(Note: I am bringing this six year old post to the front in view of the recent events that are unfolding in Egypt, Libya and now Yemen.)
Anna posted her sensible thoughts on the brouhaha over the Danish cartoons which have inflamed passions in the Muslim world. The result has been protests in several Islamic countries, some of them violent. Danish embassies have been attacked, burnt and Danes and Norwegians (and the EU) have been threatened with kidnappings and other bodily harm. I categorically condemn all violent protests. Muslims are justified in expressing disgust and outrage at these silly cartoons but they are not justified in burning buildings and threatening violence. Having said that, there is an issue here that has not been adequately addressed in this context. PZ Myers of the immensely popular science blog "Pharyngula", an unswerving proponent of free speech and unapologetic opponent of religious fundamentalism of all stripes, had two very good posts on this matter. He asked a subtler question than most have asked. He wondered whether the outrage on both sides (Muslim and non-Muslim, especially in Europe) had only to do with free speech and Muslim overreaction. Or did it to a fair extent, also result from racism and socio economic deprivation of Muslims in Europe and the generally impoverished condition of Muslims in Islamic nations . The comments on both posts ran fast and furious and I would guess that opinions were equally divided on this issue. There was some commentary that I interpreted as self serving explanations of European sensiblities, openness and secular democratic values clashing with the backward mentality of European Muslims. I posted a comment there regarding this matter - my own take on why European racism is indeed a player in this latest conflagration. My comment addressed primarily the opinions of a Danish reader who in my view, was somewhat disingenuous in his insistence that the Danish society is bending over backwards to accomodate the Muslims among them while also protecting freedom of speech and secular values and that racism had nothing to do with the latest uproar. I am publishing my comments for the readers here. I was a bit angrier in my tone than is my usual style in public.
Ruchira Paul said:
"Freedom of expression is paramount in democratic societies, including the right to criticize, vilify and mock religion - all religions. No contest there. Having said that, so is the wisdom to not waste this freedom in making trivial and predictable points. What did the Danish cartoons accomplish in establishing? That medieval religious fundamentalism permeates Muslim societies much more deeply than any other religious group? That Muslims consider themselves under siege almost to the level of paranoia and are likely to resort to violence for real or perceived threat/insults to their faith? That most Islamic nations curtail freedom of speech in their own countries and want to do the same in others, in the name of religion? Ho hum. Which one of these came as a surprise to anyone? To all the freedom of speech purists here, PZ Myers and Nullifidian have it right this time. Their nuanced take on the issue is not a zero sum game - it is neither anti-free speech nor pro religion. To prove an intellectual point, when the adversary is operating on a purely emotional level, is not only unwise, it is a waste of energy. Islamic fundamentalism (like all others) has to be resisted, attenuated and eventually eliminated. But it will not happen by engaging in juvenile displays of provocation through theological football as Jyllands-Posten was attempting to do. The resistance will have to take place in the realm of universal human rights, rationality and common decency. "My democracy can beat up your prophet" is hardly a strategy that is likely to work. Mr. Lund, don't waste your breath.
While we are discussing fundamentalism, let us not ignore the context of racism which PZ Myers alludes to. It is perhaps worthwhile for most Americans to recognize the prevalent zeitgeist in Europe. Mr. Lund's erudite sophistry notwithstanding, Europeans as a whole, are much more racist and xenophobic than the average American. I say this as a brown skinned person (not Muslim, not uneducated) who has lived in both continents. European secularism and pacifism are results of exhaustion from four hundred years of oppressive colonialism (the Bible in one hand and a riding crop or gun in the other) and two great wars which nearly annihilated the continent. All the calls for assimilation - "you are here - you must be like us" is BS. The non-Europeans are marginalized, ghettoized and the implicit message to them is "stay in your place." In spite of all overt racism in the US, an immigrant can hope to realize professional and social ambitions in the US - not in Europe. Mr. Lund would argue that the Scandinavian countries were not involved in either colonization or warfare. True. But the mindset of these homogeneous countries is not very different when faced with people who are "different". In fact, George Bush's disastrous action in Iraq and the middle east, is at some level, more honest than what the Europeans are up to vis-a-vis their immigrants. Kill a hundred thousand Iraqis to impose your values? Why not? How is that worse than treating minorities within your borders like s--t with the vestigial hauteur of ex-colonists? A much more honest course of action will be to deport all those whom you are not going to assimilate anyway -ever, and go back to the idyllic existence of Hans Christian Andersen, milk, cheese, football and Lego. Why the pretense? Only to feel holier than thou - especially, holier than those unsophisticated cowboy Americans? Mr. Lund's casual crack about dating one of the last ten Parsis notwithstanding, his "secular" countrymen are much less likely to date a Parsi, a Hindu, a Buddhist and god forbid a Muslim than the average "religious" American. 'Nuff said."