I’ve not yet seen the acclaimed Broadway show The Book of Mormon but from speaking to friends who have and from reading reviews, I know three important things about it: it is brilliantly funny; it outrageously mocks the Church of Latter-day Saints; and the reaction of Mormons to that mockery was to stand outside the theater handing out fact sheets about their religion.
I also recall another controversial stage musical, Jerry Springer: The Opera, which showed in the London West End about ten years ago. A lengthy scene depicted God, Jesus, Mary, Adam and Eve and Satan as bitching guests on the Jerry Springer chat show. Christian groups held loud protests outside the theater and sued the production under Britain’s archaic blasphemy laws. The courts ruled against the plaintiffs and in favor of freedom of expression.
And there have been countless other satirical and comic references to Judeo-Christian beliefs and traditions in modern popular culture, from Monty Python’s Life of Brian to any number of episodes of Family Guy or South Park. Are people offended? Of course. These are beliefs and traditions that they hold to be sacrosanct.
But that’s the point. They hold them to be sacrosanct, and in free, democratic societies, they (whoever the they might be) do not get to decide what is sacrosanct for someone else. Religious beliefs, no more than beliefs or ideas of any other kind, can be argued, criticized and – yes – ridiculed.
Even the Christians who sought to ban Jerry Springer did so through the legal system that their democraric society provides. The Mormons in the US — and this is very much to the credit of the spirit of free expression that animates American society like no other – did not even attempt to ban The Book of Mormon.
Only one group of believers in the western world regards the criticism or ridiculing of their faith as unacceptable by anyone. And only one group of believers seems to be willing to, en masse, incite violent retribution against those deemed guilty of blasphemy.
The murder of journalists and cartoonists in Paris last week is an atrocity in its own right. But it’s also merely the latest, albeit bloodiest, chapter in a story which began — at least in the West — with the fatwa issued against the British author Salman Rushdie by the then-Supreme Ruler of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, in 1989. Most people in Europe and North America had never heard the word fatwa before, but they soon got the gist. In my native UK, it was explained to us by local Muslim groups who, in noisy demonstrations, called for the death of Mr Rushdie for the crime of writing a novel. Translators of The Satanic Verses in Italy and Japan were targeted by assassins’ bullets and the writer himself spent the next decade under 24-hour bodyguard protection.
In November 2004, a dutch documentary-maker, Theo Van Gogh, was assassinated for producing a short film protesting the abuse of women in some Islamic societies. And then of course, a year later, a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad appeared in a Danish newspaper, prompting the assembly of veritable lynch mobs outside Danish Embassies across Europe and the Muslim world. I say lynch mobs because they were invariably calling for the death of those responsible for the cartoons.
21st century Europe, especially western and central Europe, is home to myriad religious and ethnic communities who share equal rights and responsibilities. There is no escaping the fact that it is only Muslim citizens of these countries who (in large numbers) seem not to be willing to sign up to their responsibilities as citizens of liberal democracies.
President Francois Hollande’s remark that the horror that engulfed his capital city in recent days had “nothing to do with Islam” follows a long line of similar politically correct assurances by other western leaders in the years since 9/11. This is dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it avoids dealing with the problem, and nonsense because that problem cannot be detached from its root cause: Islam and the way in which it is being interpreted by hundreds of thousands of people who do see hatred of the west and murderous antisemitism as inherently Muslim.
Let’s be clear, this does not mean that every Muslim thinks like that and that we should be declaring a “war on Islam”. The Qu’ran does contain a number of anti-Jewish passages for example, but it is equally true that, for several hundred years, certain verses in the Christian Bible were the foundation, the justification and the excuse for the persecution, expulsion and murder of Jews across Europe. (The Roman Catholic Church did not expunge from its doctrine the belief that all Jews, for all time, are guilty of the murder of Christ until 1965.) No one today would assume that devout Christians are by definition antisemitic, even though they’re still reading the same New Testament verses.
I have a personal appreciation for the beauty and the meaning that religion can bring to one’s life. Neither do I doubt that Islam can and does bring the same beauty and meaning to many of its adherents. But rejecting the facile anti-Muslim rhetoric that colors much of this debate should not mean denying the reality of the contemporary Islamic situation.
There has to be a way for political leaders to abandon the simplistic slogans that are too often their default setting and to make a nuanced distinction between people and ideology. There should be zero tolerance for “revenge attacks” on innocent people, and the appropriate derision at far-right political groups looking to capitalize on the situation by stirring up anti-Muslim hatred. (Besides anything else, no one should think that Le Front National have any more respect for freedom of expression than the Islamists do.) But at the same time, Hollande and Presidents and Prime Ministers across the western world should be calling on Muslim leaders in their countries to not only condemn violence against civilians committed in the name of Islam, but to openly accept the democratic norms of the countries in which they live.
In Europe radicalization among Muslims has been ignored or refuted for too long. Many young Muslims are looking not to the values of their home countries for moral guidance, but to Islam; and increasingly it’s an Islam exported by Saudi Wahabbists and Arab or Pakistani Islamists. From Syria and Iraq in the Middle East, to Nigeria in Africa, Islam is inspiring acts of savagery and barbarity almost unimaginable to the western mind.
As long as western leaders continue to act as though the problem is one of a few misguided or easily-led radicals, nothing effective will be done about it. The problem is an ideology. If it were secular – fascism let’s say, no one would have any problem calling it by its name, but because it is bound up in the teachings of a mainstream religion, there is obfuscation and denial.
Enough with the semantics and “this is nothing to do with religion”. No, the problem is not every Muslim, or even most Muslims. But right now, at this juncture in history, the problem is most definitely Islam.