape over things like this – fortunately, they don’t set things on fire. (They just take over the government. ;-)

Still, I’m never threatened by things I might find offensive, because it really doesn’t impact my faith. People should be free to express themselves through journalism, art, bar-talk, whatever – as long as it’s not the old “yelling FIRE in a crowded theatre” bit.

I also find it interesting that it is we westerners who stew about whether or not we have the right to comment on this since we’re not middle eastern Muslims. I suspect they don’t have such angst.

Anonymous February 3, 2006 at 5:14 pm

If you actually believe something like “God will punish people who print images of Allah,” I’d say that you should leave it to God.

If you believe that you have a duty, on Earth, to enforce such a commandment, well, your rights end where mind begin.

Milan February 3, 2006 at 5:27 pm

An article that may contribute to this discussion:

“The simple assertion that we form our commitment to certain ways of life merely from participating in them, and thereby because we find them customary or familiar, appears to be a striking oversimplification of how we often acquire a sense of what is valuable and what is not. It is true that we sometimes form commitments to certain ways of life simply from having participated in them, and so sometimes it may be just because the practice is familiar or habitual that we have some attachment to it. But this story cannot plausibly be extended to all, or probably even most, practices that we engage in and value.”


Sylvia February 3, 2006 at 6:57 pm

Anonymous brings up a good point, which is that radical Muslims seem to think it’s their job to defend God (and Mohammed). That seems incredibly hubristic to me, and is probably more a reflection of their tribal honour cultures than of Islam.

Tony February 4, 2006 at 6:31 pm

A God that needs defending isn’t much of a God. Perhaps what Muslims are exhibiting here is not hubris, but a lack of faith, a secret fear that God isn’t all he’s cracked up to be.

Anonymous February 4, 2006 at 6:59 pm
Anonymous February 4, 2006 at 7:20 pm

Syrians have set fire to the Norwegian and Danish embassies in Damascus to protest at the publication of newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Sylvia February 5, 2006 at 7:03 am

Oh ya, that’ll make us respect their religion…

I wonder why they expect non-Muslims to respect a religion that, according to them, wants us dead? Why are they surprised when infidels act like infidels?

Anonymous February 5, 2006 at 9:56 pm

There is no right to be shielded from satire in the West.

Pippa Biggs February 9, 2006 at 9:24 am

Thanks, Milan, I find your views (as always) very insightful. In terms of opinion being manipulated, you are spot on – if you are angry about something, why wait 5 months to express that anger? Public opinion in some countries is being twisted by others to their own ends, to further their own cause. However, having lived in Egypt for 8 months, I also appreciate that (most) Arab countries see the press – quite rightly – as the mouthpiece of the State. It is inconceivable to them that any newspaper could get away with publishing something that is not the State-endorsed views of government. This is why the Danish cartoons are being (mis)interpreted as an attack by the Danish State (and other Western governments) on the Muslim religion and Muslim world. If you ask me, it is more or less a continuation of the Crusades… Except this time, countries on both sides have nuclear technology …

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