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Holy rage

by Sirocco Mon Jan 30th, 2006 at 07:16:10 PM EST

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion.

~ H.L. Mencken

As reported in BobFunk's informative diary entry on the subject, the publication of twelve satirical cartoons has provoked a serious diplomatic crisis between a number of Middle Eastern countries and Denmark. The drawings, which depict the Prophet Muhammed in unflattering ways, were first printed on September 30 last year by the Danish conservative daily Jyllands-Posten. This month they were republished by an obscure Norwegian Christian magazine, something that - combined with a campaign by some Danish Islamic leaders to "internationalize" the issue - prompted a consumer boycott ruining Danish exports to the Middle East.

Denmark has so far declined the demands to apologize for and punish the publication, although PM Anders Vogh Rasmussen today took personal exception to it. Norway has more strongly denounced it, but not apologized, pointing to freedom of speech.

Some perspective below.


To BobFunk's coverage I may add that, besides the diplomatic crisis and the consumer boycott, the muslim world's two main political bodies will ask the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution banning "attacks on religious beliefs." These bodies are, respectively, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The latter represents 57 countries, the former 22.

Meanwhile, in Darfur:

The story is the same across Darfur, Sudan's westernmost region. In 25 days of research there and among refugees on the border with Chad, Human Rights Watch documented 62 attacks on mosques in Dar Masalit, the homeland of one of Darfur's three main African tribes. Several of them were accompanied by murders inside mosques, often during prayer time. Korans, prayer mats and other symbols of Islam were routinely desecrated.

As noted in my recent story, the Sudanese regime continues to sponsor such attacks. Yet to my knowledge, neither of these organizations have made any kind of brouhaha over the matter, let alone sought UN declarations. Indeed, in March the Arab League is to hold its summit in Khartoum, perhaps there to continue its foaming at the mouth over these cartoons.

No comment required, I trust.

But aside from this plainly revolting institutional hypocrisy, there is a deeper sense of double standards at play. True, most European muslims, offending though they might rightly find the cartoons, do not call for curtailing freedom of speech. However, the foremost religious authorities of the (Sunni) muslim world - including the Saudi top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, and the International Union for Muslim Scholars, chaired by the leading Egyptian Sheikh Yusef al-Qardawi - disagree. They side with the Palestinian Authority's representative in Norway, Yasser Najjar: "Liberty must have its limitations.... One cannot insult our Prophet!"

An al-Jazeera editorial puts the point this way:

The Muslim world has long been accused of lacking freedom, freedom of expression or freedom of speech included. Looking at what the West today calls "Freedom of Speech" we’ll find that the term has become used as a tool to insult, disrespect and degrade religions in an unprecedented way.

"The Islamic religion," claims al-Jazeera, "does not allow offensive remarks by both Muslims and Non-Muslims." Sorry; I beg to differ. Though the Koran does prescribe a measure of respect for followers of the other two Abrahamic religions, it extends no courtesy to, for instance, hindus, let alone atheists such as myself. Furthermore, it makes no bones about what awaits every "infidel" in the hereafter. Here is a non-exhaustive sample (and bear in mind that the Koran is, in mainstream Islam, considered perfect and infallible in every syllable):

The Koran, excerpts


Those who reject faith shall be the companions of the Fire.


Those who deny Our revelation We will burn in fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge. God is mighty and wise.


As for those who disbelieve and deny Our revelations, they are the heirs of Hell.


...The unbelievers shall stare in amazement, crying: "Woe to us! Of this we have been heedless. We have done wrong." You and your idols shall be the fuel of Hell; therein you shall all go down.


Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. Scalding water shall be poured upon their heads, melting their skins and that which is in their bellies. They shall be lashed with rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they try to escape from Hell, back they shall be dragged, and will be told: "Taste the torment of the Conflagration!"


...The fruit of the Zaqqum tree shall be the unbelievers's fruit. Like dregs of oil, like scalding water, it shall simmer in his belly. A voice will cry: "Seize him and drag him into the depths of Hell. Then pour out scalding water over his head, saying: 'Taste this, illustrious and honourable man! This is the punishment which you have doubted.'"


...On that day they shall be sternly thrown into the fire of Hell, and a voice will say to them: "This is the Fire which you denied.... Burn in its flames. It is the same whether or not you show forbearance. You shall be rewarded according to your deeds."


...That is the Hell which the unbelievers deny. They shall wander between fire and water fiercely seething. Which of your Lord's blessing would you deny?


Ye shall surely taste of the tree Zaqqum. Then will ye fill your insides therwith, and drink boiling water on top of it. Indeed ye shall drink like diseased camels raging with thirst. Such will be their entertainment on the day of Requital!


We shall say: "Lay hold of him and bind him. Burn him in the fie of Hell, then fasten him with a chain seventy cubits long. For he did not believe Allah the tremendous, and urged not on the feeding of the wretched. Today he shall be friendless here; filth shall be his food, the filth which sinners eat."


We have in store for the unbelievers heavy fetters and a blazing fire, choking food and harrowing torment: on the day when the earth shall quiver with all its mountains, and the mountains crumble into heaps of shifting sand.


