13 January 2015

Tell me if this hurts: a Muslim doctor suffers from blasphemy

Faheem Younus is no extremist, but he's as sick and tired by now of free-speech justifications for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad as any hard-core Islamist, even if he'll never come close to their violent expression of the feeling. He's a Baltimore physician who has contributed an op-ed to the city's newspaper asking for greater sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims from the western media.  He hopes medical metaphors may persuade people when violence and threats of violence have only hardened their hearts, so to speak. He starts by describing a time he accidentally touched a patient's painful incision and was chided -- rightly, he thinks, for thoughtlessly probing a sore spot. He continues:

Now imagine me holding your hand, like the frail patient, urging you to consider the nuances. Different patients hurt at different places. Just because my sensitivity is my Prophet, does not mean yours has to be a divine figure as well. For Jews, Moses may be fair game, but mocking the Holocaust is not. For Christians, ridiculing Jesus causes varying levels of angst. For Blacks, the N-word is off-limits. And certain ridicule has left the LGBT community so terrified that it hurts all over.

As you may be able to tell, Younus's op-ed becomes a plea for equal treatment and against selective sensitivity. It's unfair, in his view, that no one seems to care when Muslims are hurt by cultural expression when media and their sponsors are often very quick to repent when other groups have their sore spots poked. If Islamophobes crow now that "nothing is off limits" in our free society, then why not mock the Holocaust or revive the old stereotype images of blacks, gays and others? Younus is well aware that there are no laws in the U.S. against any of these things, but he also sees that powerful "social -- not legal -- codes" defend certain minorities from hurtful forms of expression,yet seem to ignore Muslims' concerns. While he's quick to clarify that he doesn't want "to place Prophet Muhammad or any Islamic symbol above criticism or debate," he makes a plea to "conscience" for a respectful distinction between a presumably healthy "hustle in the marketplace of ideas" and seeing "your beloved singled out, consistently, and lampooned by ugly cartoons." He believes that the Constitution already recognizes the distinction. The First Amendment exists, he argues, so "tyrannical governments can never silence the masses," not to enable "hurting a beleaguered minority." If free-speech absolutists think that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were "poking a finger in the eye of some evil totalitarian ideology," Younus want them to be more attentive to the collateral damage done to millions who won't fight back but definitely suffer.

Younus hopes to refute the charge that Islam makes a special, uniquely unreasonable demand on the wider culture by opposing caricature (or any depiction) of a historical person, yet Muslims' vehemently defensive reverence for the "honor" of Muhammad can't help scandalizing many in the west, if not the entire non-Muslim world. The west, at least, has long abhorred the worship of mortals, be they living or dead, and the mania over Muhammad appears to contradict the impression that Muslims felt the same way. To some, it may appear to confirm an ancient slander against Muslims, who were accused by medieval Europeans of worshiping the Prophet himself as a god. What is this reverence that rages against any irreverent portrayal of Muhammad if it isn't worship? At the least, westerners feel as if Muslims want to compel them to regard Muhammad as a sacred entity, and at this point in history many westerners probably feel as if Muhammad is sacred to Muslims the same way Kim Jong Un and his ancestors are sacred to North Koreans. Muslims will have a hard time winning this argument because the western feeling that no historical mortal should be worshiped will most likely trump any special pleading for Muhammad's place in Muslim hearts. The irony of it is that Muslims, the most iconoclastic of theists, are probably widely suspected of idolatry -- an idolatry that would be especially and horribly hypocritical on the part of those Sunnis who accuse nearly all other Muslims of forms of idolatry. The idolatry charge is unfair insofar as Muslims don't literally worship Muhammad, but westerners clearly have a hard time wrapping their minds around the reverence short of worship that makes depictions of the Prophet taboo. It may be as simple an idea as the prevention of any idolization of Muhammad, but when westerners are forbidden to depict him while obviously having no idolatrous intentions, it may seem to them as if Islam has achieved a kind of negative idolatry. Clearly, many here would see deference to the Muslim prohibition as an intolerable bowing down to Islam, much as some reactionaries in the U.S. see the sort of sensitivity Younus wants extended to Muslims as a form of bowing down to undeserving minorities. Again, it comes down to the kind of mutual respect a pluralist democracy requires. On one hand, no single group can tell all the others that they have to earn respect; a minimum of automatic mutual respect is a minimum requirement of democracy. Whether any single group can demand unconditional deference to its taboos as part of that minimum respect is a tougher question. It's easier to ask Muslims to grow tougher skin, and Younus's own medical analogy suggests that Muslims' sore spot must heal eventually so that others can touch it safely. Younus himself hopes that Muslims will be more tolerant of free speech within "decades." That will more likely depend on whether other underlying conditions, whether caused by internal or external factors, are treated rather than whether clumsy visitors irritate the scar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The jews should have no right to whine about people making fun of the holocaust. According to their own history book, they committed genocide against the canaanites. So they are every bit as evil and vile as the nazis. They also enslaved those around their holy land - by divine decree, and were as guilty of murder, looting, raping and plundering their "enemies" as every other civilization at that time. The main difference being that their "enemies" were pretty much anyone who wasn't a jew.