Sunday, August 06, 2006

Epilogue to the Danish-Islamic Cartoon Controversy-An Appeal for an Intellectual Consensus.

Epilogue to the Danish-Islamic Cartoon Controversy-
An Appeal for an Intellectual Consensus.

The controversy concerning the Danish cartoons may have faded but the deep issues that drove a few drawings to the forefront of international events remain hidden just beneath the surface. Unfortunately, the vicissitudes of our 24-hr news cycle demand that we divert our attention to the next crises of the moment before any attempt can be made to arrive at some type of reasonable resolution. This particular situation will most certainly erupt again with more tragic consequences. It need not play out that way. It is possible to find some common ground between freedom of expression and respect for beliefs. Unfortunately that usually takes the form of the lowest common denominator, a condescending “can’t we all just get along” approach that virtually assures that we will not. What’s needed is an enlightened consensus. The real issue here was not censorship or intolerance but a lack of intellectual honesty from almost all quarters.
The Danish Newspaper that originally printed the cartoons and the Islamic group that strutted them around the Mideast (along with their own pornographic additions) obviously had agendas that superceded and often contradicted their public statements. Most of the additional players who were drawn in from every side seemed to step into their role more by default than design. Others still, had personal missions that had very little to do with art, religion or freedom.
One of the more self-serving statements came from the culture editor of the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, that commissioned the cartoons. Fleming Rose said that he wanted to see to what degree self-censorship was at play from fear of violence from Islamic radicals. He cited a comedian who had said that he had no problem urinating on the bible but that he would not dare do the same to the Koran.
Did he honestly need to conduct a pseudo-survey among cartoonists to determine if and to what extent this is true? European writers and artists most certainly have had a head in the sand policy when it comes to Islamic practice. It would be foolish to think that the same self-censorship is not at play here. One does not need to pile up anecdotal information to see that artistic pieces dealing with Islam are conspicuously absent from the world stage.
To be fair, a certain amount of self-censorship surrounds Judeo-Christian ideals as well but it does not approach anywhere near the level it does with Islam. You won’t see a Sarah Silverman starring in a comedy called “Mohammed is Magnificent” anytime in the near future. Most progressive publications would have no problem printing a picture as offensive to Christians such as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (basically a crucifix submerged in urine. Not one of Serrano’s better pieces but the thought was there.) Yet they would not dare show a work similarly disrespectful to Islam. You won’t even find anything as relatively more benign (yet certainly more powerful and thought provoking) as Salvador Dali’s surreal “Crucifixion” with its homoerotic imagery.
It would be too easy to attribute this to fear of retaliation. Although that’s partly true. Fear of retaliation certainly does come into play. But artists as a whole tend to be a fearless lot. The lack of serious art dealing with Islam may be due to an even more disturbing fact. Many artists simply feel deep down that Islam is not worth challenging. Those who have dared to confront Islamic practice, such as the late Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh, have found themselves casually dismissed by the art community as a gadfly (to say nothing of his brutal treatment by the Islamists that he dared challenge, but more on that in a moment.) The best art is at least somewhat subversive and why bother with subversion if one has been sold into the politically correct consensus that the proper stance should be one of condescending acceptance?
It was painful to see normally well-written publications twist themselves into knots in explaining their decision not to print the cartoons. Most focused on the fact that the cartoons were offensive. And indeed, they were. One portrayed the Prophet as a terrorist. Few were brave enough to honestly admit that fear of retaliation affected their decision not to publish. Fewer still, had the integrity to strongly condemn the twisted logic and racist overtones ingrained in the process that created them. The conservative Jyllands-Posten commissioned these cartoons to specifically lampoon Mohammed. The predictable result was simplistic and sophomoric trash.
The papers that did decide to reprint the cartoons tended to break to opposite sides of the political spectrum. Those on the far right were happy to have the excuse of western solidarity to showcase anti-Islamic images. Those on the left paradoxically reasoned that the cherished ideal of freedom of the press made it their civic obligation to reprint the cartoons. The editors of the alternative weekly New York Press resigned from their positions when their publisher would not allow them to follow suit.
