A twelfth-century crusaders bids farewell to his wife.
I received an email from a friend about the controversy about the Danish cartoons which have provoked protest and threats of violence in the Muslim world. My friend is understandably upset about the attempt to silence the cartoonist through intimidation and he has written to the New York Times, asking them to publish the cartoons in solidarity with the cause of free speech.
I share his concern. At the same time, we must not forget that these cartoons are as vile as any anti-Semitic or racist propaganda. We should not censor them, and if we must publish them as a gesture for freedom of expression, we should do it with the same grim resignation that we would save if we felt obligated to publish excerpts from Mein Kampf or Klu Klux Klan leaflets. We should not only fight for the cartoonist's right to publish, we should denounce his bigotry. I denounce it here and I also denounce the publication and dissemination in Muslim countries of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We should demand free speech everywhere as we condemn hatred and ignorance.
It is not surprising that one of the newspapers that printed the cartoons is produced by fundamentalist Christians. How are we going to convince the Muslim world that our policies are not anti-Islam "crusader" attacks when so many voices that identify themselves specifically as Christian make comments that are not only critical of extremism and terrorism, but of Islam itself. Not only our old buddy Pat Robertson, but many Christian bloggers I have stumbled across seem intent on demolishing any tolerance whatsoever for one of the world's great religions. Add to that a general who boasted that his victory over a Muslim warlord was due to the fact that "my God was bigger than his... his was an idol." And interrogation techniques that involve psychological torture specifically targeted to Muslim sensibilities, including abuse of the Koran? Is it surprising that many Muslims see this as a war of cultures? Unlike us, they have historical memory and are mistrustful of European and American aims towards the Mideast. Everywhere in the Middle East, extremists are gaining support -- In Palestine, Iran, Egypt... Do we really want to continue to define this conflict as a war of cultures, a war of religion? Especially when Christianity is supposed to be a religion of peace, love, and respect?
I don't know if there is a way to diffuse this time bomb. There are too many suspicions and prejudices deeply ingrained in the minds of everyone involved. I certainly don't mean to excuse attempts from individuals in the Muslim world from trying to silence thinkers or manipulate issues like this for political gain. The threats to Salman Rushdie and the murder of Theo Van Gogh were unpardonable. We must protect the right of freedom of expression of even the most vile of its practioners, but we should also try much harder to avoid fanning the flames of Holy War on both sides. We should be aware that fundamentalists on the Christian side of the fence are just as intransigent and dangerous. Last of all, those of us who really read the Gospels should know how to respond to a world-wide cultural crisis: with love and understanding, not with hatred and degradation. That's not rank sentiment: lives depend on it.