Thursday, September 21, 2006

We didn't start the fire*

That Chris Britt is a very good editorial cartoonist is evident in his ability to present his viewpoint in such way that it instantly sparks debate. Often, vigorous debate. Such as the one I hope to have here now.

In today's offering, Britt show the Pope pouring fuel on the flames of Islamic bigotry. It's an interesting take.

There's no doubt that Islamic bigotry is on the rise, probably more so in European countries where Muslim immigrants are more segregated than they are in the U.S. Yet it's true that there are more negative feelings towards Islam here, and I admit to harboring some myself. In particular, I have trouble with the belief that the Islamic version of an eternal weekend in Vegas can be won by strapping a bomb to your chest and heading down to the deli. But I understand that not every Muslim shares in this belief and it's not fair to judge them as if they do.

I do wonder, however, if Britt doesn't overstate the effects of the Pope's words on Islamic bigotry. I haven't read any reports of mosques being burned, Imam's being murdered, or mass protests where likenesses of Mohammed are burned in effigy. So the Pope didn't douse an anti-Islamic uprising with gasoline, so much as squirt a little lighter fluid on people's quietly-held prejudices.

The Pope's comments did prove to be quite incendiary to some Islamics, who in response attacked Christian churches, murdered a nun, and set fire to papal-like puppets while demanding an apology or his pointy-hatted head on a platter.

It strikes me as more than a bit absurd to respond to accusations that your religion spurs violence by becoming violent. If being called a lush sends you straight to the bottle, then the problem isn't the name caller.

There are more important lessons to be learned from this incident than simply that the Pope should be more careful to not offend Muslims. For example, that people should be free to practice whichever religion they choose, or no religion at all. That criticism often leads to understanding, even though it may sting a bit at first. And most importantly, that free speech is essential to a free society and should be fiercely defended.

Anne Applebaum, writing for Slate**, made this last point quite well while addressing the Western response to this incident:

I don't mean that we all need to rush to defend or to analyze this particular sermon: I leave that to experts on Byzantine theology (and to my colleague Christopher Hitchens). But we can all unite in our support for freedom of speech-surely the pope is allowed to quote medieval texts-and of the press. And we can also unite-loudly-in our condemnation of violent, unprovoked attacks on churches, embassies, and elderly nuns. By "we" I mean here the White House, the Vatican, the German Greens, the French Foreign Ministry, NATO, Greenpeace, Le Monde, editorial cartoonists (amendment mine) and Fox News. Western institutions of the left, the right, and everything in between. True, these principles sound pretty elementary-"we're pro-free speech and anti-gratuitous violence"-but in the days since the pope's sermon, I don't feel that I've heard them defended in anything like a unanimous chorus.

I don't know why we aren't singing in harmony on this one, but she's right that there a good number of people taking the Pope to task while almost taking for granted the extremist response throughout the Middle East.

I seem to recall, in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon furor, that Britt sided with his ink-stained brethren against Muslim condemnation. I wonder why the Pope isn't afforded this same freedom of expression. Granted, you can believe that the Pope had the right to say what he did and still have been wrong for saying it, but when you choose to only address the latter, bloggers like me will question why you ignored the former.

As to the larger issue of global unrest, some are of the opinion that what we are experiencing is a clash of civilizations brought about by advances in technology and communication that have thrust modern beliefs and values on people who would prefer to live more insularly lives. There is hope in this theory. Once the culture shock wears off, understanding and acceptance could follow. I read something recently that might give credence to this:

Speaking at campuses, mosques, and the homes of Muslims, the Al Qasemi (an Islamic institute of higher learning) faculty said that it is time for Muslims to quit blaming others and examine their own responsibility for the troubles of Islamic civilization; time for Arab Israelis to call themselves Israelis, not Palestinians; and, above all, time for women to have full equality with men in the Muslim world.

All these assertions are considered radical, even incendiary, in much of the Arab Muslim world. But Mohammad Essawi, the president of the college, said such changes in thinking are needed to transform an education system in the Islamic world "that is still in the 12th century and does not have an open mind."

It's comforting to hear this type of liberal thinking amidst so much theological fascism. But where in the Middle East, you may be wondering, would a group of Islamic educators dare call for such progressive changes in attitude? In Israel, the home of Al Qasemi College. When a rabbinical school opens in Iran, we'll know that the educators' message is taking hold.

*Forgive me for cribbing titles from Billy Joel.

**If you aren't familiar with Slate and are on the verge of accusing me of being manipulated by right wing doctrine, Slate was founded by Michael Kinsley and still leans to the left most of the time. It's one of my favorite online sources for commentary.


monkey boy said...


The mere fact that you chose to comment about Chris Britt is a mistake. It is akin to responding the 5 year old who holds his breath because you said "no candy!" By responding you fuel his fire. All Britt is after is the "reaction." I don't think for a minute that he actually believes in a lot of the garbage he cartoons about. He is good at manipulating certain groups and it feels like a drug to him.

I have learned to cope by reading his crap, thinking to myself what an idiot he is, repeating the process after reading what Ted Rall has to say, then moving on. To give him any more thought is practically criminal.

If all rational persons with an ounce of common sense take this approach maybe he will soon be dispatched to cartooning for "Grit."

nancy said...

The pope had every right to say what he did and quote who he did. I don't know if it was the smartest thing to do, as it was surely going to be incindiary but he said it and he was likely correct if he assumed his remarks would be met with a lot of global "Hallelujah"s and "You go Pontiff!"s. His back-pedalling in the days following took a lot of the heat off of him, but I'm not sure what it did for supporters of his original remarks.

Do I think the pope misstepped in forgetting to be a lover and not a fighter? Um, yes. Maybe that's where the carefully crafted self-rebuttals came in. It does disturb me a bit that his words are probably considered representative of all Catholics and just as I think radical Muslims don't speak for what's in the hearts of moderates, I'm concerned that the pope made such controversial comments in his official role as leader of the Church.

Lest anyone call me out on it, let me go on record as saying that although I think the pope probably shouldn't have said what he said, the reaction was far, far worse and completely indefensible. The actions of those who committed these crimes are atrocious, unforgivable, and a pitiful representation of their faith. Their dream afterlife in Vegas might just turn into eternal damnation in Branson.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...


I don’t know if the Pope’s decision to quote the particular passage in question was intentionally combative, so much as poorly chosen and not in service of his overall message. If someone were to say that Jesus Christ was responsible for the Spanish Inquisition, you can protest the broad implication, but not the reality that people have committed some extremely heinous acts in his name.

Your Branson=Hell analogy is brilliant. I almost deleted your comment so I could add the analogy to my original post and take credit for it. But one doesn’t get to be the second best blogger in Springfield by plagiarizing.

Thanks for commenting,

The Abstract Prosaic said...

I don't think Chris Britt's cartoons actually represent his philosophies, either. He exists to stir the pot.

But I also think that it's less a rush for him than the fact that it's his job to push buttons.

And I believe I read somewhere that Branson is what Las Vegas would be if Sin City were run by Ned Flanders.

Dave H said...

This topic really goes back to your last terrorism related blog Dan and shows that when the Pope does chastise the wrongful acts of others, the world does in fact listen with bended ear. Whether the timing was right or not...when is the right time to speak out against radical Islam? Yes, the same radicals did commit heinous acts following the remarks, but the great outcome may be the fact that moderate Islam is now willing to sit down at the table at a open forum at the Pope’s request. Convincing moderate Islam to step up to the plate is key. I don’t know about you but I am starting to like this guy.

As for the SJR editorial cartoons, it would sure be nice to see two cartoonists to give the paper more of a balance just as channel 20 should with "The Point".