Moderate Christians, especially those living in Western nations, are always shocked when they are reminded that Muslims, so unlike them, do not turn the other cheek when their religious symbols are attacked. Mocking Islam is tantamount to hugging a killer bees hive; the reaction is almost always homicidally violent. Muslims have become so predictable that, in our overly interconnected world where information, intellectually enlightening or idiotic and eroding, can equally spread in an instant, it has become a trend among anti-Islam activists to draw the ire of Muslims and lure them into violence by denigrating their religious symbols. They use it as bait to draw media attention to their platform and enlist new supporters. Muslims, especially Arabs, have become a giant billboard for the likes of Terry Jones and those involved in the production of the besmirching amateur movie to promote their apocalyptic bigotry whilst “revealing” the feral nature of Islam. With a prim scowl, they point an accusatory finger at the raging mobs burning buildings of consulates and embassies and say: “look! Didn’t we tell you these Muslims are inherently murderers, naturally terrorists?” Such violent responses allow racist politicians like Michel Bachmann, Louie Gohmert, Lynn Westmoreland, Trent Franks, and Thomas Rooney to mobilize voters and radicalize Americans against Muslims, even those whose American lineage is a few generations deep. To build a constituency for the November congressional election, Gabriela Mercer, a Republican candidate, herself a Mexican immigrant, is quoted saying:
“If you know Middle Easterners, a lot of them, they look Mexican or they look like a lot of people in South America: dark skin, dark hair, brown eyes. And they mix, they mix in. And those people, their only goal in life is to cause harm to the United States. So why do we want them here, either legally or illegally? When they come across the border — besides the trash that they leave behind, the drug smuggling, the killings, the beheadings — you are seeing stuff: it’s a war out there.”
I saw the 14-minute trailer of “Innocence of Muslims” on youtube. Like millions of people around the world, I wouldn’t have known of it were it not for the demonstrations. The advocates of the movie couldn’t have hoped for a better promotion. No critical insight is needed to see the movie, that allegedly cost five million dollars, is a diarrheal burst of preposterous blasphemy and ribaldry wrapped in buffoonery and delivered in abominably bad acting. There is no point in its depiction of the prophet Mohammed beyond sheer provocation, giving Muslims a metaphorical wedgie.
The question many Westerners are struggling with is whether such divisive speech can be protected; whether it would be counter to our American principles to censor opinions masquerading as boorish irreverence. It is understandable that many Americans would be loath to restrict speech and curtail opinion. After all, you don’t see Christians, Hindus, or Buddhists violently demonstrating every time Jesus, Krishna, or Buddha is ridiculed. A Wall Street Journalist commenting on the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” wrote: “Making fun of Mormons in front of a Broadway crowd is like shooting trout in a demitasse cup.” No copies of the WSJ were burnt in Salt Lake City the next day. No movie theaters or British embassies were attacked when Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” came out. Nobody took umbrage at “Bruce Almighty,” where god, played by Morgan Freeman, gives his powers to Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carrey. Criticism of such work was limited to op-eds and opinion articles.
As soon as an uncomplimentary opinion of the prophet Mohammed comes to light, worldwide riots erupt, fatwas are issued, flags and effigies burnt, businesses and official buildings ransacked, people killed. In Sudan, a middle-aged British teacher was jailed for allowing one of her pupils to name his teddy bear “Mohammed.” In September of 2006, The Deutsche Oper Berlin canceled performances of Mozart’s “Idomeneo, re di Creta ossia Ilia e Idamante” because the depiction of Muhammad’s severed head in one of the scenes represented an “incalculable risk” and would endanger its employees and audience. Yale University Press refused to include the controversial Jyllands Posten cartoons in Professor Jyette Clausen’s book about the controversy, “The Cartoons That Shook the World.” When Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park’s creators, tried to parody the Danish cartoons by scripting an animated appearance of Mohammed in one of their episodes, Comedy Central management blacked out the cameo. In subsequent episodes of South Park, Parker and Stone, true to their comedic nature, depicted the prophet Mohammed wearing a mascot’s costume and talking from inside a U-Haul trailer. It hasn’t always been like this; two months before 9/11, “the Muslim prophet with the power of flame” stood next to Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Joseph Smith, and Lao-tse, the South Park episode titled “Super Best Friends,” to help Stan, one of the show’s main characters, demystify the magician David Blaine.
Why should the world knuckle under to threats of violence when the subject of Islam is broached? Why should there be an exception in deference to Islamic sensitivities?
Well, there isn’t! It turns out that the Danish newspaper that published the affronting cartoons of Mohammed rejected earlier that month cartoons of Christ explaining to the artist who submitted them that they would provoke an outcry. No American film director today would produce a work similar to D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” And even if it were, no theater would show it lest the African American community would violently protest. Disney would not release its 1946 musical “Song of the South” for home viewing fearing it would offend minorities. In today’s America. we camouflage censorship with political correctness and no longer allow derogatory epithet like the word “nigger” opting instead for the ““N” word.” Suggesting the Holocaust never happened is a crime in Germany and Israel. The idea that all speech is protected denotes a simplistic understanding of the law. In Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire, the court wrote:
“ There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting words” those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”
The Muslim people’s outrage is most certainly justified, but the violence is absolutely not. If Muslim nations aspire to democracy, aspects of Islam should be openly questioned and objectively criticized without the fear of being accused of heresy, or apostasy, or subjected to grievous harm or death. This is not only a matter of judicial reform; it requires an honest self-examination at the level of the individual citizen and a willingness to accept the skepticism even of those holding antagonistic opinions.
A. T. B. © 2012