God, Muhammed, and the American Flag

by on February 9th, 2006

To Western eyes the Muslim response to the offensive Danish Muhammed cartoons (more accurately, the response of some Muslims primarily in Arab countries) seems ridiculously disproportionate. This is the 21st Century. Can’t they take a joke? Don’t they get satire?

Yet Muslims aren’t alone in responding with rage to perceived insult. Many Americans feel a similar rage, for example, when protesters deface a piece of colored cloth. Soldiers willing to kill and willing to die to protect the American flag sometimes become veterans perfectly willing to attack those who burn it. A fragile sense of honor blends far too easily into the kind of excess we more readily associate with Muslims over there than with good ‘ole Americans over here. Patriotism, nationalism, religion — stir the pot and danger pops out.

The public debate over the Danish cartoons stars players with rigid views on both sides. Editors making a fetish of free speech stand against Muslims with a particularly unforgiving view of Islam. It’s easy to get righteous when one value is more important than anything else. That’s how we get to the much-bandied-about “clash of civilizations” — modernism versus traditionalism, democracy versus authority, humanism versus religion, universalism versus tribalism. It’s harder to sort one’s way through all this when you think values are multifaceted and complex, when everything — under one or another set of circumstances — might be balanced, compromised, or ignored.

Despite my belief that Muslim resentment against the West is often justified, I’m enough of a Westernized assimilated atheist to find the violent reaction to the cartoons unjustifiable. Still, I don’t know enough about Islam to really understand the symbolic impact. I gather that Muslims themselves disagree about whether depictions of Muhammed and other prophets are allowed and about what response is proper when those depictions are offensive, especially when the images, like these cartoons, are intentionally offensive. It seems the violence grew slowly, supposedly pushed along by governments and groups seeking to intensify the initial tepid response. But even now, as Arab-American blogger Bedouina notes, the voices of moderate Muslims calling for restraint are easily heard if one pays attention.

I could refer here, too, to Christianity’s long violent determination to carry out God’s word and to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians “in the name of Jewish people,” but the point should be clear. When God speaks, blood flows.

Except, supposedly, in today’s so-called civilized West, where God’s work is more sanitized. The modern Western God, after all, is a liberal humanist who enjoys a good laugh and appreciates satire, not a brittle, narrow-minded tribal warlord jealously guarding his wards’ honor. So we protect our new Free Speech idol to the point of offensiveness, not because we must but because we choose to.

And thus we generate a Free Speech response. The Iranian-inspired effort to disseminate cartoons mocking the Holocaust, or denying it, or whatever they’re doing, seems to my Western Jewish eyes not equivalent in purpose or scope to the Danish cartoons, but hey, speech is speech. Satirizing Muslims who use religion to foment terror seems to me more legitimate than Holocaust denial, but once Free Speech is absolute, it’s hard to draw lines.

Speech causes pain. It has consequences. To claim otherwise, to claim Muslims should just learn to live with satire and keep their protest within acceptable Western limits, seems to me a denial of speech’s power. It’s inconsistent to say speech is so important we must test its limits at all cost (as when newspapers aggressively re-post the Danish cartoons over and over again) and then say it’s so inconsequential people should simply ignore what they don’t like to hear.

All of which doesn’t mean I have a solution. Absolutism looks reasonable when slopes are slippery — I too like the freedom to say whatever I want and would object to externally imposed limits — but clashing absolutisms yield mutual destruction. Sometimes both sides should step back from the brink, take a couple of deep breaths, and try to figure out what happens next.


Dennis Fox is emeritus associate professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield. See his academic and political essays on psychology, law, and justice.

Dennis Fox