Friday, February 10, 2006

Free Speech And The Muslim World

After reading many news stories and essays this week about the international dust-up over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, I finally feel like I understand what's happening on both sides of this conflict. The arguments on each side fall short of several over-arching cultural themes being played out here. This conflict has coalesced around some very dangerous caricatures that each side has of the other.

First of all, the ideal of a free press is certainly a noble one. I don't agree with the numerous Muslim voices I've heard that the publishing of such cartoons should have been prevented by the Danish government. The cartoons are certainly offensive and I completely understand the outrage among Muslims. They still should not be censored, however. The surest way to legitimize offensive opinions and stereotypes is to engage in the censorship of them. That lends a certain weight to the materials that, in this case at least, have very little value to anyone as far as social commentary goes.

In this same vein, however, I think it's unconscionable the amount of holier-than-thou lecturing I've heard in the past week about how members of the Islamic faith just don't appreciate the value of a free press. That's an insulting stereotype that tries to elevate the authoritarian governmental policies of a few Muslim countries into a dogmatic expression of Islamic faith. There is nothing intrinsic in Islam that conflicts with the notions of freedom held by Western democracies, at least in the interpretation of Islam that most of its one billion plus followers practice. Certainly there are fundamentalists sects of Islam that believe in a more restrictive notion of civil rights, but, again, that's not a mainstream view nor is it unique to Islam.

Along with a distorted view of Islamic belief in civil rights comes similar mistakes in understanding concerning the violence that has erupted in the past week. Again, Islam is no more an intrinsically violent religion than are many other major religions. The Christian United States and Jewish Israel really have no better track record of peace and accord with the world than most Muslim nations do. And that's part of what is spawning the violent reactions to these cartoons.

The cartoons themselves served only to flare up a problem that's been smoldering for years: a general feeling of oppression experienced by many Middle Eastern Muslims. The issues are many: the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, exploitative oil policy by the industrialized nations, allegations of torture by U.S. hands at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and even, to some extent, the residual effects of European colonialism. Furthermore, their own governments have not served the people of the Middle East very well, either. Authoritarian regimes abound, where the powerful and connected live well-fed on the economic largesse of international corporations and foreign government interests, while the vast majority of their people live with few rights, rampant poverty and high unemployment. This has led to an almost nationalized belief in Islam; a belief that replaces nationalist loyalty to any one nation with a shared faith among the downtrodden Muslim people. Thus, the cartoons were not just insulting the religious views of Muslims, but also, in a certain sense, their nation-like identity as a single people.

That's not to say that I condone the violence done in Afghanistan and Lebanon; far from it. But those who claim that violence is somehow and inherent part of the Muslim world are only demonstrating their own bigotry and stereotyping. While thousands did protest violently, the other billion Muslims on the planet did not. Many protested peacefully, which is wholly appropriate. The cartoons were a disgusting, bigoted attack on Islamic beliefs (and Arabs, to a certain degree) and those offended have every right to take to the streets in protest. It's unfortunate that some chose to resort to violence, but that violence has many more causes than just some insulting cartoons. The United States and Europe both have experienced plenty of religiously motivated violence throughout their Christian histories as well.

It's also important to understand the international politicking going on in this nascent cultural feud. The governments of both Syria and Iran have taken a very belligerent stance against the West, basically in an attempt by their governments to woo support from the people. The differences between everyday Muslims offended by an insulting caricature of their faith and the grandstanding by Middle Eastern politicians is an important one, and one that seems to be getting lost at least in the U.S. media. The faith of the Muslim people is not dictated by government officials, even in a theocracy like Iran. Political opportunism is driving both sides of the issue, and neither side has acted honorably to diffuse the situation. Both sides have used the conflict to stir fear and suspicion among their citizens, implying an existential threat from each other. One government's jihad is another's "War on Terror", so to speak.

I take several lessons from this conflict, and they're lessons that the governments of all the nations involved would do well to learn. First, free speech is poor cover for bigotry. Depicting Mohammed as a terrorist is degrading and disrespectful to Muslims, on top of perpetuating a false stereotype. Most Christians would be just as outraged at a depiction of Christ wearing a white hood and burning a cross. Free speech used as a blanket defense of hatred and intolerance cheapens free speech. While the Danish paper certainly shouldn't have been censored, its editors should have recognized the cartoons for what they were and had the respect for their Islamic fellow humans to pass on publication. Or, barring that, to apologize for the insult, rather than using the ideal of a free press as a way to denigrate Muslim culture.

The second lesson I take away is a reaffirmation in my belief that religious fundamentalism is possibly the greatest threat our world faces today. Too many people around the world have already spiritually left the Earth, disdaining it for some mythological other place, and governments around the world have become only too adept at exploiting this religious fervor. Such fervor is the death of reason, and will be the cause of even more serious violence in the future if it is not addressed and remedied. In an increasingly globalized world culture, pluralism is humanity's only hope.

Finally, the most important lesson to come out of this is the realization that a greater understanding of each other's cultures is desperately needed between the United States, the European Union and the greater Islamic world in general. The fact of the demographics is that while Christianity continues to decline in most parts of the world, Islam is growing at a frenetic pace. Islamic parties continue to win victory after electoral victory around the world, and that trend is only going to increase as the Muslim population grows.

If any existential threat exists to the West it's not from Islamic fundamentalists but from a lack of understanding of Islam by the West. The United States, in particular, continues to make mistake after mistake in dealing with the Muslim world, and such mistakes have a potentially devastating cost down the road. The key to ending the violence between our cultures is not some misguided war effort that separates us, but a concentrated learning effort that unites us. Attempting to turn back the tide of Islam's growth is to fundamentally misunderstand the changing times. A world in which Islam is the majority is a very likely possibility and it better serves U.S. interests to work with that change rather than staunchly oppose it.

Pluralism, again, is the key to an integration of cultures; an integration that respects the values of both the Muslim world and the Christian/Secular West. A culture where racist political cartoons and the violent protests inflamed by them are merely lessons in a history book.

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