Ethan Casey is a Seattle-based international journalist, frequent public speaker, and author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004).

Sunday, February 12, 2006

This is not about press freedom

A few days ago a friend brought to my attention an article by Michael Radu of the Foreign Policy Research Institute:

"This Is Not about Mohammed's Turban"

I found the article awful: intellectually mediocre and, more to the point, badly misguided. Radu says the Danish-Mohammed-cartoons controversy "has made it clear that most Muslims simply do not comprehend but nevertheless oppose Western democratic values and diversity". Bull. Much clearer is that the self-righteous liberal Westerners who are so up in arms on the Danish newspaper's behalf simply do not comprehend how profoundly offensive it is to Muslims - including the many non-extremist ones - to make any picture of the Prophet Mohammed, much less a cartoon making fun of him.

In 1995 in Muzaffarabad - the capital of the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir, now destroyed by the recent earthquake - I was having a conversation in my hotel room with a local government official who was responsible for showing me around, when he noticed a copy of a book I had left on the floor, titled Mohammed and the Quran. Diffidently and politely, he asked me to pick it up and not to leave it on the floor. Such sensibilities are superstitious, even anti-Islamic (because Islam is theoretically an iconoclastic religion, which incidentally is also why images of the Prophet are deeply frowned upon), but of course I felt awful about having wounded them. What is wrong with exercising discretion and tact in such things?

I think the Danish editor used extremely poor judgment. He should have quietly refused to publish the cartoons. I'm all for press freedom, but this isn't really about that, any more than the Judith Miller thing is about protecting anonymous sources. What makes the point all the more salient is that the same editor previously declined to publish cartoons of Jesus because, that's right, he thought they might cause offense.

Muslims shouldn't threaten violence or attack embassies, but what this controversy really reveals is how poorly the West understands Islam and Muslim sensibilities, and even moreso how little respect we really have for an entire civilization and history that is crucially important to more than a billion people worldwide.

11 comments:

Colleen Roach said...

Ethan, I agree with your stance on this issue. Here is the editorial on the Islamic cartoons just published in the Sunday edition of the Seattle Times (considered by most journalists as one of the top papers in the country). I draw your attention to the notion of "responsibility" their world editor cites in referring to freedom of the press. This is what he said: "We can run anything we want to, but we have a responsibility to be sensitive to people. Freedom of the press isn't about just running anything you want." Here is the URL for the full editorial:

http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/texis.cgi/web/vortex/display?slug=fancher120&date=20060212&query=Danish+cartoons

Colleen Roach

Brendan Howley said...

Hey Ethan
Great to see you back online for the world to read
My thoughts? No one's covered themselves in glory on this one. The Danish Muslim who offered the portfolio of cartoons to his imam never thought outright forgeries would be passed off as Danish workproduct. They were and they were incendiary. But this is about pluralism and dissent and modes of dissent. One cannot accept a burning embassy as a rational response to an offensive graphic. And it's more than passing strange that the most violent responses to the posted cartoons came in those countries most repressed by corrupt regimes. The nuts are in charge in many respects...and it is up to the Muslim world, whose civil war this incident is but one small footnote to, to create the terms and terrain for discourse that isn't simply that of the Islamo-fascists. Here in Canada we heard barely a peep about the scandal. We have a highly assimilated, highly educated Muslim minority. Canadian smugness is legendary [esp amongst Canadians] but this time around our multicultural experiment worked.
'We are all Danes,' one Canadian editorialist has written. I think, faced with irrationality such as Beirut's or Damascus's, like it or not, we are.

Phil Sheehan said...

A difficult topic to address gracefully, and, increasingly, difficult to address rationally. We are so conditioned by the xenophobia we denounce and deny. I noted in my own blog (sorry, that's what most people call it, despite the affront to eye and ear) that

"What is most disturbing is the reaction in the Western world: The whole episode is presented as proof of the intransigence and essential irrationality of Muslims."

We cannot, or will not, recognize the difference between satire and insult. And so long as we take for granted our dominance of the planet, we will never understand that our values and patterns are not universal.

Susan said...

Had the editor also demonstrated freedom of the press satirizing Christians and Jews as well as Muslims he might have had a chance at defending his decision. As it is, what did this accomplish? He gave offended Muslims one more reason to promote anti-Western protests and violence. Way to go.

Roger said...

Dear Ethan

Nice to have you back online. I will dare to disagree with you on that one. Please see this article by Ayesha Akram published in the SF Chronicle:

WHAT'S BEHIND MUSLIM CARTOON OUTRAGE
Muhammad's image: Revered prophet of Islam has been depicted in art for hundreds of years.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/02/11/MNGRCH6UQK1.DTL

The fundamental question here is why should we be complacent toward religion? I am a staunch supporter of Dawkins in this regards. In a recent Channel 4 programme he concluded that religion is the root of all evil and quoting Stephen Weinberg (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1979) “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things . . . that takes religion."

