Sunday, February 05, 2006

Let's hear it for blasphemy!

The Irate Codger finds himself so mad he could spit. He hasn't been this disgusted since the Senate voted 99-0 to condemn the two judges of the Ninth Circuit Court who held that the words "under God" in the Pledge contravened the establishment clause of the Constitution, inasmuch as compelling children to affirm a belief in a supreme being in a patriotic ritual made true patriotism and monotheism inseparable. If that didn't establish religion, what did? This utterly sane and constitutionally impeccable decision was deemed "deeply offensive," an "unforgivable insult" to the vast majority of Americans for whom this is a Christian--whoops, Judeo-Christian--nation. Impiety makes the great majority bolt and flee like panicked sheep.

So with this stir over the blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet--blessedness be upon Him--published in an obscure Danish newspaper. It's not so much that the whole Islamic world appears to have gone nuts over it (although, intriguingly, Al Jazeera Magazine Online has downplayed the story almost to the point of censorship) as that the Blair government and the Bush administration have opportunistically sided with Muslim outrage, as no other NATO governments have, and that the press in both the UK and the US have gone along with their governments in blacking out the offending cartoons. They've been printed everywhere else in Europe, apparently in the curious belief that the public has a right to know what provoked the furor, and the press has an obligation to inform it. But Jack Straw [Do you know, when I was teaching at East Anglia in 1968-69, Jack Straw was a "student radical," quite a firebrand, one heard---who could forget that name, right out of the 14th century Peasants' Revolt?], speaking for Her Majesty's Government, denounced republication as "insulting...insensitive...disrespectful...and wrong."

The Guardian editorial for today ties itself in knots from the outset. "The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression," it asserts, yet it would be "senselessly provocative" to reproduce these images, "of no intrinsic value, which pander to the worst prejudices about Muslims." After all, we're speaking here of the founder of "one of the world's three great monotheistic religions." Ah, yes, the three great monotheistic religions--how could any sensitive person possibly accuse any of them of having been or being fanatical, murderous, and bigoted? "Even if the intention was satirical and not blasphemous," the Guardian says, publishing these cartoons in the first place was "wrong." So even if the intent was satirical--as it obviously was--the result is clearly blasphemy, and that is absolutely out of bounds.

To which Le Nouvel Observateur editor Jean-Marcel Bougereau replies, "Blasphemy is Authorized." "In France," he writes, "everyone has the right to criticize religions. Blasphemy is even authorized. It is perfectly dump on religions, to judge them to be lying, soul-destroying, mind-numbing. Unless we want to re-establish the crime of blasphemy?" He notes that many of the most glorious names in the French literary canon blasphemed, beginning with Voltaire [but doesn't mention my favorite, Denis Diderot, who wrote that "mankind will not be truly free until the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest"]. The German home minister refused to apologize for the printing of the offending cartoons in four papers. "Why should the German government apologize?" he asked. "This is an expression of press freedom." Quite.

The US is just as bad as the Brits. A spokesman for the State Department said of the cartoons, "We find them offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find them offensive." Muslims of the world, we feel your pain. If George W. Bush really wanted to apologize to Muslims, it might have been more to the point to fire Gen. Jerry Boykin for standing in evangelical pulpits in uniform and calling Muslims idol-worshippers, or to condemn the Rev. Franklin Graham, "chaplain to the Pentagon," for calling Islam a false religion. Or, even, to express some doubt about his being the Almighty's servant and messenger in bringing freedom to Iraq and utterly crushing the "Islamists," so contradictory to his idiotic mantra that Islam is a "peaceful" religion.

Why would the US and the UK grovel so, when, so far, no other nation except poor Denmark has? Would the following have anything to do with it? "The United States has been trying to improve its image in the Muslim world, badly damaged by the Iraq war and American support for Israel." (this morning's NY Times) And who is our ally in Iraq? Why, it's Tony Blair!

