Along the Tracks

Monday, February 06, 2006

Riots over cartoons a stark demonstration of differences

Islamic culture, though rooted in the same Middle Eastern soil as Judaism and Christianity, and a substantial contributor to present Western culture through Middle Ages and Renaissance connections, carries some fundamental differences which occasionally come to light.

(A quick aside: Terrorism is not one of those differences. Attacks on civilians to spread fear run back through time beyond the Crusades, before the sack of Rome, prior to the Peloponnesian wars and earlier than Israel’s conquering of Canaan. Unfortunately, it may be a dark human trait engrained beneath cultures. The tactics or tools change, but terrorism itself has been a vile companion of humankind from prehistory.)

Recent eruptions of protest and violence against Denmark and her symbols were set off by the publication of a newspaper editorial cartoon which depicted the Prophet Mohammed. Islamic traditions (not, as far as I can tell, the Koran) prohibit any physical representation of the Prophet. This precept (similar to the arguments favoring iconoclasm in the early Christian Church) is an interpretation of Koranic verses which make it clear none are to be worshipped, revered or prayed to except God (Allah) Himself. Representations of Mohammed were seen as dangerous temptations, perhaps placing the Prophet and other prophets in Islam, such as Moses, Jonah and Jesus, above their roles as messengers, made quite explicit in the Koran.

One “branch” or “sect” of Islam, Wahabbism, carries this interpretation much further, declaring even the concept of monuments, markers and artifacts from the time of Mohammed as sinful. Indeed, archaeologists around the world have been frustrated by the Wahabbist Saudi royal family, which has destroyed many precious buildings and works of art from the sixth and seventh centuries (the time of Mohammed) to avoid tempting the masses into “revering” them as special.

It so happens this sect has also provided the theology and Koranic interpretations behind fundamentalist Sunni Islam. A few members of the sect have taken things to violent extremes – Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda most notably.

Still, the riots over the Danish cartoons are an event of the masses, not just militant ideologues. They demonstrate a basic distinction between Western and Islamic culture: tolerance.

It is hardly necessary to list the affronts to Christianity found daily in the media and in entertainment. Jesus and His image (as well as other characters and symbols of the faith) are used precisely to offend believers. The works are created by artists determined to strike out against the dominant moral foundations of Western culture. These sometimes elicit protests and public debate. Very, very rarely, an act of violence will occur, usually when a lone believer caught up in the pain of the artist’s insult decides to slash a painting or throw a brick through a playhouse window.

Most Christians, however, understand the same freedom which allows the affront also allows them to proclaim their faith. It is no coincidence that the United States, the nation with the greatest respect for freedom of speech – including intentionally offensive speech – also has the highest rates of religious membership in the Western world.

Islamic culture is different. Lack of free expression has been endemic for much of its history. Thus, the angers and frustrations with government, with the culture, with religion and with life, which we blow off in a few comments daily over lunch, are pent up for months and years for most living in the Islamic world.

When an approved opportunity for expression arises, people leap at the chance. This is not to say the object of their demonstrations has not really offended them; Muslims take their faith as seriously as members of any other religion. However, the offense which they protest is the officially-sanctioned spark which ignites the daily anguish of government oppression, lack of opportunity, stifling of creativity and limitations on association with others.

Change is occurring in the Islamic world, and as freedom and opportunity blossom, reactions will not always be peaceful or moderate (note the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories). Across time, however, people will be introduced to new ideas, new interpretations and new methods. The underprivileged will have the opportunity to challenge the status quo and to guide their lives in the directions they choose. They will learn to tolerate points of view different from their own. They will recognize their new liberty is predicated on the same liberty for others.

That is the hope – a hope which rests on strong historical evidence. Remember, just over 60 years ago Germans were murdering millions of Jews in gas chambers. Russians were executing millions of landowners. The United States had yet to accept African-Americans into full citizenship.

People and cultures do change. The Islamic world needs this change.

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