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February 08, 2006

Danish Cartoons

The not inconsiderable reaction to the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed has raised significant and conflicting questions, not the least of which is the contest between freedom of speech and respect for the beliefs of others. The report that most of the cartoons were ‘innocuous’ is true only from the standpoint of Western perspective. The reality is that any depiction of Mohammed us regarded as blasphemous in Islam, which makes them anything but innocuous to our Islamic friends.

Others have been quick to point out that such depictions of Jesus do not draw the same ire from the Christian community. Such has not been the case throughout history. The Reformation period is littered with stories of Christians killing others for criticising their position, or of holding a position of difference. The tolerance we trumpet so freely from the Christian perspective has not always been evident from within the walls of the church, or the West in general.

Perhaps we need to remember that our Western understanding of history is not universal. The era known in the West as ‘the enlightenment’ - in which the understanding of authority shifted from the church and social hierarchy into knowledge and logic and individual expression - was a painful one for many in the West during the time of transition. Many Islamic countries still hold to pre-enlightenment positions of authority and truth.

With the shift to a more global culture, it remains to be seen how Islam is able to accommodate to the cultural shift from the faith perspective. With authority as they have known it no longer available to them in many parts of the world, creative leadership is required. But that cannot be the only answer.

It is too easy from the standpoint of the West to adopt a position of superiority: “we are enlightened” is the logical consequence of our history. Yet we are facing the crumbling of many of our own “enlightenment” precepts: The breaking down of national borders through revolutions in international travel and migration together with the advent of communication technologies have challenged our cultural blind spots and invited us to see that there are diverse ways of seeing an issue. Emerging postmodern philosophical frameworks are now deconstructing many truths once held dear. Enlightenment’s dark spots are being exposed. While it remains to be seen where this might lead us, it still is easier to see the deficiencies in the cultures of those different. Islam has much to offer – both as a culture and as a worldview – in the conversation which our increasingly globalised world is entering. If there is an apparent fault of our commitment to ‘freedom of expression’ it is in the lack of appreciation of and respect for the value of some truths to different groups. It risks being a conversation where everything is cheap.

And we dare not avoid the economic issues behind the reaction to the Danish cartoons. Muslims in Europe are not equal in the economic stakes – their situation trails the rest, meaning that the cartoons risk being received as the bully kicking sand in the face of the downtrodden. Inasmuch as this is true, they are not to be regarded as freedom of expression but as an act of oppression.

There is considerable anger being expressed amongst Muslims and others. We need to be wary of letting our perceptions of this anger reinforce inappropriate stereotypes. For inasmuch as the Islamic world is unused to engagement in conversation with the West, so is the West equally inexperienced. We need to season this conversation with grace, respect and a grasping for understanding.

We cannot escape this increasingly multi-cultural world. As we engage with it, we need to be more than tolerant. We need to be people who seek an understanding and an appreciation of the diverse viewpoints which make up this rich tapestry which is humanity. In so doing, we will engage in conversation rather than open warfare.

Posted by gary at February 8, 2006 05:18 PM

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