Monday, January 12, 2015

The Mighty Pencil

Paris Rally (Photo: Peter Dejong/Associated Press)
From a recent post by Daughter Number Three:
We are increasingly multicultural, and one of the best rules we can have for that type of future is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (or as the recent atheist Ten Commandments put it, "Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.") Obviously, if you don't know something is considered offensive, you can't refrain from doing it. But if you do know, then you can.
When I read the above quote, I thought, of course.  If you want someone to attack you, be an attacker.  I suspect this could also justify the "eye for an eye" way of thinking. What is missing, and what Daughter Number Three hints at in her comment regarding knowledge is communication. There also needs to be a safe, nonviolent way to resolve conflicts before they escalate. There is an entire scenario that could have played out but did not. 

For example, several years ago, a Danish publication published cartoons that turned out to be deeply offensive to the Muslim community.  The Muslims protested.  Were their protests received with sympathy and the desire to understand?  Not that I recall.  What I remember is a very Western response in defense of freedom of speech and a free press, which is all fine and well, but no one seemed to comprehend that they had done something offensive and bad to someone else.  They had hurt a large group of people and never offered an apology or even an acknowledgement of the pain they'd caused.

Satire walks a fine line between humor and serious criticism.  Sometimes it incorporates both in order to prove a point.  What was the point of the cartoons that offended the Muslim community?  What was the intent? By now, a person would have to have been living in a cave for the past 25 years not to know that Muslims believe that any depictions of their Prophet Mohammed are blasphemous.  That means highly offensive to them, painfully offensive, and prohibited among believers.  Salman Rushdie's depiction was as a textual description in his novel The Satanic Verses (1989), and how the Muslim community reacted made headlines nearly everywhere.  Mr. Rushdie chose to live in hiding in order to continue to live at all due to a Fatwa on his life that was issued.

It wasn't moderate Muslims living in the West who attacked Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 of that publication's employees in response to satire about Islam and the Prophet Mohammed published by them.  Moderate Muslims talk, listen, try to understand different points of view, and work hard to educate others about their points of view.  No, it was extremists who lashed out with violence because they believed that the only response to what Charlie Hebdo published was destruction, as they demonstrated.  Western civilizations have their extremists, too.  They are the people who comment that enemies should be "nuked" to get rid of them once and for all.  They are the people who blow up buildings, assemble a militia with caches of weapons, and choose to murder "the man."

Tell me: how does one penetrate the minds of extremists to have a constructive discussion about their thoughts and feelings?  That's how I would prefer to be treated in a situation where my behavior or my writing may have offended someone.  How do I treat terrorists the way I want them to treat me?

Cartoon by David Pope from The Canberra Times
I think most people would counter that the terrorists have treated us the way they want to be treated.  But their violence is not the causal agent, is it?  The causal agent is ignorance about and indifference toward, or maybe even hatred for, Islam and the Muslim way of life.  Whatever prompted the satire about Islam that Charlie Hebdo chose to publish.  And this is where I despair.  Because the terrorists are extremists and their minds are closed to other points of view, to apologies or remorse, to hearing someone ask for help in understanding what they may have done to offend.  It seems non-Muslims are just as close-minded when they respond with defenses of freedom.  How can non-Muslims be surprised by the Muslims taking offense at non-Muslim ignorance and intolerance?

Photo from
So rather than becoming indignant and defensive about our freedom of speech and press, maybe what we need to do is pay attention.  It doesn't matter if other religions tolerate satirical comments about them or not.  What matters here is that the satire published for the entire world to see deeply offended the Muslims of the world and that satire was something that Muslims have told us over and over is offensive to them.

Do I agree with the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo's offices and murdered 12 people?  No. Absolutely not.  I'm just trying to understand a different point of view....  

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