What will it take for liberal U.S. journalists to stop calling
Muslim and Christian "fundamentalists" similar threats to freedom of speech
and freedom of the press? And when will American editors draft resolutions
attacking the suppression of freedom now going on in Nigeria?
The horror of the Nigerian developments may make us miss what's
happening to press liberty there. In case you missed the story, last week
Muslim anger over a newspaper article about the Miss World beauty pageant
touched off riots that left 220 dead and over 1,000 seriously injured.
How bad was it? Los Angeles Times correspondent Davan Maharaj
reported that "thousands of Muslim youths armed with knives and machetes
(were) burning cars and assaulting bystanders they suspected were
Christian." If some U.S. journalists don't feel much sympathy for
Christians, they should read on: "Rioters pulled a local journalist off a
motorcycle and told him he would be killed unless he could recite verses
from Islam's holy book, the Quran. The crowd released him unharmed when they
realized he was Muslim."
Christian fundamentalists did not act that way when writers
depicted Jesus as a homosexual or when an artist submerged a cross in urine.
But perhaps we should look at the huge provocation that launched the
disaster: A writer for the Nigerian newspaper ThisDay, speculating on how
Muhammad would react to a beauty pageant, wrote that "he would have probably
chosen a wife from one of them."
That's It? Sure, given the tinderbox that Islamic extremists
have made of northern Nigeria, it was a dumb comment to make. But it's also
a reasonable speculation, for stories about Muhammad's life that have
semi-sacred status within Islam show the religion's founder appreciating and
sometimes appropriating to himself the beauties of his time.
Book eight, numbers 3325 and 3328, of the sayings and deeds
collected by the esteemed ninth century editor Abul Husain Muslim bin
al-Hajjaj al-Nisapuri records how Muhammad heard that a young woman was so
beautiful that a disciple said, "She is worthy of you only." Muhammad had
her brought to him and was so enraptured that he "granted her emancipation
and married her."
ThisDay could have footnoted its story with these and other
references, but that probably would have increased the tensions. Nigeria's
Islamic "fundamentalists" don't want anyone to raise questions about how
Muhammad actually lived, because that might hurt their effort to set up an
extreme Islamic regime. Like some European kings up to several centuries
ago, they think the job of journalists is to deliver propaganda for their
Most Muslims in the United States are great citizens and enjoy
living in a free country -- but why do Muslim leaders in Nigeria and many
other countries fear freedom? Do they believe that if people start thinking
for themselves many will turn away from Islam? Some countries under
Christian influence were once governed by similar fears. But John Milton,
the Puritan author of "Paradise Lost," wrote in the 1640s, "Though all the
winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the
field ... let her and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the
worse, in a free and open encounter."
Milton's view soon took hold in countries led by Christians who
had confidence in God's providence. Milton's view is still suspect in much
of the world, and especially in Muslim-dominated areas. The enemies of
journalistic freedom used to have their capital in Moscow; now it's Mecca.
Radical Islam has now replaced communism as the world's most potent hater of
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo criticized ThisDay and said
murderous riots could happen in his country "any time irresponsible
journalism is committed against Islam." That's what's so sad: This is not a
one-time occurrence, but something to be expected "any time."
American journalists should do what we can to help those
suffering persecution in other lands. We should also stop insulting
Christians who, more and more, are prime defenders of freedom of the press.