Politics & Policy

The Evolution of Religious Bigotry

Courage without consequence.

I just watched Fitna, a 17-minute film by Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders. 

Released on the Internet last week, Fitna juxtaposes verses from the Koran with images from the world of jihad. Heads cut off, bodies blown apart, gays executed, toddlers taught to denounce Jews as “apes and pigs,” protesters holding up signs reading “God Bless Hitler” and “Freedom go to Hell” – these are among the powerful images from Fitna, Arabic for “strife” or “ordeal.”

Predictably, various Muslim governments have condemned the film. Half the Jordanian parliament voted to sever ties with the Netherlands. Egypt’s grand imam threatened “severe” consequences if the Dutch didn’t ban the film.

Meanwhile, European and U.N. leaders are going through the usual theatrical hand-wringing, heaping anger on Wilders for sowing “hatred.”

Me? I keep thinking about Jesus fish.

During a 1991 visit to Istanbul, a buddy and I found ourselves in a small restaurant, drinking, dancing, and singing with a bunch of middle-class Turkish businessmen, mostly shop owners. It was a hilariously joyful evening, even though they spoke little English and we spoke considerably less Turkish.

At the end of the night, after imbibing unquantifiable quantities of raki, an ouzo-like Turkish liqueur, one of the men gave me a worn-out business card. On the back, he’d scribbled an image. It was little more than a curlicue, but he seemed intent on showing it to me (and nobody else). It was, I realized, a Jesus fish.

It was an eye-opening moment for me, though obviously trivial compared with the experiences of others. Here in this cosmopolitan and self-styled European city, this fellow felt the need to surreptitiously clue me in that he was a Christian just like me (or so he thought).

Traditionally, the fish pictogram conjures the miracle of the loaves and fishes as well as the Greek word IXΘΥΣ, which means fish and also is an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” Christians persecuted by the Romans used to draw the Jesus fish in the dirt as a way to tip off fellow Christians that they weren’t alone.

In America, these fish appear mostly on cars. Recently, however, it seems Jesus fish have become outnumbered by Darwin fish. No doubt you’ve seen these, too. The fish is “updated” with little feet on the bottom, and “IXΘΥΣ” or “Jesus” is replaced with either “Darwin” or “Evolve.”

I find Darwin fish offensive. First, there’s the smugness. The undeniable message: Those Jesus fish people are less evolved, less sophisticated than we Darwin fishers.

The hypocrisy is even more glaring. Darwin fish are often stuck next to bumper stickers promoting tolerance or admonishing that “hate is not a family value.” But the whole point of the Darwin fish is intolerance; similar mockery of a cherished symbol would rightly be condemned as bigoted if aimed at blacks or women or, yes, Muslims.

As Christopher Caldwell once observed in the Weekly Standard, Darwin fish flout the agreed-on etiquette of identity politics. “Namely: It’s acceptable to assert identity and abhorrent to attack it. A plaque with ‘Shalom’ written inside a Star of David would hardly attract notice; a plaque with ‘Usury’ written inside the same symbol would be an outrage.”

But it’s the false bravado of the Darwin fish that grates the most. Like so much other Christian-baiting in American popular culture, sporting your Darwin fish is a way to speak truth to power on the cheap, to show courage without consequence.

Whatever the faults of Fitna, it ain’t no Darwin fish.

Wilders’ film could easily get him killed. It picks up the work of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered in 2004 by a jihadi for criticizing Islam.

Fitna is provocative, but it has good reason to provoke. A cancer of violence, bigotry, and cruelty is metastasizing within the Islamic world.

It’s fine for Muslim moderates to say they aren’t part of the cancer; and that some have, in response to the film, is a positive sign. But more often, diagnosing or even observing this cancer – in film, book or cartoon – is dubbed “intolerant,” while calls for violence, censorship, and even murder are treated as understandable, if regrettable, expressions of anger.

It’s not that secular progressives support Muslim religious fanatics, it’s that they reserve their passion and scorn for religious Christians who are neither fanatical nor violent.

The Darwin fish ostensibly symbolizes the superiority of progressive-minded science over backward-looking faith. I think this is a false juxtaposition, but I would have a lot more respect for the folks who believe it if they aimed their brave contempt for religion at those who might behead them for it.

– Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

(C) 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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