Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


When people praise the good work of Jimmy Carter for world peace, I am reminded of his despicable attack on Salman Rushdie, in the pages of the NY Times, in 1989. At a time when Rushdie was threatened with death for writing a brilliant, funny, and moving novel that grapples with religious themes (which also includes a coruscating satire of self-serving theocrats, something which is rarely mentioned in this context, and which I think was at least as much the motivation for the Iranian fatwa as any portrayal of the Prophet and his family), Carter wrote:

Ayatollah Khomeini’s offer of paradise to Rushdie’s assassin has caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights.

While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.

This is the kind of intercultural wound that is difficult to heal. Western leaders should make it clear that in protecting Rushdie’s life and civil rights, there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.

To sever diplomatic relations with Iran over this altercation is an overreaction that could be quite costly in future years. Tactful public statements and private discussions could still defuse this explosive situation.

[Just as an aside, on rereading this now I am struck by Carter’s strange choice to frame it as though it were a technical American legal issue, by citing the US constitution — obviously irrelevant to Rushdie, who, as a UK citizen residing in the UK has no such rights — rather than referring to international norms of liberty and civil rights.]

I was reminded of this in reading the response of the Financial Times’s Tony Barber to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices yesterday:

some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.

 

Jonathan Chait has grouped this with other examples of journalists and politicians respecting, if not quite condoning, murderous responses to wounded religious sensitivities, such as this response of Time’s bureau chief in Paris to the last terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo three years ago:

Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by “majority sections” of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren’t going to tell “us” what can and can’t be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?

Yes, indeed, how could one possibly interpret a satirical cartoon about a religious figure other than that the author is “begging” to be murdered? In this view, the editors of Charlie Hebdo got discouraged by Dorothy Parker’s poem (the one ending “Guns aren’t lawful; \\Nooses give; \\Gas smells awful; \\You might as well live.”) and thought that drawing caricatures of Mohammed would be a clever alternative. They were begging for it, as the rapist said. They might as well have drawn the cartoons on the way down after leaping from the Eiffel Tower. It surprises me that I’ve yet to hear of anyone advocating banning Dante.

People have real emotions over religious symbols, and this needs to be recognised. But emotionality can also be an effective power strategy. Saying, “I (and my coreligionists) are incapable of modulating our responses. We are an uncontrollable doomsday device.” is an effective way of compelling compromise, as long as you can convince the rest of society that you are really incapable of restraining the emotional responses of the mob. (And as long as you can avoid a violent backlash against your religious group, if they happen to be in the minority; but even a violent backlash would serve the interests of those interested to radicalise their people.) It is really an expression of contempt for these others, to suppose they are incapable of rational reflection, requiring the rest of us to pre-emptively reckon with their reflexive violence.

I often think of a lesson from the Talmud, that the rabbis ruled that to save a life a Jew is permitted to violate any religious precept except three prohibitions: idolatry, murder, and incest (including adultery); and there seems to have been considerable disagreement about idolatry. But, they went on, this only applies to freak occurrences: For instance, if a bank robber takes you hostage and forces you at gunpoint to drive his getaway car on Shabbat, you are permitted to obey; but you may not save your own life by agreeing to kill another hostage. If this is a time of general persecution, on the other hand, one may make no accommodation at all, not even to change the way one ties the sandal straps.

The point is that symbolic actions depend on context. I am all in favour of avoiding unnecessarily wounding people’s sensitivities. Under normal circumstances, I would not go out of my way to shock true believers with intellectual critiques of religion or with satire. But as soon as men with guns insist, “You may not speak of (or draw) the Prophet,” they have made him a symbol of violence, and oppression, and ideological repression. And others are entitled — indeed, are obliged — to attack that symbol. This is the same problem that plagued efforts to ban burning the US flag back in the early 1990s. The US Supreme Court ruled that this was protected free speech, and the right wing went crazy, trying to amend the US constitution and turn the next election into a referendum on burning flags. The natural response of people who cared about free speech was to burn more flags. The US flag had been transformed, temporarily, from a common symbol of American love of country and shared ideals, into a partisan political symbol of oppression of minority opinion.

Everyone needs to accept, living in a pluralistic society, that there will be discussions and publications and activities going on in various corners of our society that we don’t like, and either come to terms with their contents or learn to ignore them. No one forces me to attend a mosque or a church, and no one forces muslims to read Charlie Hebdo. I would not be astonished to learn that in some mosques negative comments are made about my own religion and its symbols.

The apparent goals of those advocating violence in the name of Islam in the west are purely fantastical: The alternative to pluralism in Europe is obviously not a society devoted to Islamic values. But that merely underscores the gap between the stated and real objectives. The real target is surely not the non-muslims, but the moderate muslims. The goal, I presume, is to convince the broader society that muslims are violent, and so cut off the access of ordinary muslims to acceptance and assimilation.

This is why the appeasers’ policies of avoiding offence is doomed to failure, even on its own terms.

People like Carter and the Time journalist Hambly think that freedom of expression is such an important thing that it really should be kept safe and secure in a quiet place, not endangered by taking it out into public. This attitude (like so much else) was well satirised by Mark Twain, in a line I have quoted before:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

Comments on: "Cornpone opinions and Charlie Hebdo" (1)

  1. […] freedom and justice for Palestinians.”’ I take the role of cartoonists in a free society very seriously, but I can’t help thinking that the attempt to force the Zionist oppressors to their knees […]

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