For the unbelievers We have prepared chains and fetters and a blazing Fire....


Woe on that day to the disbelievers! Begone to the Hell which you deny! Depart into the shadow that will rise high in three columns, giving neither shade nor shelter from the flames, and throwing up sparks as huge as towers, as bright as yellow camels.... Eat and enjoy yourselves awhile. You are wicked men....

I honestly find these fantasies about the posthumous fate of my family, friends, and self exceedingly offensive: infinitely so, in fact. But then, so what? There is not and cannot be a right not to be offended by other people's metaphysical beliefs and their public expression.

And that is not just a matter of principle, though it is a truly fundamental such, pace Tony Blair: if the multicultural society is to be viable in the long haul, it's a pragmatic necessity. We would abandon the principle of free speech at our peril.

All this just shows again, why a strict separation of state and church is necessary....
by PeWi on Mon Jan 30th, 2006 at 07:57:28 PM EST
Yeah. That's a principle for which I've personally fought since age 14 - we have a state church in Norway, despite being demonstrably the most secular nation on earth. It was sobering to find the muslim organizations supporting that institution recently.

This whole cartoon saga is laden with ironies on every side. The imbecile Christian fundie publication that reprinted the drawings have previously supported upholding the Norwegian ban on blasphemy. Fucktards.

The world's northernmost desert wind.

by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Mon Jan 30th, 2006 at 08:10:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sirocco, I appreciate your story but I think that your choice to quote from the Koran is wrong in this context. We are talking about an ancient text written for a different time.  That some Muslims have shaped their religion into one of hate and oppression is an obvious fact, but the text itself is not to blame.  We are not talking about Marx, whose writings are only separated from the horrors of the Cheka by a few decades (though they are even closer to democratic instincts of the SPD and SFIO - Marx can be fairly blamed or praised for some of the worst and best of modern history) Adherents of Islam are always 'a la carte' Muslims. They pick and choose which passages to emphasize, which to ignore, which take priority, and how to interpret everything for the present. The same goes for every other religion - those that cry death to fags and those who make gays bishops are equally Christian. Nor is it really honest to see one as a literalist and the other as not - why do the strictures of Levicitus take precedence over the Sermon on the Mount, and for that matter why are the rules on sexuality relevant but those on diet not (do the James Dobsons and Pat Robertsons of this world keep kosher?).  Religion can be a source of good or evil. In most cases it is just an unthinking habit inherited from ones parents and a social institution.

At the risk of becoming perceived as the PC nut on this blog I'd also like to mention that such selective theological exegis has a long an ugly history, being the chief ideological weapon in the service of fanatical hostility to other religions. The anti-Muslim version largely died out in the early modern period, the anti-Jewish one survived though it was overshadowed by the new mode of authoritative discourse of scientific rationalism. I realize that few are aware of this but that makes it all the more insidious of a weapon. I also realize that what you are trying to do is simply point out the hypocrisy of those currently throwing a fit over the cartoons.  But to do that properly what you need to show is actual words and actions by those protest a bit too much - e.g. sift through remarks by Qardawi, point out the irony of official Saudi clerics condemning religious intolerance while supporting the ban on all non Muslim religious practice, etc.

PS - I don't care about what religions say will happen to my soul in the hereafter since I believe in neither. What I do care about is when my freedom of speech or action is limited in the name of religion.

by MarekNYC on Mon Jan 30th, 2006 at 09:14:02 PM EST
Thanks for your comment. I am tempted to rebut it, but should have been in bed long ago. Will be able to reply more coherently tomorrow.

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Mon Jan 30th, 2006 at 09:33:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey you are not a PC-Nut - PC is an invention of right wing propagandists to discredit any liberation thinking.

What you are doing is representing and taking a stand for an often neglected but to be encouraged perspective on the issue.

And for the use of that tool of selective exegesis, this is always a bother for me too. The subsequent quote wars are not helpful in anyway. What is the point in pointing out the contradictions in a holy scripture - it can score cheap points, but it is a detraction from the underlying problem. Why people want to believe in a literal truth. That question is never answered and more often not even being asked and a solution can hardly ever be reached when the quote wars begin.

by PeWi on Mon Jan 30th, 2006 at 09:35:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How exactly could there be a "quote war" between muslims and an atheist? Just curious.

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Tue Jan 31st, 2006 at 04:54:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are quoting the respective scripture at each other (both the same of course) This is equally applicable to any scripture based religion.

So you can throw quotes at Christians from Leviticus and be retaliated with some Deuteronimus.

Or in your case a Muslim could say, yes, well those quotes are in the Qur'an, but here it says...

The problem with quoting out of context is, that you can always bend any quote in the direction you like and if you don;t like it - ignore it.

It is not helpful and does not lead to a solution of the underlying problem.

So applied to our situation. A Muslim that reads the quotes will not (necessarily) loose faith, because his convictions are stronger (as are yours) to resist and ignore the inconsistencies.

If that would work... One of the oldest stories in the quote war is Gen1 against Gen2 - two completely different stories - even in English, and if you look at the original the differences and contradictions get even greater. how can anybody believe that Gen1 is an acurate description of historic occurrence, when Gen2 tells a complete different creation story.