There are better defined principles to fall on one’s sword for. Brave intellectuals would die protecting Dali’s art. Some might even do the same for Serrano. These silly drawings do not approach any serious intellectual’s conception of art. I don’t mean to dismiss cartoons in general. Stan Lee was a great artist. His expansive body of work has had a huge effect on future writers and artists from his position at Marvel comics. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol are already postmodern classics; their works illuminating the connection between the individual and the pop culture that may yet consume us all. Art should help us to see the world in a new way or force ourselves to look inward deeply enough so that we can see ourselves in a different perspective.

Dozens of people have already died as a direct result of these insipid drawings. Clearly this indicates a larger, serious intellectual crisis. The issue of course, is not Islam but fundamentalism-the same fundamentalism that exists here but in a slightly more pervasive and exponentially more violent strain. The answer does not lie in oppositional dogma of either a secular or religious nature. What is needed is a progressive approach rooted in intellectualism.
To that end it bears worth examining the exact nature of religious fundamentalism. Every so often a spiritual person such a Moses, Jesus, Mohammed or Sidhartha (yes, even Buddhism can and sometimes is practiced in a fundamentalist way.) perceives things in a new light. Qualities such as justice, forgiveness, solidarity, and enlightenment facilitate a period of personal and communal enrichment. The spark quickly catches ushering in a new era of divine inspiration and discernment. But within one or two generations, those in power declare the period of divine inspiration over and decide to dictate the discernment themselves. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for no greater crime than saying that God had spoken directly to her. Mary Dyer was hung on the Boston Common for the same reason. Social mores, technology, and even style of dress tends to become frozen in place as focus is shifted away from discernment and on to some future perceived endpoint such the Coming of the Messiah (First or Second), Heaven, Paradise, or Nirvana. All action is judged and justified by its ability to expedite the realization of the perceived endpoint. Sacred Ritual devolves into meaningless repetition. Deep Symbolism gives way to jingoistic signs to be fought over.
How do we move forward? We reconnect to that period of divine discernment. We try to see things in a new light based on the real values rather than the material manifestations that have, like weeds, sprung up over time.
The Islamic world should come to understand that the West is not as monolithic as their own societies. Demanding that the Danish Prime Minister apologize for cartoons that neither he nor the Danish government have anything to do with is absurd. Physically attacking embassies and people who only happen to be associated with Denmark or ‘the West’ is beyond criminal. It is barbaric.
Western intellectuals should realize that the Islamic world has many talented writers and thinkers who share their thirst for artistic freedom. It is they, not Jyllands-Posten and their silly cartoons who deserve solidarity and support.
Irshad Manji (The Trouble with Islam) and Reza Aslan (No God but God) are two Muslim writers who very articulately call for some type of reformation within Islam today. Aslan is particularly adept at putting Islam in an historical perspective and demonstrating its vital core. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (The Caged Virgin) is a former Dutch Member of Parliament and outspoken critic of Islam’s treatment of woman. After Muslim fundamentalists killed her friend and colleague, Theo Van Gogh, for making a film critical of Islam, they impaled his body with a letter saying that she would be next. She continues to speak out despite the fact that death threats against her have necessitated 24-hour protection.
Tragically, many more independent Muslim thinkers languish in prisons in Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia for speaking out. Sadly, others such as the Swiss writer Tariq Ramadan (Western Muslims and the Future of Islam) seem to draw their vitality by constantly posturing themselves at the sterile center between the fundamentalists and those Muslims who take real risks to put Islamic practice on some path of needed reform.
We live in a global age. Western writers and artists need to put their shoulder to the wheel. Many American political writers would do well to at least temporarily rise above the myopic Republican vs. Democrat paradigm that has choked American thought for too long. Islamic intellectuals could help American writers in that regard.
The situation may seem bleak but art has always existed in some sort of constrictive environment. Such a setting is actually conducive to great art. There was a time when the Catholic Church controlled almost every facet of life in Europe. It still exerts much influence but centuries ago it had a virtual choke hold on European thought. Yet artists and writers still found a way to challenge and change the landscape.
Dante made a powerful statement about the senior clergy by placing several popes in his mythic journey through purgatory and hell. The painter, Caravaggio put himself in his paintings of Jesus’ crucifixion. By implicating himself by proxy, he challenged the tired thinking that the Jews were Christ-killers. Michelangelo and many other painters and sculptors all pushed the boundaries of sexual freedom. These artists actually made a difference.
It’s important to note that they did this by working somewhat within the existing framework of what was acceptable. They also felt very strongly that the material they were chipping away at had a dynamic core worth preserving. What they were really doing was clearing up some of the brush that had accumulated over the centuries.
