Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mute button

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (April 2006)

The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
- Edward Gibbon

On September 30 of last year the right-of-center Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad posed in the light of political satire: as a cleric wearing a bomb for a turban, as a shepherd leading an ass, as an imam apologizing for a temporary shortage of virgins in paradise. After an interval of four months, time enough for the promoters of Muslim discontent to organize propaganda campaigns in Europe and the Middle East, the international news media during the first week of February blossomed with images of front-page violence across three continents and twelve time zones - 50,000 of the faithful waving flags in Gaza; crowds on the march in London with signs saying, EXTERMINATE THOSE WHO MOCK ISLAM, BE PREPARED FOR THE REAL HOLOCAUST; the Danish and Norwegian embassies put to the torch in Damascus; demonstrations in Paris and Copenhagen; mobs in the streets of Teheran and Beirut; the Danish prime minister burned in effigy in Karachi; eleven people dead in Afghanistan.

The result testified to the energy and enterprise of the engineers draining the reservoirs of Islamic credulity and rage, but the more instructive lesson was the one to be learned from the mush-mouthed response on the part of the intimidated champions of liberty in London, Toronto, New York, and Washington. Here was a coordinated attack on the freedoms of thought and expression fundamental to the existence of a liberal society and the workings of democratic government, and where were the public voices willing to say so? On sabbatical or leave of absence, mumbling apologies, sending their regrets.

I didn't listen to more than a fragment of the talk-show discussion, much less read every official statement and editorial commentary, but for the most part I came across people more inclined to blame the trouble on the "insensitivity" of the callous and "irresponsible" Western news media than to find fault with the gangs smashing windows in Cairo and Surabaya. In answer to questions on February 2 and 3, Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, didn't fail to condemn the rioting in the streets ("absolutely outrageous" and "totally unjustified"), but he reserved his harshest criticisms for the European newspapers (in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland) that saw fit to reprint the cartoons published four months previously. The various editors gave various reasons for doing so - to give context to the story, to credit the idea of a free press, to endorse the separation of church and state, et cetera - all of which the foreign secretary pronounced "unnecessary", "disrespectful", and "wrong". Yes, he said, there is such a thing as freedom of speech, "but there is not an obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory". The US State Department seconded the motion, declaring it "unacceptable" to print pictures apt to incite religious hatred.

As is now the custom in the United States, the big-circulation national news media took their cues from government. Condescending and pious, the editorial page of the New York Times addressed its remarks to the aggrieved Muslims among its readers who presumably look to the paper for the rules of civilized behavior. "People are bound to be offended if their religion is publicly mocked", said the Times. "The proper response is not to go on a rampage and burn down buildings". On the other hand, when and if circumstances warrant, Muslims wishing to submit a complaint (about the free-range bombing of their fellow countrymen, unorthodox interpretations of the Koran, the wine list at the Four Seasons hotel) remain free to "stage peaceful marches and organize boycotts". Like Foreign Secretary Straw, the Washington Post suspected the European papers of reprinting the cartoons in order to boost circulation; they weren't demonstrating "their love of freedom, "they were declaring "their insensitivity - or hostility - to the growing diversity of their own societies". In Toronto the editor of the Globe and Mail, Edward Greenspon, asked himself anxious questions in the manner of Hamlet enmeshed in the coils of a soliloquy. Could the decision not to publish the cartoons "be construed as cowardice and lack of principle? Were we afraid to offend, afraid of a possible backlash? Was it a politically correct decision or simply one that was rightly respectful of the sensibilities of a minority group in this land of diversity and tolerance?" Not being Danish or the heir to a usurped throne, Greenspon escaped both the poison and the duel, and, together with the editors of every major newspaper in North America, excepting only the Philadelphia Inquirer, he came to the conclusion, worthy of Polonius, "that republishing would be both gratuitous and unnecessarily provocative ... bound to generate more heat than light".

