Stupidity breeds stupidity. That’s the only lesson one can draw from yet another exhibition of scurrilous anti-Islamic propaganda (in the US and later in France), followed by mob hysteria and the shedding of innocent blood in Libya and Egypt. Who takes the trouble to watch such trash? And are not those who broadcast it to the Arab world, whether they be “Muslim”, “Christian” or “secularist” rabble-rousers, also culpable for the ensuing murders?
Violence is fueled by ignorance. And ignorance about “human rights’ as much as ignorance about Islam (not to mention Christianity) is rife in the Western mass media. Fundamentalist secularists, paradoxically joined by some American fundamentalist preachers, can only see the issue as one of “freedom of speech”. In a pluralist society people have the right to make movies and print cartoons which other people may find offensive. No subject should be taboo.
But the most difficult decisions we make are not about right and wrong, but choosing between competing rights. Error has its right of expression, but every person, including the dead, has the right not to be misrepresented or vilified. Laws against libel and slander recognize this in every civilized society. And publicly insulting those who cannot answer us back (especially the dead, children, the mentally disabled, and those in other societies) is the hallmark of the coward. Those who replace debate with insults are every bit as fanatical as those who resort to violence instead of counter-argument.
The language of “tolerance” is selectively applied in the US and Europe today. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is tolerated, but not anti-Gay rhetoric, for example. Indeed, anybody even expressing a personal opinion that he or she believes that homosexual acts are expressions of a disordered sexuality are hounded out of a job or refused an opportunity to express their views in the media an even in academic fora. As for anybody who expresses mockery at blacks or women, there is no way he can run for public office. The media outrage will be deafening. Why, then this self-righteous hypocrisy when it come to hate speech against Muslims or Christians? (Jews in the US, being the benefactors of many universities and owners of media cannot, of course, be touched)
Furthermore, one can enjoy a right and yet choose not to exercise it. Wise newspaper editors do this all the time. Some article, cartoon or photograph may not be in the public interest, or run counter to the paper’s own views, or fan the flames of social conflict by exposing a particularly vulnerable community to derision and contempt. And that is the position many Muslims find themselves in, especially in the US and parts of Western Europe, after Sept 11 2001.
At the height of the controversy about the Danish cartoons a few years ago, a Danish woman theologian, Lissi Rasmussen, wrote: “The fact that almost on a daily basis the media portray one-sided, negative stories about immigrants in general and Muslims in particular (reproduced by politicians and by public opinion), affects the Muslim minorities who feel unwanted, insecure and unconfident. This may lead to detachment also among well-educated, second-generation immigrants and become an excuse for avoiding responsibility. It has resulted in an ingrained mistrust of the media and political processes, a lack of interest to integrate into the Danish society and taken away the energy to reflect critically and contextually on Islam.”
So, stupidity breeds stupidity, and fanaticism breed rival fanaticisms. No doubt the Internet cannot be controlled and it is better for governments not to try. But responsible service providers seek to protect their customers from unsolicited mail, aggressive advertising and computer hackers. The best way to combat lies is by speaking the truth. The best way to promote respect for others is by practising it ourselves. Governments can provide incentives for better inter-religious instruction in schools rather than clamping down on all such instruction in the name of a mythical “neutrality”. Responsible TV broadcasters and newspaper editors can invite the ablest spokespeople from religious communities to express their tradition’s perspectives on public issues, rather than focusing all the time on the “lunatic fringe’ that all such communities (including rabid atheists) have.
Ignorance about the history of Islam is rife in American church circles. I meet university students, even professors, who are amazed when I share with them how much Western universities owe to the madrasas and teaching techniques of early Muslim scholars in what (from an Eurocentric angle) is termed the Near East. Or how much Western classical literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, owes to Islamic poetry and piety. When the conversation turns to American support for anti-democratic Middle Eastern tyrants, including Saddam Hussein, Mubarak and Assad, and the many Muslims who have died promoting democracy in their nations, that’s when their eyes glaze over. What are American seminaries doing about broadening the education of future pastors?
So too with misguided Christian attempts to “reclaim Europe”. Montgomery Watt, the renowned Islamics scholar, noted in 1972: “Because Europe was reacting against Islam, it belittled the influence of the Saracens and exaggerated its dependence on its Greek and Roman heritage. So today the important task for our Western Europeans, as we move into the era of the one world, is to correct this false emphasis and to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islamic world.” One can respectfully criticize Islam without belittling its contributions to Western civilization.