Religion requires us to suspend disbelief, and that is what’s happening with these cartoons: a majority of people are suspending disbelief towards the religions of the book which suddenly come as if they where fairy tales full of love and compassion and that we should respect “people’s sensibility”. Let’s look back at what the fairy tales really say and we might end this complacency toward a thought system and "values" that at the very same time I am writing this are murdering people.

Yours truly,
Roger
PS: you will have noticed I am moving my bog to a new address, more convenient and I will link to your site!

Phil S said...

Roger --

Dawkins and Weinberg, as you quote them, seem over the edge. I agree that much of the world's agony traces back to religion. But religion-inspired agony is usually a consequence, not of religion per se, but of one group's insistence on proving ITS religion (its gods, its rules) superior to some other group's religion.

In that frame, religion is simply a cover for... call it what you will: arrogance, xenophobia, envy, ambition. Even if you insist on assigning blame to religion itself, the horrors inflicted in its name are typically promoted (and blessed) by zealots who seize upon a misreading -- often deliberate -- of original belief, or who have ulterior motives. This surely has been the case with Christianity for the past 1700 years, and I believe it is true of Islam today.

In "Rocks of Ages," Stephen Jay Gould proposed "non-overlapping magisteria" for science and religion: each discipline has its foundations and its expertise in its own magisterium. Predictably, alas, scientists and clergymen both attacked him, arguing that they DID inhabit overlapping magisteria, and each group claiming dominance. I think Gould only wanted a metaphor which might help mediate between the two, but it was viewed instead as an effort to reconcile the two. Between any such two, no reconciliation seems possible.

So, you might ask, why even try mediate? Or why -- if I read your post correctly -- be complacent toward religion? Because religion is an unavoidable force, and for our lifetimes at least, an inevitable one. Regardless of data about windmills or thermodynamics or cyberspace, those who believe their lives guided by religion outnumber those who believe their lives guided by science. We will not survive unless we learn to coexist. Persuasion and reconciliation have failed, but we might yet bring about mediation.

We cannot mediate if we cannot communicate. And we cannot communicate if we cannot show a measure of respect for each other's beliefs.

Phil

Roger said...

Dear Phil,

First I would like to refer you to an old posting of mine backing 2002.

http://rogerjg.iblogs.com/2002/06/17/science-and-religion-friends-or-foes/

My position since then has slightly changed and I feel closer to Gould. However my objections to religion is not based on science but on humanistic values.

http://rogerjg.iblogs.com/2005/02/07/darwin-put-to-flight-in-bible-belt/

Interestingly you make the point I used to make i.e. that there is a difference between a religious text and its interpretation. I do not make this point anymore. To suggest a distinction between the text and its interpretation is to accept the “divine” nature of the text and therefore an “authority” it does not possess, having been written and heavily edited by men.

One will always find someone to come up with a new reading of "God’s word". If what is behind this words, which you clearly identified as arrogance, xenophobia, envy, ambition and more, was demystified there would be fewer problems.

I am happy accepting other’s beliefs as long as they are not a danger for mankind. But if I were to respect such beliefs, shouldn’t I also respect other beliefs such as eugenics, racism, Nazism to give only a few examples?

Yours,

Roger

Phil Sheehan said...

Roger

Please re-read my post, and perhaps your own. You appear to have answered points I did not (and would not) make.

I did not mention "text," which is an expression of original belief, not a source. By "misreading" I meant "misinterpretation" of original belief, a legitimate usage. And even if you do not accept a distinction between text and interpretation, I think you must acknowledge a difference between belief and misinterpretation. I did not speak of divinely-inspired anything. I made no mention of "God" (the capitalization is yours, not mine) but only of "gods," the lower-case plural denying any of them individual absolute power.

I wrote that "... religion-inspired agony is usually a consequence, not of religion per se, but of one group's insistence on proving ITS religion (its gods, its rules) superior to some other group's religion." That is to say, the name and public image of a religion can be appropriated by people whose motives are inconsistent with the tenets of that religion. For comparison, imagine a world power imposing democracy on countries unwilling or unready to accept it. That would not be a critique of democracy per se; it would be a commentary on the actions of people who pay lip-service to a particular form of democracy.

My point was to suggest arrogance, et al, as motivations for action taken under the "cover," or guise, of religion. To say they are "behind... God's words," is to imply something altogether different: that the evils inhere in religion. In some cases they may, but I reject that as a generalization.

