Kristof

Free to insult religions?

The New York TimesSeptember 24, 2012 

A famous photograph partly financed by taxpayers depicted a crucifix immersed in what the artist said was his own urine. But conservative Christians did not riot on the Washington Mall.

“The Book of Mormon,” a huge hit on Broadway, mocks the church’s beliefs as hocus-pocus. But Mormons haven’t burned down any theaters.

So why do parts of the Islamic world erupt in violence over insults to the Prophet Muhammad?

Let me try to address that indelicate question, and a related one: Should we curb the freedom to insult religions that are twitchy?

First, a few caveats. For starters, television images can magnify (and empower) crazies. In Libya, the few jihadis who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens were vastly outnumbered by the throngs of Libyan mourners who apologized afterward.

Remember also that it’s not just Muslims who periodically go berserk, but everybody – particularly in societies with large numbers of poorly educated young men. Upheavals are often more about demography than about religion: the best predictor of civil conflict is the share of a population that is aged 15 to 24. In the 19th century, when the United States brimmed with poorly educated young men, Protestants rioted against Catholics.

For much of the postwar period, it was the secular nationalists in the Middle East who were seen as the extremists, while Islam was seen as a calming influence. That’s why Israel helped nurture Hamas in Gaza.

That said, for a self-described “religion of peace,” Islam does claim a lot of lives.

In conservative Muslim countries, sensitivities sometimes seem ludicrous. I once covered a Pakistani college teacher who was imprisoned and threatened with execution for speculating that the Prophet Muhammad’s parents weren’t Muslims. (They couldn’t have been, since Islam began with him.)

I think a few things are going on. The first is that many Muslim countries lack a tradition of free speech, and see ridicule of the prophet as part of a larger narrative of the West’s invading or humiliating the Islamic world. People in these countries sometimes also have an addled view of how the U.S. handles blasphemy.

A Pakistani imam, Abdul Wahid Qasmi, once told me that President Bill Clinton burned to death scores of Americans for criticizing Jesus. If the U.S. can execute blasphemers, he said, why can’t Pakistan?

I challenged him, and he plucked an Urdu-language book off his shelf, thumbed through it, and began reading triumphantly about the 1993 raid on David Koresh’s cult in Waco, Texas.

More broadly, this is less about offensive videos than about a political war unfolding in the Muslim world. Extremist Muslims like Salafis see themselves as unfairly marginalized, and they hope to exploit this issue to embarrass their governments and win public support. This is a political struggle, not just a religious battle – and we’re pawns.

But it would be a mistake to back off and censor our kooks. The freedom to be an imbecile is one of our core values.

In any case, there will always be other insults. As some leading Muslims have noted, Islam has to learn to shrug them off.

“Why should we feel danger from anything?” Nasr Hamid Abu Zyad, one of the Islamic world’s greatest theologians, said before his death in 2010. “Thousands of books are written against Muhammad. Thousands of books are written against Jesus. OK, all these thousands of books did not destroy the faith.”

A group called Muslims for Progressive Values noted a story in Islamic tradition in which Muhammad was tormented by a woman who put thorns in his path and went so far as to hurl manure at his head as he prayed. Yet Muhammad responded patiently and tolerantly. When she fell sick, he visited her home to wish her well.

For his time, Muhammad was socially progressive, and that’s a thread that reformers want to recapture. Mahmoud Salem, the Egyptian blogger better known as Sandmonkey, wrote that violent protests were “more damaging to Islam’s reputation than a thousand so-called ‘Islam-attacking films.’ ”

He suggested that Egyptians forthrightly condemn Islamic fundamentalists as “a bunch of shrill, patriarchal, misogynistic, violent extremists who are using Islam as a cover for their behavior.”

Are extremists hijacking the Arab Spring? They’re trying to, but this is just the opening chapter in a long drama. Some Eastern European countries, like Romania and Hungary, are still wobbly more than two decades after their democratic revolutions. Maybe the closest parallel to the Arab Spring is the 1998 revolution in Indonesia, where it took years for Islamic extremism to subside.

My bet is that we’ll see more turbulence in the Arab world, but that countries like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya won’t fall over a cliff. A revolution isn’t an event, but a process.

The New York Times

Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

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