That argument has however rarely stopped a Gen1er in his/her stride. They rather try to ignore or somehow forcefully incorporate it in their convictions.
That's why quote war's are usually not convincing. Especially from a Non-literal point of view (be it enlightened believers, or atheists, which will use similar arguments to the former)

This does not mean that small battles cannot be won, but it will not solve underlying problem.
Someone that believes in the literacy of hisher holy scripture is not going to fall out of his/her faith simply because of inconsistencies in the text. (Our mind is to small to understand this, have faith and it will become clear... or some such quote)
I don;t have a solution to the problem of how getting people away from their rabbit-eye-stare faith. Otherwise I would be a minister now....

by PeWi on Tue Jan 31st, 2006 at 05:36:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry I should have read your other comment first before answering - it now sounds even more condescending. Apologies.
by PeWi on Tue Jan 31st, 2006 at 05:41:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Tue Jan 31st, 2006 at 05:55:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
All right, here is a quick reply. Unfortunately I am in a rush and not able to answer as comprehensively and carefully as I might have wished, but here goes.

Sirocco, I appreciate your story but I think that your choice to quote from the Koran is wrong in this context.

Wrong in what sense? I hope you don't mean, morally wrong.

We are talking about an ancient text written for a different time. That some Muslims have shaped their religion into one of hate and oppression is an obvious fact, but the text itself is not to blame.

You seem to assume that I am out to bash Islam. Such is not the case; so this point is moot.


The Koran really is seen as infallibly and literally true in its entirety within mainstream Islam. Indeed, it is regarded as equiprimordial with God, having existed from eternity. (Opposing views remain theologically marginal and vulnerable to charges of apostasy. For a primer, see this NYRB piece by Max Rodenbeck.) Although sociologically speaking, different strands bestow varying degrees of cognitive prominence on various aspects of the founding text, if you think the Koranic passages about hell are somehow dormant, disregarded, or even optional within contemporary mainstream Islam, then you are mistaken. You would have to look long and hard to find a reputable Islamic scholar prepared to allegorically reinterpret, let alone reject, these Koranic passages.

Thus you also quite unfairly accuse me of using the "insidious weapon" of "selective theological exegesis," which owing to its "long and ugly history... in the service of fanatical hostility to other religions" is apparently supposed to make me guilty of a sort of hate speech. Not so. I am simply quoting some core doctrinal tenets of Islamic religion as a living tradition.

I also do happen to consider the quoted verses offensive, however fictitious. (If someone asserts that one shall rightfully be tortured forever, the sentiment is no less obnoxious for being absurd; just safer to ignore.) Whether you personally react that way is hardly of relevance as long as you can understand how someone might.

In general, too much pious lip-service is paid to the supposed obligation to respect the religious or ontological beliefs of others. There is no such duty from my unapologetic Enlightenment viewpoint. Instead, there is a duty to respect the right of others to believe whatever they please and to act on those beliefs whenever they don't demonstrably harm others. To quote Mencken again, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." And that is the sense and the extent to which I respect most religion, including Islam.

I also realize that what you are trying to do is simply point out the hypocrisy of those currently throwing a fit over the cartoons.

Actually, that was not all I was trying to do, though the mention of Sudan was to that effect.

But to do that properly what you need to show is actual words and actions by those protest a bit too much - e.g. sift through remarks by Qardawi, point out the irony of official Saudi clerics condemning religious intolerance while supporting the ban on all non Muslim religious practice, etc.

Yes, in a longer piece I would have done this too, especially the Saudi bit. But sadly, then, as now, I had limited time.

The world's northernmost desert wind.

by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Tue Jan 31st, 2006 at 03:59:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, it seems Jyllands-Posten had a looksee in their archives. And what do you know, they found a map showing the route to Canossa! A sad case, any way you look at it.

Denmark's largest selling broadsheet newspaper last night issued an apology to the "honourable citizens of the Muslim world" after publishing a series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that provoked protests across the Middle East.

In a lengthy statement the editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten admitted that the 12 cartoons, one of which depicted Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, had caused "serious misunderstandings". Carsten Juste said: "The 12 cartoons ... were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims, for which we apologise."

Mr Juste spoke out hours after Scandinavians were warned against travelling to Gaza and the West Bank after the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade demanded that all Swedes and Danes leave the territories. An Iraqi militant group joined the protests when it called for attacks against Danish and Norwegian targets after a Norwegian newspaper ran the cartoons.

Danish businesses started to take fright yesterday after religious leaders in Saudi Arabia, which last week recalled its ambassador to Copenhagen, called for a boycott of Danish goods. The dairy group Arla Foods reported that two of its staff in Saudi Arabia had been beaten by angry customers.

Bitsofnews.com Giving you the latest bits.
by Alexander G Rubio (alexander.rubio@gmail.com) on Tue Jan 31st, 2006 at 12:45:45 AM EST
Alas, in vain. As you'll know, their HQs were evacuated today following a bomb threat.

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Tue Jan 31st, 2006 at 04:58:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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