That every US newspaper has censored the cartoons, and all the TV networks, save for one brief exposure of one on ABC, is contemptible. What are they afraid of, that we'll all turn to stone if we glance at one? The Washington Post editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, explained on NPR this afternoon that it was sufficient to describe the cartoons and that actually printing any of them would provide no real furthering of understanding of the issue and would be "gratuitously offensive." So, for our own good, evidently, we must accept that big editor knows that it's best for us that we never see these awful things..

What is laughable about all this, of course, is that anyone with a computer can find these cartoons in a minute. I did, and I wasn't horrified. In fact, the one of Muhammad stopping suicide bombers at the gates of Paradise and saying, "Hold it, we're all out of virgins!" made me laugh briefly. I remembered one young Palestinian "martyr" in the mid-nineties who made a video before blowing up himself and eleven Israelis at a busstop, a video in which he said, "I will enter heaven wearing a necklace of the skulls of the Sons of Zion." Gee, I almost forgot that this is a vicious distortion of Islam, one of those stereotypes perpetrated by anti-Muslim bigots.

One argument in the Arab press is that we in the West would never print such cartoons if they had been aimed at Jews rather than Muslims. They have a point. Were there any cartoons in the West ridiculing religious Zionist fanaticism and condemning its results after Dr. Baruch Goldberg of Brooklyn machine-gunned twenty-eight Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1993? Perhaps there were in Europe, but not here. If there had been, you may be sure that Abraham Foxman would have had a letter published in the NY Times the next morning, if not a column, condemning such gross insensitivity and--of course--blatant anti-Semitism. After the good doctor's martyrdom, there was erected a memorial to him with an eternal flame in the east Jerusalem settlement of Kiryat Arba which stood until Ehud Barak ordered its dismantlement in 2000. The Hassidic rabbis of Hebron and Jerusalem still give as good as they get in trading curses and anathemas with the mullahs of Jerusalem, Nablus, and Gaza.

What we need is more blasphemy, not less. Did any American cartoonist have the cheek upon the death of Pope John Paul II to point out that he cleaned up on priests professing anything like liberation theology; that he kicked Fr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of the church for standing up to the heirs of Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti (so good to MotherTheresa had the junior Duvalier been); that he stifled Archbishop Romero of San Salvador, that peasants' priest, before the ARENA gunmen assassinated him; that his "abstinance only" no-condoms HIV/AIDS campaign in sub-Saharan Africa, so faithfully carried out by the Bush administration, has condemned millions to an early death; that he ignored priestly molestation of boys and gave a sinecure in Rome to Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston, the predator's enabler; that he condemned perhaps half his priesthood for manifesting the "grave spiritual disorder" of homosexuality; and that he laid it down as immutable that women must not be admitted to the priesthood because all of Jesus's disciples were men? If anyone was ripe for the scorn of humanity, it was this mean, bitter old man at his death. Yet, everywhere was reverence.

The only essay about this rudeness of Danish cartoonists to the Prophet I've seen with which I'm in full agreement is Christopher Hitchens's in today's Slate. It's good to see him back in vintage Hitchens form. One minor disagreement. Hitchens accepts that any depiction of the Prophet is and always has been absolutely verboten to Muslims. Well, I have seen reproductions of sixteenth century Persian and Mughal illuminated manuscripts depicting all manner of scenes, including Muhammad teaching his disciples, sitting, in a turban and with a neat little van Dyke, on a carpet, right forefinger up and pointing for emphasis.

Finally, all this reminds me of one of the funniest editorial cartoons I've ever seen. It was by Jeff Danziger at the time of the Ayatollah Khomenei's fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. We see Rushdie in the foreground running toward us in terror, pursued by a phalanx of Muslims brandishing scimitars led by the Ayatollah. And running along beside Rushdie is an agent holding his fedora on his head with one hand and clutching a briefcase with the other, turning to the writer smilingly and saying, "Rushdie, I tell you you can't buy publicity like this!"