Jyllands-Posten vs Islam

It's taken me some time to make up my mind about the Muhammad cartoons controversy, but I think I've reached a few conclusions.. Comments open as usual.

First of all: to be scared is not to be free. The Danish discussion regarding fear and self-censorship has hit an important nail on the head: it is not acceptable that pressure from others slowly erodes our civil liberties and rights. Hence I fully support Jyllands-posten's angle and the publications of the drawings.

But there is a distinctly different agenda that uses "freedom of speech" as a straw man to demonstrate the distance between "us" and "them". The double agenda is obvious: claiming to defend freedom of speech some are actually merely marketing themselves as Reasonable and the other side as Evil. The imams of course use exactly the same logic in reverse. I don't support these divisive hidden agendas. The litmus test is whether those who claim to defend freedom of speech are religiously neutral enough to also accept and publish similar caricatures targetting for example Judaism or Christian beliefs. If you only caricature those you don't like your freedom of speech posturing is far from credible.

Is it OK to insult a religion, then? Speaking as a relatively tradition-minded Lutheran Protestant and occasional church goer: yes, it is. A religion has to live with those that use blasphemy while trying to make a statement. I don't necessarily find a "provokative" job thought-provoking, but artistic merit and blasphemy are two distinct evaluations.

But didn't Jyllands-Posten insult Islam with a Christian and white/rich/western/imperialist power statement? Did they fight a battle in a culture war between Christianity and Islam?

Well, it has lots of historical resonance to pull out the Christian-white-rich-imperialist-man characteristics, but I think today's situation is different. Christianity isn't what it used to be. It generally no longer functions as an ideology that legitimizes the power of authorities. Islam, on the other hand, does. This makes enormous practical difference. This is why "blasphemy" against Islam can cause such severe responses while "blasphemy" against Christianity hardly gets response at all.

Not too long ago, Christianity was such an ideology (and also abused the power that gave to punish "blasphemy") but today capitalism is the over-arching ideology that legitimizes power in the West. The ten commandments are replaced with the law of supply and demand. Rich white imperialists don't carry gun and Bible anymore - Bush jr.'s people have atomic bombs and literature by Milton Friedman.

This is a likely reason why the U.S. has embargos against tiny Cuba while trading with Saudi Arabia. Cuba pretends to be and is perceived as a competing system and an alternative to capitalism. Saudi-Arabia's Islam is competing directly with Christianity. However, in the U.S. capitalism legitimizes power, not Christianity, so the capitalism is protected against "ideological competition" with trade embargos while Christianity isn't.

(Aside: I don't really know anything about Cuba. To form an opinion I'd start with information from Amnesty International and probably adopt their conclusions.)

So Christianity has changed. During the transition from "power-legitimizing" to "private" religion, Christianity lost much of its state-backed protection against "blashphemy". For Christianity this was a very positive trade-off. Today religions must try to inspire rather than dictate, and Christianity can now focus on core messages about peace and love, without having to compromise their ethics to declare "Gott mit uns" when some emperor fights a war.

The Jyllands-posten cartoons hardly insulted the Prophet himself, Muslims in general, or even the protesters (they probably never saw those drawings anyway). They may have demonstrated prejudices and contributed to stigmatisation of Muslims in Denmark - but that is not what the protests are about! The protests are organised because the cartoons have questioned a power-legitimizing ideology in a way those in power perceive as a threat.

(BTW I have also read an argument I found quite convincing that it was in the interest of the current powers to inflate this crisis to bury some bad and inconvenient news.)

Islam's moderate ideologues need to wrestle the religion away from those that use it to support their power. I doubt Danish cartoons are the best help we can offer for this process, but what about not buying oil from the Saudis? *

* Disclosure: of course, if you avoid buying oil from the Saudis you might end up buying from Norway and thus make my country even richer. This article was sponsored by Statoil and Norsk Hydro...

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