By Lee Cole–
Do we have the right not to be offended? In today’s world of hyper-political correctness and nearly instantaneous communication, it’s hard to miss an offensive statement made publicly. This is evidenced by the fact the film responsible for all the violence and turmoil now erupting in predominantly Islamic countries around the world is crude, insignificant and virtually unknown to the American public. Those protesting at our embassies apparently think that we were showing up in droves at our local movie theaters on Sept. 11 to mock the prophet and that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the Coptic Egyptian who distributed and produced the film, is tantamount to Christopher Nolan.
The horrible irony of the whole situation, that would almost be funny if it weren’t for the outrageous bloodshed, is that the film criticizes Islam for its extremist elements and propensity for engendering violence, and as if to prove the film’s point, thousands of Muslims took to the streets in violent protests. You could almost hear the collective thud of moderate Muslims’ hands smacking their foreheads and cringing the world over.
What’s more troubling is that many Muslims apparently think the appropriate response for a cartoon or an offensive film regarding their religion is murder. We saw it a few years ago with the Danish cartoon and before that with Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” Attacks on those who criticize Islam are not restricted to a single country or ethnic group; rather, it seems as though there are extremist Muslims practically anywhere in the world willing to kill or harm those who have committed the horrible crime of speaking words or creating images that are critical of Islam. Those who claim that tribalism, economics or politics are responsible for terroristic violence will have to reconsider after the massive global response to the film. What else, besides religion, could be the culprit? Why else would non-Middle Eastern countries take offense on behalf of Palestine and burn Israeli flags, when their cultures are a world apart?
The Onion published a satirical cartoon and accompanying article immediately after the protests began depicting the Buddha, Yahweh, Jesus Christ and Ganesh taking part in a thoroughly depraved sex act with the headline “No one murdered because of this image.” While the intent was humor, the message is important. When our ambassadors die as a result of a movie no one’s seen or ten people die in Afghanistan because an idiot named Terry Jones burned a Quran, it’s time to step back from the situation and reassess.
Religion is often insulated from criticism in our society, because we believe that it is sacred. Those who criticize Islam are accused of Islamophobia, a curious new term that is usually associated with or considered tantamount to racism. We forget, however, that a religion is a belief system and thus a choice. Unlike race or ethnicity, we can choose what religion we are a part of. We can choose, as adults, to either assert its principles or denounce them. Yet, leaders of Muslim countries around the world have the gall to demand that we criminalize the publication of materials that might be offensive to Islam, as though it should be considered hate speech – a totally absurd notion. We can openly criticize someone’s views on politics or science, but when it comes to their beliefs about iron age superstition, middle eastern real estate and the commands of an imaginary, bearded sky god, we must abstain from criticism because it might hurt someone’s feelings. Religion is perhaps the most deserving of criticism, because of its bold, unsupported claims. Neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris put it well in an article for The Huffington Post when he wrote: “There is an uncanny irony here that many have noticed. The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia.’” This sums up the current situation aptly. There has to be room for secular criticism of religion in a free society, without those secularists being lumped in with genuine xenophobes and racists like Terry Jones.
In the United States we have freedom of speech, for the most part, meaning that we can express ourselves as we please, like the satirists over at The Onion. We understand, because most of us are no longer living in a medieval mindset, that words are merely words and pictures merely pictures. They don’t have some magic quality; Muhammad is dead and so are Jesus and the Buddha. They can’t see the pictures we make anymore or read what we say about them and even if they could, why would they care? If these men were truly great spiritual leaders, do we really think they would be petty enough to care about an idiotic cartoon or an offensive movie?
What would really offend them, I would imagine, is murder, for any reason. I’m offended by fundamentalists in my own country when they burn Qurans and behave like imbeciles. I’m offended when my country goes to war for oil and other foreign interests and disguises its intentions by calling it a war on terror. But I’m beyond offended when our embassies are attacked and our citizens murdered because Muslims think they have the right to not be offended. When American citizens are killed, our sovereignty is violated and our country injured in a manner that could never be accomplished by mere words.
As literal sticks and stones were being hurled at tanks and riot police around the world Friday, I was reminded of the old saying for which this article is named and which I learned to appreciate sometime around the second grade: Words can never hurt me, or at least they shouldn’t be able to. But when speaking, writing or printing an image is enough to guarantee violent rebuke, freedom of speech is truly in danger.