Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Caricatures & Embassies (revised)

The publishing of several Political cartoons last week allegedly depicting the Islamic Prophet Mohammed was greeted by violent demonstrations throughout the Middle East. Denmark (where the cartoons were originally published) has faced the brunt of the violence, with two embassied being burned, one in Syria and the other in Lebanon.

Despite President Bush and Tony Blair's condemnation of the decision to publish the cartoons, the protestors demonstrate an astonishing lack of geographical savvy, targeting Norwegian, Austrian and even the U.S. embassy in Surabaya. A handful of people in various countries have died as a result of the demonstrations--Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia. On the geopolitical front, Iran has broken off ties with Denmark over the incident, and Norway is demanding compensation from Syria for the burning of their embassy, which had shared a building with the Danish embassy.

Is it a free speech issue? Sure it is. Newspapers in many countries have the freedom to publish openly, without fear of government reprisal. The governments cannot and should not be held responsible for the actions of an individual or organization exercising their rights of self-determination. That would be the equivalent of the USG coming under fire for 'allowing' the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl!

Are there double standards at play here? Undoubtedly. Various deities and other religious and historical personalities are frequently depicted in cartoon, despite certain religious traditions that state that God, Yhwh, Shang Ti, or any number of other deities who "cannot be seen or depicted".

Extremism? Definitely. These religious admonitions were set in place to avoid idolatry, or the worship of a physical object in lieu of the actual, unseen being. Going to the extreme of avoiding a cartoon on the premise that someone might be tempted to worship it is absurd, almost to the point of lunacy.

So what's the bottom line? As Prince Roy pointed out, the Danish papers were not plotting to offend the [small] Muslim community in Denmark, but rather to illustrate just how outrageous a fringe element can be. They had every right to print the photos. Likewise, the local Muslim community had legal options available to determine whether the cartoons in question were discriminatory. Similarly, the offended Muslims (internationally) have the right to disapprove, and perhaps the right to demonstrate (depending on individual country laws), but not the right to vandalize, or target innocent institutions that had no influence or responsibility regarding the matter. The Danish Government is right to underscore the right of it's citizens to free speech.

A further wrong, according to the Gateway Pundit, is that much of the controversy appears to have been inflated by a Danish immam who traveled extensively throughout the Middle East not only displaying copies of the published comics, but adding even more offensive (and unpublished) ones to the collection.

It's been said that there should be "no tolerance for intolerance", but that attitude lowers us to their level; being intolerant of their strictness goes against the very freedom that we espouse. They have a right to their restrictive views and values, but they have no right to force (or frighten) us into compliance. Likewise, we have a right to hold more permissive views and values, but we also have no right to force them out of their shell, so to speak. Freedom is all about individual choice: one can choose to live on a mountain top, or under a rock. We can seek knowledge to our hearts content or bury our head in the sand. Set your own limites. No coercion, no arm-twisting.

This is where education, experience, and an open mind can contribute the most to cultural understanding: becoming sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of others worldviews.

As we move about the world, the conscientious traveller goes out of his or her way to 'fit in' with the host culture, removing our shoes when visiting their temples or homes, not leaving our chopsticks standing in the bowl when we are finished eating, wearing long pants and long sleeve shirts in public, or not sticking out our thumb when we want to hitch a ride.

As we continue to roam, this sensitivity moves from the physical to the cultural and the psychological: we don't ask for steak in India, Pork in Iran, alcohol in Saudi Arabia; nor do we tell a Chinese woman that she has "carrot legs".

The problem is that many of us have a 'glass ceiling' on our sensitivity. For some reason, it's quite difficult for people to move beyond 'cultural sensitivity' to 'metaphysical sensitivity'. For example, let's pretend that Person A believes Zoroastrianism is a bunch of rubbish. Every time 'A' meets someone who follows Zoroaster, he/she will disparage them, consciously or unconsciously, for believing in 'nonsense'. The same goes for Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Wiccan, etc.

We wear shoes in our own homes. We eat steaks, hamburgers and porkchops (well, some of us anyway). Some of us look better than others in shorts, tank tops, and bikinis. We don't bow or press our palms together when we greet someone. We don't usually bring gifts when we visit our friends, or buy souvenirs for them when we travel abroad. We can hold our liquor.

If we are so willing (eager even!) to set aside our personal habits when we travel, why is it so difficult to step outside of our personal belief system, just for a little while? It doesn't mean that we are denying our faith, or subscribing to the other religion; it demonstrates our sensitivity. Certainly, it's acceptable for us to have the opinion that one belief system may be better than another--it's just not acceptable to intimate as much.

And who knows? The world is full of wonderful things--we might be surprised to find a few of our rough edges smoothed away. ;)

PS: For a highly detailed timeline of events surrounding these cartoons,
please also visit the 'Informed Consent' blog.