It’s a shame that Jyllands-Posten had not chosen artists with a similarly enlightened approach; that they at least knew enough about Islam to have respect for its vital essence. Perhaps then, they would not have produced such ugliness. It was an ugliness that nearly obscured the fact that any depiction of Mohammed would have been considered offensive. Islam, as it’s practiced today, forbids images of Mohammed. It’s one thing to ask a publication to refrain from printing blatantly offensive images. It’s quite another to forbid any representation of what is at the very least an historical figure. As Mr. Rose very succinctly put it, “Some Muslims try to impose their religious taboos in the public domain. In my book that’s not asking for my respect, it’s asking for my submission.” About that at least Mr. Rose has a point.
One wonders how the situation might have played out had Jyllands-Posten simply printed a dignified, even noble picture of Mohammed. I dare say that rather than riots, we might actually have a dialogue. The Koran itself does not prohibit this. The Koran merely forbids images of God. It was later Islamic tradition that forbade depictions of Mohammed on the theory that it would lead to idolatry. This was formulated at a time when pictures were relatively rare. Now that pictures and videos are a ubiquitous part of our culture, a reasonable man can ask- Is not the danger of idolatry from the other direction? Prohibiting the depiction of this one man (or few men, if we include the other prophets revered in Islam, but I doubt their depiction would have struck such a nerve) certainly looks like idolatry. One must make a distinction between Islam and Islamic practice. Islam may be pure and monotheistic but Islamic practice today tends to be idolatrous.
The French philosopher Jean Bauliderid makes an interesting point on our relationship to idols in general. In his book “Simulations” he states “It can be seen that the iconoclasts, who are often accused of despising and denying images, were in fact the ones who accorded them their actual worth, unlike the iconolaters, who saw in them only reflections and were content to venerate God at one remove.”
Other religious traditions have also fallen into the same trap of going too far around the curve and giving vitality to the phenomena that they originally attempted to either de-emphasize or prevent. Buddhism seeks to deny the self. Yet some practitioners ironically become narcissistic in their search for selflessness. Orthodox Judaism puts an emphasis on Jewish law. However, a hyper focus on the letter of the law often puts one in conflict with its spirit of justice and mercy. Similarly, throughout its history, Christianity, which was built on love and forgiveness, has often been the most violent of the world’s religions. At other times it has over extended its message of forgiveness to one of complete indifference which is the opposite of love. The recent pedophile epidemic in the Catholic Church is a good example of that. Priests who were repeat offenders were continually transferred to new parishes after a brief period of rehabilitation and “forgiveness” where they committed a new round of crimes. This was done partly to protect the power structure but also a gross misapplication of the concept of divine forgiveness to the point where it had become blind indifference.
It was almost 13 years ago that Samuel P. Huntington wrote his seminal essay, “The Clash of Civilizations”. In it, he predicted that world politics is entering a new phase in which most international conflict will be cultural. Over the past decade, this has proven true from Bosnia to Somalia. Huntington has indeed proven himself to be quite prescient. Could anyone have predicted two decades ago that the publication of a few silly cartoons would result in world-wide riots leaving over a hundred people dead and many more injured?
But ever the nationalist, Huntington slouches onward and rightward to say that the United States must forge alliances with similar cultures and spread its 'values' (whatever that means) wherever possible. He concludes by saying that the U.S. should be accommodating where possible but confrontational when necessary. Unfortunately Huntington’s theory is used as a blueprint by the neo-conservatives and even a few nominal liberals to further polarize an already culturally conflicted world.
This may also present a good opportunity, perhaps even a necessity, for those of us whose values are framed by neither nationalistic nor religious agendas to address and influence the direction of the same cultural trends. But this means taking strong stands for artistic freedom and religious beliefs that extend beyond mere cultural acquiescence and political correctness.
George Bush, Dick Cheney and the neo-cons in their administration myopically think the way to handle this very real culture clash is to invade foreign countries and force-feed them a cheap aberration of the pretense of democracy that we have here. The Islamic (and to a much lesser extent Christian and Jewish) fundamentalists feel that they can control the conversation through terrorism and by taking advantage of the vacuous politically correct atmosphere that currently pervades European and American thought. Intellectuals from every side of the divide should rise to the challenge to prove them wrong.