Nonsense and sensibility

Posted: Feb 21, 2006 12:05 AM

Maybe there's some rarified irony about the fact that in a society increasingly dependent on imagery, not words, to convey information, it is imagery that the media have denied us in conveying the story of a Danish newspaper's Muhammad cartoons. But with a Gallup Poll reporting that 61 percent of U.S. respondents believe that Europeans who printed the caricatures of Muhammad acted irresponsibly, it's nothing to shrug off.

The rationale goes something like this: "Not all self-censorship is a bad thing."

"Even if all the world had the right of free speech, I still believe there are things that should not be said."

"It's some weird presumption of modernity that says because something can be done it must be done."

The above statements came out of my e-mailbag after last week's column -- my cartoon rage 2006, or, as I like to call it, How a Proud Press Bowed Its Head and Submitted to an Islamic Law against Depictions of Muhammad. These letter-writers, representing a small but noticeable contingent, rejected the submission argument as a point of pride, reading into their own contentment to "see no evil"  --  that is, see no Muhammad cartoons -- an elevated sensibility: good manners, good taste and self-restraint. This may be highly commendable -- the good manners, taste and self-restraint part  -- but it is entirely beside the point.

Which is what draws me back to this freak show of a story one more time before its narrative-memory is set, and before the beginning of the end of press freedom is permanently attributed to kindly, responsible behavior, not incipient dhimmitude.

In another context, I wouldn't disagree with the readers' comments I quoted above. Indeed, I've been known to make similar arguments against all manner of fetid cultural excess, from lurid children's fiction to the notorious Sensation Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in which Dung Virgin first came to fame in 1999. (Or was that infamy? It's easy to get them confused.)

The topic of Dung Virgin, not to mention its companion piece in shock value, Piss Christ, strikes the Good-Mannerists as an important marker in their personal guides to press etiquette. Not grooving to such "artistic" attacks on Christianity, the Good-Mannerists say they can understand the consternation of the Cartoon Ragers -- at least to some point shy of death threats, arson and murder  --  and see media self-censorship as a matter of common decency.

Is the comparison valid? And is the politeness deserved? Absolutely not, and here's one big reason why: Christianity and Islam are not interchangeable belief systems inspired by a generic divinity. One relevant distinction is the way they operate in relation to their societies. Christianity abides by the separation of church and state; Islam knows no separation whatsoever. As a result, the theological teachings of Islam as revealed by Muhammad, which form the basis of the Islamic law (sharia) that drives Islamic societies, necessarily belong to the political sphere in a way that Christianity does not.

This is not to say that Christianity should be, or has been, off the table. Indeed, all the ink (not blood) spilled over assorted Excrement Icons only enhanced their value, not to mention the reputations of their artists (using the word loosely). But the all-encompassing nature of Islam underscores a special need for open, critical examination of the Koran and Muhammad as political, and politically violent, forces that roil our times.

Let's take what are considered the most inflammatory of the Danish Dozen: Bomb-head Muhammad; and Muhammad in the clouds, telling arriving suicide bombers that Islamic paradise is plumb out of virgins. What Denmark's cartoonists did in these caricatures is something few writers have dared to do in words: They made visual reference to the copious, historical and contemporary theological underpinnings of holy war (jihad) and suicide bombings. What is offensive here, then, is not the extremely mild caricature, but rather those theological underpinnings of holy war and suicide bombings. When the widely influential Sheik Yusef al-Qaradawi can praise Muhammad as "an epitome for religious warriors (mujahideen)," Muhammad, a jihad model, shouldn't be a taboo subject in the West, either in caricature or commentary, and certainly shouldn't be super-sacralized, in effect, by a fearfully polite censorship. The subject should be laid out for all to see.

The valiant Dutch parliamentarian and ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali put it this way: "You cannot liberalize Islam without criticizing the Prophet and the Koran. ... You cannot redecorate a house without entering inside." And especially when you're not allowed to see what it looks like.