Christians have long wondered how to get due regard for their religious sensibilities from the arbiters of our culture. Now they know the answer: mayhem.
The riots and protests around the Islamic world and in Muslim communities in the West regarding a dozen cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper have fostered a newfound sensitivity to religious offense in the more secular precincts of the West. The New York Times–the most important liberal organ in the country–chastised the Danish cartoonists and refused to reproduce the cartoons, instead bizarrely illustrating the controversy with a photo of a painting of the Virgin Mary festooned with elephant dung from a long-ago dispute at a Brooklyn museum.
The Times’s disdain for the cartoons is a departure. What happened to art for art’s sake? When was the last time the Times criticized any piece of art, no matter how jejune, outrageous or stupid? And what happened to shocking the bourgeoisie? Well, they are much more enjoyable to shock than Islamists because, once duly shocked, the bourgeoisie pack the kids into a minivan and head to a soccer game, rather than issue death threats and burn down embassies.
Fear stalks the cartoon debate. Understandably. Few editors want to potentially endanger their employees by reprinting the cartoons. The comedian Sarah Silverman has a riff in her offensively titled concert movie, “Jesus Is Magic,” in which she explains that she feels freest to insult groups that she’s not afraid of. So she lets loose on Asian-Americans, assuming they won’t threaten her. This logic is also why she would never title her film “Muhammad Is Magic,” and is clearly at play in the cartoon debate.
It helps account for the bend-over-backward attitude toward Islam from people who would never adopt the same posture toward Christianity. In this, they do no favors to Islam. The cartoon riots are a power play. They are an attempt to set limits on free speech in the West, and to give an advantage to those forces of backwardness–both religious and secular–that are resisting the modernization of the Middle East. It is notable that Ayatollah Sistani, the pro-democracy cleric in Iraq, denounced the cartoons, but reserved his harshest language for the Islamist provocateurs who are opportunistically fomenting violence over them.
Thuggish intimidation has often been a weapon in the battle of ideas. Christian bishops were known to use rampaging crowds of monks to buttress their doctrinal positions in what historian Paul Johnson calls “mob theology.” He writes, “A fanatical religious mob could be used to blackmail a council of frightened ecclesiastics or even to overturn an imperial decision which impinged on Church affairs.” Of course, that was 1,500 years ago.
A millennia and a half later, mob theology is still with us, and the question is whether it will be resisted. The old saw is that a liberal is someone who doesn’t take his own side in a fight. That, in fact, might be the entire basis of the ideology of multiculturalism. Its defenders say multiculturalism means taking many disparate cultural strands and treating them all equally. The truth is that it is a mask for a hostility to the foundations of Western culture, which plainly can be seen when the same people who defend forcing taxpayers to fund art that dips a Crucifix in urine, deplore privately published cartoons of Muhammad. True liberals should be appalled at the illiberalism of the rioters, but the old habit of finding moral equivalence between the West and its enemies is difficult to shake, so both cartoonists and people who commit criminal acts over cartoons are considered equally at fault.
No one has reason to fear organized mayhem from Christians anymore, thank God. The clash between civilizations and, more importantly, within Islamic civilization exemplified by the cartoon controversy is over whether the day will come when we don’t have to fear it from Muslims either.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2006 King Features Syndicate