Thursday, February 09, 2006

Considerations on An Islamic Cartoon

The topic of this post is one that stirs great emotions, both among Christians and Muslims. Any comments on such a topic are bound to be misunderstood, and before I get to the specifics of my comments in this post I need to make some introductory comments that I hope will fend off misunderstanding from conservative Christians.

First, I believe that military action is an important part of the war on terror. However, it should not be viewed as the only tool in our toolbag in responding to this complex international problem.

Second, I appreciate concerns about the frequent ridicule of Christianity in the popular media. I am saddened when Christ and the church are slandered, but this should not lead us to the conclusion that if the press treats Christianity this way then similar treatment of other religions, such as Islam should be tolerated.

Third, I recognize Islam in complexity and diversity, and I want to avoid simple black and white understandings and portrayal of this religion. We often hear two extremes, one claiming that true Islam is a religion of peace, while the other extreme claims that true Islam is a religion of violence. I believe that a balanced view on this topic is that Islam is both peaceful and violent, in its origins, historical development, and in current expressions around the world. Christians in the West might strive to represent the "two faces" of Islam (as James Beverley has described it), and also recognize that it is up to the Islamic people around the world to decide which expression of this religion will be the one that dominates in the twenty-first century. Christians should no more interpret what "true Islam" is historically or will be in the present than we would want Muslims tell us what true Christianity is. (A good place to start in reassessing this issue is the fine article by missiologist and missionary Dudley J. Woodberry, "The War On Terrorism: Reflections Of A Guest In The Lands Involved.")

Enough of the introductory statements and on to the present controversy. Unless you have no access to international news you are no doubt aware of the continued controversy in the Muslim world surrounding a cartoon apparently depicting Muhammad in an unflattering way. The cartoon has led to violence around the world and has contributed to international commentary on the specific issue, as well as general aspects related to Islam and the war on terror.

I recognize that a diversity of Christian responses have been offered to this issue, but the one I am hearing quite a bit is commented on above in my initial comments. Many Christians see the cartoon as "fair" in that if Christianity is fair game for ridicule, why not Islam? I think it is fair to say that the reason why more satire is not done in connection with Islam is because of fear of violent backlash from Muslims, something not normally associated with Christianity and surely not on the large scale as we are seeing now in Muslim countries. I've already provided my thoughts on this. Simply because Christianity is fair game for ridicule in the West does not mean other religions should be also. Perhaps Christians might hope for the Golden Rule to be applied by journalists to this issue. Treat other people's religions in cartoons and writing as you would have them treat your religion or spirituality.

But I wonder whether we're missing the broader picture, both on this issue, and in the broader issues of the war on terror against militant Islam, and the culture clash between the West and the Islamic world. I was reading through Books & Culture recently and came across the title of a book that intrigued me: Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, by Meic Pearse (InterVarsity Press, 2004). InterVarsity is a sound evangelical publisher, and the title surely touches on an issue that we desperately need to think through on deeper levels than we have thus far considered. Booklist includes a description of the book on
The root cause of non-Western nations' anger toward the West lies not in economics, religion, or foreign policy, church historian and business-studies teacher Pearse says, but in modern Western culture, which traditional societies see as barbarism. Specifically, they see in the West societies that forget ancestors, derogate religion, exalt triviality (sports, entertainment, fashion), endorse sexual shamelessness, deprecate family, and discard honor. Westerners are surprised to be called barbarians, because they associate barbarism almost exclusively with dirt and cruelty. To reduce Western surprise, Pearse probes the beliefs that eventuate in the qualities non-Westerners decry. Those doctrines include modern personal integrity (being "true to oneself"), human rights, progress, impartiality or equality of treatment, "imagined communities" (e.g., nation, class), and industrial efficiency. The practical consequences of these beliefs are social atomization; personal riresponsibility; dehumanizing impersonality; and other wounds to traditional families, communities, and conceptions of the person. Perhaps the West itself is dying of modernism through declining birthrates and increasing dependence on immigration in all Western countries. Westerners ought to become normal again, and Pearse urges revivals of belief and behavior in the West that more closely approximate those of "the Rest." This is no "fundamentalist" altar-call harangue, however, but possibly the best, most intelligent, most humane brief argument that the West, rather than the Rest, needs reform. - Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
While conservative evangelicals who are not positively inclined toward either Islam, or critical self-reflection on American and Western culture, may be tempted to dismiss such a book, it sounds like it might raise important issues for us to consider. These issues are far more complex than portraits of "good vs. evil," and "freedom loving peoples vs. fascists." We're talking about clashes of culture that continue to impact us and our children, probably for decades to come. Christians are called to recognize that they are citizens of a Heavenly City, with their first allegiances being to the King and his Kingdom, rather than to certain national and cultural affinities. Can we use the occasion of international unrest over something so seemingly trivial as a cartoon to wrestle with criticism of our own culture with greater objectivity as members of the community of Jesus?

No comments: