Clash of exceptionalisms

Print edition : October 19, 2012

A Muslim-American looks to hand out pamphlets challenging the "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad" advertisement (background) which was displayed on the walls of the Times Square subway station in New York on September 24.-BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS A Muslim-American looks to hand out pamphlets challenging the "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad" advertisement (background) which was displayed on the walls of the Times Square subway station in New York on September 24.

The Western media and the Islamists seem to hold their credo and creed dearer than the human lives lost over Innocence of Muslims.

THE idea of the clash of civilisations trotted out by Bernard Lewis and creatively expanded by Samuel Huntington may find itself in the bin of discredited maverick theories, but there certainly seems to have emerged a surreal stand-off between two brands of exceptionalism. On the one side is the no-holds-barred, over-the-top, variety of American liberalism that finds freewheelingeven cartwheelingexpression in all kinds of speech, including hate speech, in the Western media and, on the other, the touch-me-not prudish zealousness of Islamists who respond with Pavlovian predictability to taunting depictions of the Prophet by rogue elements in the liberalist hemisphere. Both seem to hold their credo and creed, respectively, dearer than the human lives lost in this grudge match.

The posture of profound helplessness with which the political leadership in the United States reacts to the chain of events let loose by the 14-minute trailer, Innocence of Muslims, is funny when it is not pathetic. It is a rarefied piece of casuistry and proceeds something like this: we find the film abominable and would like to do something about it, but then our hands are tied because anyone here has the right to say anything about anything and anybody with the immunity provided by our First Amendment. But try, with the same malevolence of the film-maker, or the mischief of a neophyte testing this paradisiacal liberalist freedom, saying bomb or terrorist or boo aloud in an airplane or the subway or any public place, and the chances are you will be promptly buried under a tonnage of Homeland Security. The First Amendment does not, either, help you argue against the occasional gunman who creeps out of the woodwork and empties a cartridge on you in a movie theatre in Colorado, or a gurudwara in Wisconsin, or a busy street in the heart of Manhattan, or a university anywhere in the country, because there is another amendment, the Second, at work here, which makes the right to the gun another exceptionalist premise that no number of such killings and warnings about a rampant gun culture has been able to undo. This is the given in, the price of, American liberalism.

On its part, political Islam could, in the interest of its own credibility, have been more politic in its reaction to the scurrilous footage. It is astounding that this piece of inert cretinous kitsch should generate any traction, let alone ignite the kind of passion that somehow ultimately seems to redound to its perpetrators advantage in the way things have panned out. It would be clear to anyone who saw the stuff on YouTube that there was not even the pretence of a filmic effort here. The trailer, and reports suggest there may well be no film beyond it, was meant to be a red rag, period. The only response to this wanton offer to be insulted, in the first instance, should have been to pass. There is probably a lot more such execrable stuff floating around in cyberspace, those who put them there driven by a pathological Schadenfreude that defies reasoning and humaneness. To notice it, to pay it any attention, is bad enough; to take offence and take off on a short fuse is to hand its purveyors smug victory.

Naguib Mahfouz, Egyptian Nobel laureate.-ALADIN ABDEL NABY/REUTERS

The problem is compounded by Islams circumscription vis-a-vis the representational function of the liberal media. Pictorial depiction or representation of the Prophet is anathema to the faith and interpretation beyond or outside the parameters set by orthodoxy frowned upon. The Quranic text is a constant and its hermeneutics largely confined to refinement of the prescribed canon. The Biblical text, on the other hand, lends itself to wider and wilder interpretation and artistic liberties. As early as the third century C.E., the Alexamenos Graffito inscribed on a wall of the Palatine Palace in Rome, discovered in 1885 and now housed in the Palatine antiquarian Museum, was lampooning the Crucifixion by showing a human figure with a donkeys head on the cross. The Gospels according to Mathew, John, Luke and Mark have been continually second guessed by ecclesiastical and lay scholarship and, at a fictional remove, by novelists like Nikos Kazantzakis ( The Last Temptation of Christ) and Dan Brown ( The Da Vinci Code) and film-makers like Pier Paolo Pasolini ( The Gospel according to St. Mathew), Martin Scorsese (who filmed the Kazantzakis novel) and Mel Gibson ( The Passion of the Christ). Indeed, the plot of The Da Vinci Code, suggesting that Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene, has just stepped out of the novel and film into historical discourse with Prof. Karen King of Harvard University producing a fourth century papyrus fragment in Coptic script alluding to Jesus having a wife. The jury is out on the authenticity of what Dr King fancifully calls Gospel of Jesuss Wife, but it is but the latest bid to determine his marital status and relationship with Mary, a project which apparently dates back to the so-called Gnostic Gospels of early Christianity.