So also the refinement of feeling distributed in Washington by the designated consciences of the Democratic Party. Senator John F Kerry (Democrat, Massachussets) said of the cartoons that "these and other inflammatory images deserve our scorn"; former Democratic Congressman Timothy J Roemer (Democrat, Indiana), a member of the September 11 Commission, observed that not enough had been done to win "the hearts and minds" of Arab terrorists and that "this seems to be an opportunity to condemn the cartoons and communicate directly with the Muslim people on a host of issues".

By February 14, a day on which the armed resistance in Iraq murdered another eighteen people (three US soldiers and fifteen Iraqis, among them an army officer and a policeman), I'd been told so often about the awfulness of the Danish cartoons (more destructive than roadside bombs, as terrible as the sinking of oil tankers) that I looked them up on the Internet. Not surprisingly, I didn't find them offensive. My bias and judgment having been formed in the secular realm of thought - that is, the one that we presumably value and wish to preserve, also the one that defends the Muslim minority in India against persecutions by the Hindu majority - I thought the cartoons mildly amusing at best, in no way vicious or grotesque, well within the perimeter of what both Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin would have seen as fair use of ridicule in the service of political argument. The jokes were in line with what little is known of the prophet's life and character as terrorist, libertine, and religious visionary. A good deal of the narrative depends on the authority of poets, on the retelling of old tales, and on the interpolations of the prophet's own texts, many of which he received from the angel Gabriel and subsequently set forth as suras in the composition of his Koran. For the references that bear on the publication of the Danish cartoons, I rely on the standard historical sources as well as on the brief biographies contained in William Bolitho's Twelve Against the Gods (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) and H G Wells's The Outline of History (Reprint Services Corporation; Reprint edition, 1920).

As religious visionary: Although uneducated and probably unable to read or write, the prophet had a talent for beholding visions in the desert. Loud-voiced, vain, and charismatic, given to painting his eyelashes with kohl and antimony to make them appear more lustrous, he pasted together his new religion with extensive borrowings from both the Christian Bible and the Jewish Talmud; the fragments of theology reached him in the form of rumors brought in bad translations by travelers arriving in Mecca with the camel caravans from Syria and Yemen. The notion of there being no god but Allah offended the Arab tribes in town devoted to the worship of the three-hundred-odd idols seated on the stones in the temple of the Kaaba, and for some years the prophet ran the risk of being killed by ferocious pagans for the crime of blasphemy. That he eventually forced upon the tribes the yoke of Islam stands as testimony to the eloquence of his voice in the wilderness and to the ruthlessness of his method as an urban politician.

As libertine: Fortunate in the eyes of women, Muhammad at the age of twenty-five married a rich widow fifteen years his senior, thus raising his station above that of a camel driver and granting him the leisure to compose his verses and converse with Gabriel. After his wife died he assembled a harem of young girls, one of whom later said of him that "the prophet liked three things most: women, scent and eating, but mostly women". The three enthusiasms show up in the Koran's promise of a Paradise where the true believer can look forward to an everlasting life enfolded in the attar of roses, partaking of dates and pomegranates, comforted on soft, green rugs by "women, smooth, lovely ... whom no man has yet enjoyed, nor even a Djin".

As terrorist: In the wars fought by the prophet's newly minted Muslims in Medina against the tribes still faithful to the old Arab idols in Mecca, Muhammad adopted the persona of a messiah armed with the sword of deliverance - eager to plunder the tents of his enemies, quick to ravage their daughters and liquidate their sons, faithful to the prophecy in sura 3:151: "We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve ... their abode is the fire; and evil is the abode of the unjust". Taking to heart the commandment handed down from Heaven, the prophet's followers within fifty years of his death in 632 swarmed out of the desert under the black flag of Islam to conquer a
kingdom that reached from Spain to China and won for the Arabs a reputation among the infidel poets as being "Light of ear, bloody of hand ... fox in stealth ... lion in prey".

