Monday, April 03, 2006

Cartoons of the Prophet

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

In the winter of 1874, some young Lakota boys living in a camp around Ft. Robinson, Nebraska, thought it was great fun to climb a flagpole, chop the tip off, incidentally bringing the United States flag flying from it down into the dust. Trigger happy soldiers were about to gun down every Lakota in sight, male or female, child or adult. Chief Red Cloud, who had fought the U.S. army to a standstill in 1868, then accepted reservation life while Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were still fighting to remain free, addressed the soldiers eloquently. He said that the boys must of course be punished, but grown men do not gun down entire communities over the pranks of children. He asked the soldiers if they had ever done foolish things when they were boys.

The Danish publisher who commissioned cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed was not a boy, nor were the cartoonists who responded. The assignment, and the cartoons themselves, are indeed childish. There is no legal authority to punish them, nor should there be any. The entire episode evidences a failure to communicate.

Many of those protesting the cartoons live in nations where publications are closely regulated by the government. In some nations, there may be only one television network, and that one is an organ of the state. Newspapers are subject by law to prior censorship, or to criminal penalties for printing material the government deems inappropriate. (The popularity of Al-Jazeera satellite broadcasts is not so much that they attack the west, as that they are independent of government control in the Middle East.) In most of these nations, blasphemy, at least against the dominant religion, is a well-know criminal offense. Generally, violent protests have occured in nations where Islam is the dominant religion.

That should not be such a foreign concept to Europeans, or even to Americans. Every nation in Europe at one time had a tightly controlled press, and most British colonies in North America had one also. Most European nations had, and still have, an established church. It is a pale shadow of its former self, but tax money is still paid to support the mostly empty churches of Europe's state-favored religious sects.

It is no more than a century since most European nations had laws punishing blasphemy against some or all Christian doctrines. (Cartoons lampooning the Pope were acceptable in Protestant nations, but not in Catholic nations). Most of the original 13 colonies also imposed criminal penalties for at least some forms of blasphemy. The Roman Catholic Church sometimes seems intent on restoring that kind of influence over the secular law if it possibly can. But John Calvin and Martin Luther were equally guilty in their own times. So was Cotton Mather.

Why are these cartoons deemed to be blasphemous by Muslims?

Has anyone noticed recently that the Ten Commandments (which are part of the Qu'ran as well as the Torah and the Bible) prohibit making "any graven image of anything that is in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth"? Islam takes that very, very literally. Muslim art features beautiful and intricate abstract designs, because it simply does not allow for any images at all.

Most Christians understand this prohibition in light of the following phrase "you shall not bow down to them or serve them." As long as we do not worship the graven image, we don't see a problem with realistic painting and sculpture. But it is not a foreign concept to Christians that a passage from Scripture "means what it says and it says what it means." Some Christians refuse to pledge allegiance to a flag, because we will not bow down to a graven image.

Islam particularly prohibits any image of the Prophet, unlike Christianity, which freely produces a variety of images portraying Jesus. Usually these images have nothing in common with what the human body of Jesus actually looked like when he walked on earth. Most paintings of Jesus (there are no photographs) simply try to make the man culturally relevant to whatever population is currently being evangelized. That is how bronze-skinned missionaries from the Mediterranean came to portray Jesus with pink skin and blonde hair, to the pale barbarians of northern Europe.

We all know the song "I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, riding on the dashboard of my car..." There are no Plastic Prophets for the faithful of Islam. Muslims simply don't allow the making of any image at all. It is considered a special mark of disrespect to depict God's final prophet, who was taken up by God directly to heaven, somewhat like Enoch in Genesis 5:24. But originally, the prohibition recognized that Mohammed is not God, that no graven image is to be made of him.

So devout followers of Islam, living in nations with a tightly controlled press, where blasphemy is a criminal offense, may be making some natural assumptions about the meaning of these contemptible cartoons. It would be natural to assume that such cartoons had to be approved by the Danish government in order to be printed. It would be natural to assume that the Danish government is maliciously refraining from prosecution of this blasphemy. It would be natural to take that as a deliberate insult to Islam.

The cartoons are an insult to Islam. But insulting a religion (any religion) is not a crime in the United States, nor at this time in Denmark. It is not a crime any more in most of Europe. Saddam Hussein could decree any law he wanted, any time he wanted, including an ex post facto, law making a crime of something already done. The president of Denmark has no such power. Nor is it lawful to assassinate the author of such blasphemies, merely because someone's beliefs have been insulted.

Blasphemy against Christians is also legal here

Christian have to put up with this all the time in the United States. A good example is Terrence McNally's blasphemous play, Corpus Christi, which depicts Jesus Christ and the 12 Apostles as gay men engaged in group sex. There was a lawsuit about that in federal court a few years ago. Linnemeir v. Board of Trustees of Purdue University The result: the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the play "is indeed blasphemous," but there is no legal basis to prohibit a theater major producing it, even at a state-funded university. Christians have a right to denounce the play, to picket the play, to boycott the play, and encourage others to do so. But there is no legal basis to suppress the play, nor to punish the author, producer, or actors who participate in presenting it.

That is difficult for many Muslims, in nations with a controlled press, to understand. If the government does not authorize the cartoons, if the government lacks authority to suppress the cartoons, then the government is not responsible for the content of the cartoons. Nor are the individual or corporate citizens of the nation in which the cartoons are published. Only the individuals who wrote them, and choose to publish them, are responsible for the content.

In some nations, blasphemy may be subject to a penalty of death, lawfully adopted and published in the legal codes. Danish cartoonists should be aware of these laws before travelling to such nations. Denmark has no such laws, nor does the United States. It is unacceptable that anyone should take the law into their own hands in a nation where no such legal penalty exists. But before we get too high up on our liberal horses, we should again remember our own history. There was no law against publishing abolitionist newspapers in Illinois before the Civil War either. That did not stop a pro-slavery mob from burning down the print-shop of Elijah Lovejoy, dumping his press in the river, and, when he attempted to defend his property, shooting him dead.

In parts of the world where Islam is the dominant faith, it is well known that after the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001, mobs in the United States attempted to deface or destroy a few mosques. (There were also Christian and Jewish neighbors who came to the defense of such mosques – just as Muslim neighbors volunteered to defend Christian churches in Indonesia during the 2005 Christmas season). The members of at least some of those American mosques were fifth-generation Americans, whose ancestors came to these shores before the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. There was also one incident where some thugs who mistook a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona for a Muslim, murdered him as an act of "revenge" for the World Trade Center.

Essential principles to work our way out of this mess:
  1. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are non-negotiable. Al-Jazeera would no doubt be the first to agree.
  2. Juvenile cretins, who take pleasure in casual blasphemies to get a rise out of believers, are not worthy of support or respect, albeit they have the legal right to make public idiots of themselves.
  3. Individuals are responsible for their own actions, and to some extent for the actions of organizations to which they freely commit themselves and which they freely consent to or support. There can be no guilt by association of all Americans for the act of one or 100 Americans, all Muslims for the act of one or 100 Muslims, all Danes for the act of one or 100 Danes.
  4. None of us can claim a history of perfectly clean hands, but it is worth fighting to hold onto the hard-won progress we have made.
  5. Those who seek God through the path of Islam would do well to break the habit of relying on the state to enforce religious laws, a habit that most Christians reluctantly abandoned in the last 200 years or so.
  6. Christians trying to restore the habit of relying on the state to enforce religious laws should be careful what they wish for.
  7. and God (Yaweh, Adonai, al-Lah – The God) help us every one.

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