08 September 2009

Democracy: the Right to Offend and the Obligation to Take It

Yale University Press is about to publish a book about the violent controversy over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. The book may leave people wondering what the controversy was about, because it won't include the cartoons themselves. The publishers have decided not to include the images after advisers warned that their reappearance would spark a fresh wave of violence in the Muslim world. The fact that known neocons have criticized this decision as part of their own agenda should not stop the rest of us from condemning the college for cowardice. If Muslims want to be part of the modern world, a putative democracy of nations and cultures, then they cannot insist on immunity from "insult." Islam is either accountable to the rest of us, or it must either rule the world or remain outside it in its own enclave. If Muslims want to deal with the rest of us, they must accept that most of us owe Muhammad no more respect or deference than any other historical person, and that those who think him a villain have every right to say so.

Is it possible to meet Muslim insistence on Muhammad's sacrosanct status halfway? The best I can suggest is a modest compromise that affirms a general principle of non-offensiveness toward religions rather than a special immunity for Islam. But under such a standard, one of the first books needing censorship will be the Qur'an itself, since many passages of the Muslim holy text are profoundly offensive to Jews, Christians and anyone who might describe himself as a polytheist. Even those verses which treat Jesus respectfully as a great prophet are insulting to those who believe that Jesus was the son of God or God otherwise made flesh. Unless Muslims want to insist on special immunity based on a superiority that no one else acknowledges, they must renounce their right to insult other religions if they don't want theirs insulted. They must submit to censorship of their holy book or stand exposed as hypocrites with a supremacy complex. If they will not allow censorship of the Qur'an they should not demand censorship of any other text outside the Muslim world. And if Muslims feel entitled to punish blasphemy by mob violence, vandalism or assassination, it might be time for the Enlightenment to respond in kind.


Anonymous said...

I'd be more than willing to toss a couple of molotovs into a mosque. I refuse to commit suicide in order to do it though. Of course, I also reserve the right to insult any religion or belief system that cannot prove, using accepted scientific principles, that its belief system is based on fact rather than speculation, myth and superstition.

d.eris said...

Let's not forget either that few if any major US media outlets published or pictured the images even as they reported on the scandal when it first erupted. This decision on the part of the publisher is another blatant and disgusting example of the culture of self-censorship in US media, and reveals the reactionary character of the now hegemonic 'tolerance' model of cultural politics.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention shows like South Park and Family Guy were censored from showing animated versions of Mohammed by their networks. To add insult to injury, Family Guy is a syndicated show owned by Fox, one of the biggest supporters of George Dumbya Bush and the war in general. Further evidence of my hypothesis that conservatives, in general, are cowards.