Tuesday, February 07, 2006

From A Distance...

Sometimes on nights I have the feeling of inhabiting another place. Not a parallel universe so much, but some other imperceptible dimension, superimposed on that of the everyday world like a sheet of acetate on some pretty picture. My life is split between the dual confinements of my darkened bedroom and the eerily-quiet hollows of the hospital at night. My only glimpse of the outside world is from the grimy window of the bus I take to work each evening and home again in the morning. I speak to no-one. I am like a ghost that is compelled to relive some fatal journey in ever-repeating solitude amidst the insensible crowds.

It is no small surprise then that, from such a detached vantage point, I have watched the unfolding drama of the Muhammed cartoons with a growing sense of perplexity and fear. Has the world gone completely mad in the 6 days I have so far spent in isolation? Surely it must. For how else can I explain the rabid reaction that has greeted the publication of several cartoons which depict the prophet Muhammed in various terrorist poses? Are not there embassies being burned to the ground because of it? Are not there threats against the lives of those responsible issued daily? Are not there people baying for blood, clamouring for their pound of flesh?

I do not deny that the cartoons were provocative. Indeed, at a time when many people are working hard to save the everyday Muslim populace from becoming the victim of overly-facile ideological links between them and the various terrorist attrocities comitted in the name of their religion, it is quite probable that they were even rather ill-advised. The fallout, however, has been out of all proportion to the actual insult. The right to freedom of speech is paramount. That includes the right challenge others over their views and actions. If people have a problem with the cartoons, then they are free to raise their objections peacefully. They may debate. They may argue. These are the acceptable means of protest. Burning embassies to the ground and calling for the assassination of the author are not. The cartoons seem to insinute that Muslim and terrorist are one and the same. That is clearly wrong and deserves to have been challenged. However, by enagaging in this orgy of violence, which increasingly seems to have snowballed out of control, these people do nothing to help dispell the inaccurate image that they claim to be the source of their grievences.

I cannot help but be worried by the seeming sacrifice of our secular liberal rights on the altar of religious absolutism, be it of a Christian or Muslim flavour. I have said it before and I will say it again: there is no good reason why we ought to shy away from questioning somebody's religious beliefs. They are but ideas and should be open to challenge like any other. If the current trend toward religion becoming an off-limits topic continues unchallenged, we will have unwittingly transformed it into some sort of state-sponsored dogma.


Anonymous catherine said...

I couldn't agree more.
The only reason I can see for the reigning back of criticism of the publicised reactions of Muslims to the cartoons is because we have troops (and at least one hostage) in Iraq and there might be knock-on effects on them.

9:02 am  
Blogger Simon said...

Freedom comes with responsibility, doesn't it?

What I want to know is, if no-one living has ever seen him or a picture of him, how do they know it's a cartoon of Muhammad?

9:22 am  
Blogger The Venial Sinner said...

The same way we all recognise Jesus or Buddha, I expect.

What do you mean freedom comes with responsibilty? Strictly speaking it doesn't. But, all the same, what is it that you think the free have a responsibility to do?

9:32 am  
Blogger Katy Newton said...

I think that free speech means the right to say what you think even if it offends people, and the right to respond to something which someone else has said which offends you. It doesn't extend to incitement to or threats of violence.

But if it is right that freedom comes with a responsibility not to exercise that freedom in certain circumstances, the phrase is just as applicable to the extremist demonstrators as it is to the publishers of the cartoons, so it doesn't really take the debate much further anyway.

12:14 pm  
Anonymous cunning fox said...

I agree that the response is completely out of proportion and is entirely counterproductive. I think those protesting against the cartoons have far, far outdone the cartoonist and are just making things look vastly worse for themselves.

Having said that, freedom of speech is essential, but practically speaking it isn't absolute. It doesn't include, for instance, intimidation and harassment, slander, perjury etc. Sure, those responding in such a violent way are totally wrong, but those publishing the cartoon were (as you say) at least ill-advised. The topic may have been valid in terms of freedom of speech, but there are ways and ways to get your message across.

3:28 pm  
Blogger Dr Dork said...

Frighteningly ironic. The reaction to depiction of Islamic Fundamentalists as violent, murdering and intolerant...is met with violence, calls for murder, and intolerance.

I know many moderate Muslims, and feel sorry for them, they suffer most I think from such extreme reactions.

3:56 pm  
Blogger The Venial Sinner said...

Katey - you're quite right: what's good for the gander is good for the goose.

Cunning Fox - you're right too: freedom of speech is not absolute. All the same, provided you're freedom of speech is exercised against an idea rather than a single person (as is the case in perjury, slander, etc), I still think that it should be open season.

Dr Dork - very nicely put.

4:21 am  

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