Archive for Saturday, February 11, 2006

Closed society hampers understanding

February 11, 2006

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I think I saw Jesus the other day.

It was only for a second and the TV was on mute. But I'd swear I saw a commercial for a raunchy cable cartoon show that depicted the Son of God as a Peeping Tom at somebody's window.

I immediately went out and burned down a Starbucks.

OK, not really. I am used to living in a pluralistic society where reverence is a rare and dwindling commodity. Had I chosen to make any protest, it would have taken the form of a nasty e-mail. Instead, I shook my head and returned to my exercise bike.

What a difference an ocean makes. Southeast Asia and the Middle East, of course, have suffered days of rioting in the last week by Muslims outraged over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The drawings were originally published in a Danish newspaper last year, and were republished recently in Europe. Many Muslims consider it blasphemy to depict Muhammad period, much less with a bomb in his turban, as one of the cartoons does. This is apparently meant as political satire, a way of pointing out the tension between two contradictory facts:

1) Islam is a religion of peace.

2) An inordinate amount of the burning and destroying in this world seems to be done in the name of Islam.

So naturally as protest, some Muslims choose to ... um ... burn and destroy. Lord, save us all from the irony impaired.

There is, yes, a freedom of expression case to be made here. Also a word to be said for the need of tolerance in pluralistic societies. But I doubt if those most in need of hearing that case would be capable of understanding it. The irony impaired are seldom reachable by reason.

The argument is not about religion, but culture. Note that American Muslims - surely as offended by the cartoons as Muslims elsewhere - have felt no need to riot. They are writing letters to editors and holding peaceful rallies while their co-religionists are burning embassies down.

No, the argument is about what happens when any culture anywhere is so bereft and so closed that its people have no way of comprehending or even imagining lives and beliefs beyond their own.

Consider the announcement by an Iranian newspaper of a retaliatory contest seeking cartoons that mock the Holocaust. This, as a means of highlighting the West's supposed hypocrisy, its double standard on the question of free expression. A Muslim Web site has already posted a cartoon showing Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler.

All of which is so appallingly stupid, misreads the rest of the world so completely, you don't know where to begin pulling it apart.

Perhaps it is enough to ask: Do they really expect this crude attempt at provocation to make Jews riot in the streets of Tel Aviv or Palm Beach?

Dear God, I think they do. That's the pitiful thing. Both for the aforementioned stupidity and for what it says about radical Islam's isolation, its separation, its "apartness" from the entire rest of the world, mainstream Islam emphatically included.

I'm dismayed that a few publishers felt it necessary to give gratuitous offense to 1.1 billion people. Just because you have the right to say a thing doesn't always mean you should.

Still, what's more dismaying is the way some in the Muslim world have chosen to respond. At least 10 people have lost their lives in these riots. All over a series of cartoons.

And you wonder: Are they so far removed from the realities of the world the rest of us occupy that they don't see the damage they're doing to their faith, their people, themselves?

But then, true believers are seldom afflicted by doubt.

I think I saw Jesus peeking through a window the other day. It offended me. But the alternative is a world in which no such depiction could ever appear because laws and mobs would not allow it.

That offends me more.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald

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