Therefore there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general. And the Bush administration has no business at all expressing an opinion on that. If it is to say anything, it is constitutionally obliged to uphold the right and no more. You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and messianic Israeli settlers, and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken.
Which is what taboos are for. Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet – who was only another male mammal – is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.
I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find “offensive.” (By the way, hasn’t the word “offensive” become really offensive lately?) The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization. I am not asking for the right to slaughter a pig in a synagogue or mosque or to relieve myself on a ‘holy’ book. But I will not be told I can’t eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger. But these same principles of mine also prevent me from wreaking random violence on the nearest church, or kidnapping a Muslim at random and holding him hostage, or violating diplomatic immunity by attacking the embassy or the envoys of even the most despotic Islamic state, or making a moronic spectacle of myself threatening blood and fire to faraway individuals who may have hurt my feelings.
As a friend put it to me today, it’s important to remember that there are of course hundreds of millions of Muslims (there are 1.5 billion across the globe) who are embarrassed and outraged by those doing the embassy-torching and making the insane death threats. And yet the reality needs to be responded to, if only because its effects will be real. As Jyllands-Posten editor Carsten Juste put it: “My guess is that no one will draw the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark in the next generation, and therefore I must say with deep shame that they have won.”
I’m ending with a little something from William Gass’s “Tribalism, Identity, and Ideology,” a 1994 address to the Modern Language Association that was included in his 2002 book Tests of Time:
Around the tribe, like twine that ties a package, like the protective paper too, superstition wraps its concealing self. Sometimes one superstition will find it expedient to be polite to another. As different as they often are, they have a common task, similar methods, an identical respect for hierarchy and its authority, frequently a text so sacred not even a comma can be canceled, a love of mumbo jumbo, pomp, and secret learning, a hatred of freedom, reason, and fact. Their function is the preservation of the group; therefore they find ways to mark its members, to glorify the group’s past and promise it victory, to designate its enemies and vilify their qualities, to measure all such threats in order to exaggerate them, prescribe protective steps to remove the menace, and urge their prompt and ruthless undertaking.
Note that Gass’s forthcoming collection, A Temple of Texts, includes his essay “Sacred Texts,” originally published in The Writer and Religion.