Such academic or creative mediations in the narrative of Prophet Muhammad would, however, be considered blasphemous and invite a seething backlash. The threshold of tolerance for heterodoxy in Islam has diminished over time as Muslim writers in the 20th century were to find out. The Egyptian scholar Taha Husseins study in 1926 suggesting that what was considered Jahilliya or pre-Islamic poetry may actually have been the work of Muslims providing vignettes of Arab life after the advent of, and not in the dark ages before, Islam, raised a furore and cost him his job at Cairo University. The Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouzs allegoric Children of Gebelawi was attacked for its miscegenation of the Judaic, Christian and Islamic prophets and portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad by proxy. The work was banned on its publication in 1958 and the author narrowly survived a bid on his life by two assailants in 1994. The Iranian publisher, parliamentarian and polemicist Ali Dashti was, after the Islamic revolution of 1979, considered an apostate for his work Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, which challenged the miracles associated with Prophet Muhammad, and although Ayatollah Khomeini did not issue a fatwa against him like he did against Salman Rushdie for Satanic Verses, his death in 1984 is shrouded in mystery.

Paradoxically, the Quran or the hadiths do not specifically proscribe blasphemy (it is left to the sharia to handle this), whereas the Bible does; and it constituted criminal libel in British common law since the 17th century. But by the end of the 19th century, and notably with Lord Coleridges landmark observation in Regina vs Ramsay and Foote (1883) that mere denial of the truth of Christianity is not enough to constitute the offence of blasphemy and that if the decencies of controversy are observed, even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without the writer being guilty of blasphemy, it had become a dead letter long before it was formally abolished in 2008.

Dan Brown, author of "The Da Vinci Code".-JEFF CHRISTENSEN/AP

In the U.S., the precedence of First Amendment rights over censorship to tackle blasphemy or sacrilege was settled in the Supreme Court in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. vs Wilson (1952) against the revocation of the licence to exhibit Roberto Rossellinis short film, The Miracle. The film is a loaded parable about a retarded rustic woman (essayed by Anna Magnani) being plied with alcohol and seduced by a tramp whom she fantasises to be Saint Joseph (played by Federico Fellini); when she finds herself pregnant she imagines it to be an immaculate conception, is reviled and hounded by the villagers, until she finds epiphanic release with the birth of her child in a church on the hill. A tortuous course that saw brushes with the licensing authority, Church-inspired picketing at the theatre screening the film and denial of relief by the trial court, led the case to the Supreme Court where the unanimous decision was in the films favour. On behalf of the Bench, Justice Tom Clarke made the significant observation that it is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures. The verdict at once made the plea of blasphemy or sacrilege untenable against First Amendment rights and freed the motion picture from censorship by the state, society and the industry itself (film-makers began to bypass the Production Code of the Motion Picture Association so that it became irrelevant and defunct by the mid-1960s). The blasphemy bogey now finds little purchase in the American media sensibility.

Meanwhile, in his new work, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, a literary rendition of his years under the shadow of Khomeinis fatwa, a combative Salman Rushdie has just upped the ante on the subject by identifying with the writers of the French Enlightenment who had deliberately used blasphemy as a weapon refusing to accept the power of the Church to set limiting points on thought. That, as we know in hindsight, cut both ways, as the man who exemplified the libertarian spirit of the times, and is oft cited for his dont agree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it stand, also turned out to be a trenchant anti-Semite. Unless Rushdie, like those licentiously experimenting with the U.S. First Amendment today, sees Voltaire venting his spleen on the Jews as primarily proof of his freedom of thought and speech.

Here and now, however, the boot is on the other foot. Subway stations in the city of New York are soon to have billboards with the public exhortation, In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad. A District Judge, invoking (guess what?) First Amendment rights, ruled against the New York Metropolitan Transit Authoritys initial decision not to allow the advertisement commissioned by an ultra-conservative woman who runs an outfit called Stop Islamisation of America and who will not sacrifice my freedom so as not to offend savages. Profiling, baiting, bashing Islam has, more so after 9/11, become a stereotypical preoccupation in the Western media, with even Hollywood weighing in with its Islamic typecasts. The Prophet Muhammad cartoons in the Danish paper Jyllands Posten in 2005 which led to over a hundred deaths, and this puerile movie trailer now, are but the periodic spikes in the graph.

For all their vaunted unalloyed commitment to freedom of expression, when it looks like their markets or trade may take a beating because of it, Western governments, and media in tow, have been known to quickly temporise. When in 1980 the ITV channel in the United Kingdom telecast Death of a Princess, a docudrama made by a British film-maker about the execution in Jeddah of a 19-year-old girl of the Saudi royal family and her commoner lover, the Saudi government pulled out all stops to see it suppressed. The U.K.s Ambassador to Riyadh was sent back, trade sanctions threatened, the British press was asking why a film should be allowed to put the market in harms way, and London was soon scrambling to see that the film did not get any further play in England. In the U.S., there was a media ad blitz by ExxonMobil against the film and urging the Public Broadcasting Service channel to reconsider its decision to show it, the State Department was asking the channel to consider Saudi sensitivity, and when it was eventually aired on PBS (some cities did not show it), the telecast was followed by an hour-long discussion that looked like an explanatory disclaimer.

The latest entrant in the fray is a strange French anarcho-libertine weekly, Charlie Hebdo, which has just lit its freedom torch from the raging fire following the infamous trailer with another series of cartoons on the Prophet Muhammad. The French authorities naturally cannot but allow its publication, and will not allow street protests against it or the offending film strip. As comic relief in this hopeless situation, Charlie Hebdo protests the decision not to allow the protestsbecause that too, you see, is against the freedom of expression.

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