So much of the prophet's story consists of legend and its subsequent embroidery (cryptic, literal, and sublime) that no unbelieving journalist west of Suez can be expected to grasp the whole or true meaning of it. I mention only those points that lend historical antecedent to the Danish cartoons, and if I'm wary of religious belief in any and all of its ardent emissions, it's because I remember, as did the authors of the American Constitution, the vast numbers of people crucified - also burned, tortured, beheaded, drawn, quartered, imprisoned, and enslaved - on one or another of its ceremonial altars (Protestant, Muslim, Catholic, Aztec) over the course of the last 2,000 years. Nor do I know why I must respect somebody merely for the fact of his or her belief, as if the attachment to a belief, in and of itself and without regard either to its subject or its object, somehow bestows a state of grace. I don't quarrel with anybody's right to believe anything that he or she wishes to believe, but passion isn't a synonym for truth. Must I respect a woman who believes that oysters sing? Or the man who believes that his mother was married to a koala bear? If it's the intensity of the emotion that I'm being asked to praise, presumably with adjectives like those affixed to expensive wines and precious jewels, then how can I fail to admire the richness of Adolf Hitler's feeling (authentic, fervent, deeply felt) for Polish Jews?

The questions lead into the fog of political correctness that over the last quarter of a century has engulfed not only America's universities but also its legislatures and its television studios. We teach college students to revere books not for their merit as literature but for their value as messages from the abyss; no matter how poor the prose or how threadbare the thought, if the author can show credentials as a victim of racial prejudice, sexual discrimination, economic injustice, ethnic insult, the notes found in a bottle on the beach at East Hampton deserve to be welcomed with "sensitivity" and "respect". As compensation and reward for his or her suffering the author receives - as a matter of course in the pages of the New York Times, on high holy days from Oprah Winfrey - the medal of genius.

The transference of value from the object to the subject - from the author's book to the author's pain - lends itself to the language of political and commercial advertising. The customer is always right, and where is the percentage in telling the suckers with the money or the votes that their poetry doesn't scan, that their disease is incurable, their god made of wind and sand? The market buys what it wishes to believe - about the interest-free loan or the cure for arthritis, about the democracy coming soon to Iraq and the way in which as Americans we honor one another's totem poles: nine times in ten the promise is false, the miracle at the point of sale dependent not on the worth of the product but on the telling of a sympathetic and condescending lie. Show respect for the customer's feelings, pretend to an interest in astrology, inquire after the health of the canary.

The vapid atmospheres of political correctness apparently haven't yet gagged all the public voices in Europe, possibly because in Europe the Muslim protests against the abomination of the Danish cartoons were more clearly seen for what they were - less the spontaneous cry of a wounded religious sensibility than a well-organized coup de theatre intended to achieve a secular political result. The point wasn't lost on the European news media or on at least some of the European politicians who understood that the agents provocateurs circulating the incitements to riot had fabricated the worst of the cartoons (most notably the one of the prophet coupling with a dog) and that the propaganda campaign had been largely financed by repressive governments, aligned with reactionary and jihadist sentiment in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, that have little liking, and certainly no respect, for the freedoms of the societies on which they seek to impose, praise be to Allah, the blindfolds of religious superstition. More familiar than their American counterparts with the problems of Muslim immigration and the policies of Islamic intimidation (that is, more aware of what was at issue and at stake), the Europeans weren't as inclined to sell out their convictions in return for a fair share of the Middle Eastern oil and weapons trade. The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, didn't confuse himself with Hamlet ("People can live according to their own customs", he said, "however, I think we have to insist on respecting our core values"); nor did Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish paper that first published the cartoons, repent of the decision: "When Muslims say you are not showing respect, I would say: you are not asking for my respect, you are asking for my submission". Along similar lines but phrased more succinctly, Jasper Gerard, a columnist writing in the Sunday Times in London, touched upon the unhappy truth that the American consensus of responsible opinion does its best to hide behind the screens of tolerance and diversity; "Islam is protected by an invisible blasphemy law", Gerard said. "It's called fear".

Which is the same law that in the materialist societies of the nominally democratic West protects the lies told by the prophets of apocalypse (statesmen, generals, radio talk-show hosts) who promote the specious war on terror in order to persuade the customers of their victimhood, suppress the blasphemy of history, and silence the heresies of reason.

Bill Totten


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