In the current instance, several news stories suggest that protests in the Muslim world have been instigated, or at least encouraged, by political forces hoping thereby to deflect public attention from their own malfeasance or incompetence. Twenty-first century bread and circuses, if you like.

Religion -- with text or without -- I take to be a human invention. In some instances at least, it derives from values and practices advanced by genuinely "charitable" (I use the word carefully) individuals who may have been mystics but were not gods. Or God. That those values and practices may later be corrupted by others does not invalidate them. Compare the expressed intent of Adams and Hamilton and Paine with current activities in Washington.

Your final question is tendentious, and challenges your own preceding observation. It requires no answer.

To repeat my basic argument: We will not survive unless we learn to coexist.

Antagonizing others, ridiculing their beliefs, is not a productive route to coexistence. Violent response to mild offense also is non-productive. I defend neither the original cartoons nor the reaction to them. This is an instance where both sides are wrong.

cheers

Phil

Roger said...

Dear Phil,

Thank you for your answer. I will try not to fall in the trap of making this exchange a repeat of the same discussion that must be happening on hundreds of other blogs.

You suggest that a difference must be made between belief and (mis)interpretation of the belief, but what is the original belief and where does it comes from? The belief is either in the text or it comes form the (mis)interpretation of the text. In both case, the authority of the text or of those who (mis)interpret the text is questionable, because the authority of the text is itself questionable. My point here being that there is no universal religious belief, hence as you observe, the problem with those who believe that they have the ‘right belief’.

The comparison with democracy does not really hold as democracy has a very precise definition agreed upon universally. Of course it can be expressed in various way but the fundamentals are the same (No need to go back to the very different idea the Greek had of democracy).

I disagree that my final question is tendentious. Religion(s) are not benign. For some reason there is much more tolerance towards them than there is towards political movements or pseudo-scientific theories. I don’t mean to ridicule them (I am myself Buddhist) but to demystify their goodness and benignity 9even in Buddhism there is a few cobwebs to get rid of…)

I fully support an improved dialogue between people with different beliefs, but that does not mean I have to respect other’s beliefs on the ground that they are religious beliefs. It is much easier and accepted to criticize political belief than religious one. I don’t see why a difference should be made. That, I guess was the main point I was trying to express.

Best
Roger

Roger said...

Dear Phil,

Thank you for your answer. I will try not to fall in the trap of making this exchange a repeat of the same discussion that must be happening on hundreds of other blogs.

You suggest that a difference must be made between belief and (mis)interpretation of the belief, but what is the original belief and where does it comes from? The belief is either in the text or it comes form the (mis)interpretation of the text. In both case, the authority of the text or of those who (mis)interpret the text is questionable, because the authority of the text is itself questionable. My point here being that there is no universal religious belief, hence as you observe, the problem with those who believe that they have the ‘right belief’.

The comparison with democracy does not really hold as democracy has a very precise definition agreed upon universally. Of course it can be expressed in various way but the fundamentals are the same (No need to go back to the very different idea the Greek had of democracy).

I disagree that my final question is tendentious. Religion(s) are not benign. For some reason there is much more tolerance towards them than there is towards political movements or pseudo-scientific theories. I don’t mean to ridicule them (I am myself Buddhist) but to demystify their goodness and benignity 9even in Buddhism there is a few cobwebs to get rid of…)

I fully support an improved dialogue between people with different beliefs, but that does not mean I have to respect other’s beliefs on the ground that they are religious beliefs. It is much easier and accepted to criticize political belief than religious one. I don’t see why a difference should be made. That, I guess was the main point I was trying to express.

Best
Roger

Roger said...

Dear Ethan,

Another recent article from the Wall Street Journal that debunks the political myth of the Prophet's image.

"There is no Quranic injunction against images, whether of Muhammad or anyone else. When it spread into the Levant, Islam came into contact with a version of Christianity that was militantly iconoclastic. As a result some Muslim theologians, at a time when Islam still had an organic theology, issued "fatwas" against any depiction of the Godhead. That position was further buttressed by the fact that Islam acknowledges the Jewish Ten Commandments--which include a ban on depicting God--as part of its heritage. The issue has never been decided one way or another, and the claim that a ban on images is "an absolute principle of Islam" is purely political. Islam has only one absolute principle: the Oneness of God. Trying to invent other absolutes is, from the point of view of Islamic theology, nothing but sherk, i.e., the bestowal on the Many of the attributes of the One."

Bonfire of the Pieties
Islam prohibits neither images of Muhammad nor jokes about religion.

BY AMIR TAHERI
Wednesday, February 8, 2006
http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110007934