Some may call it an age-defying move; others may call it bad taste.
During Madonna’s Confessions tour, the concerts featured a segment in which the 48-year-old singer crucified herself, complete with a mock crown of thorns. Religious leaders responded by describing the tour as an act of blasphemy, in turn eliciting an openly empty bomb threat and sporadic protests.
Of course, the controversy was a stark contrast to the one surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks. Though the Pope did not overtly condone the medieval text he cited, in which the Islamic prophet Muhammad is described as evil, the response to his commentary was a maelstrom of violent reprisals. And, despite its glibly “neutral” portrayal of world events, even the mainstream media has begrudgingly admitted seven attacks on churches in Gaza. A Somali nun was killed, and calls for the Pope’s assassination as well as for the West’s demise still linger.
This response is hardly warranted. The rioting, raging parties of Muslim extremists are wrong in their violence. Despite their irrationality, however, they managed to correctly deduce that the Pope’s comments have indeed “thrown gasoline onto the fire in a world where the risk of a religious clash is high.”
But the derision fermented by the comments is not the Christian versus Muslim rigmarole of the medieval era, for the West failed to be “Christian” in that sense a long time ago. Rather, this clash represents two different ways of looking at the world: the way of religion purported by Muslim extremists, and the way of reason purported by the secular West.
The way of religion maintains that an unknowable, often capricious force (see: Job) controls the universe. On the other hand, the way of reason maintains that the world is governed not by a deity’s whims, but instead by objective, reasonable laws.
This second outlook was embodied by the West’s Great Enlightenment. An integral tenet of the Enlightenment was that these laws were discernable to men who devoted themselves to their study. Suddenly, all facets of existence were subject to reason’s harsh scrutiny.
Thinkers such as Scottish philosopher David Hume dared to question the validity of religious dogma that had, for centuries, belied empirical thought. Voltaire said non to nobility because he saw no rational justification for its unearned privilege. Adam Smith championed a new economic system that intelligibly made use of the marketplace.
In this period, the Western world saw the development of the ideas that would eventually bring an end to effective monarchy, mercantilism, theocracy and censorship. The Enlightenment did more than just ruffle a few feathers – several thinkers were jailed and others were barred from holding university chairs.
Despite this suppression, however, the Enlightenment prevailed as the establishment of the American nation embodied its ideals. The Declaration of Independence was much more than a scrap of parchment: It was the document through which humanity gained ideological emancipation. For the first time in history, humans were free to do and say what they wanted, when they wanted, so long as they didn’t harm anyone physically while doing so.
Today, sadly, this notion of free speech has been emasculated. Free speech comes with responsibility, and this responsibility is not that which pertains to libel, slander and acts of treason. Rather, responsibility has become a euphemism for censorship. Responsibility has come to mean not satirizing or criticizing an issue because doing so may be offensive to others, even though no physical offense and initiation of force occurs. Responsibility now means writing and speaking with restraint because our leaders will not defend us, but instead pander to “sensitivities,” when offended peoples murder and maim in response to mere words.
Anyone remember the Bush administration’s response to the Danish cartoon controversy? Far from being “cowboyish,” as often chided, the administration acted quite dandyish at first, decrying the cartoons and only later condemning the violence. French President Jacques Chirac’s sentiments were similar – again, blaming the cartoonists for the conflict, not the people who enthusiastically engaged in violence.
Likewise, the Western response to the Pope’s comments are an embarrassment. The Vatican backtracked, emphasizing that the desultory words weren’t actually the Pope’s. Even the otherwise conservative pontiff conceded a bit, expressing apology and participating in “dialogue” after having offended the world’s violent Muslim extremists – a bitter irony for a speech emphasizing the place of reason and non-violence in Catholicism’s revival.
This apologetic stance did, in turn, signify that the Muslim extremists were justified in their violence because they received the results they desired. Cowing to violence, the West bargained its freedom in exchange for its protection – it chose to say, “No, no, we didn’t blaspheme,” instead of saying, “We are free to say what we want.” The West was willing to seal its lips with a “mutual respect,” a spineless sort of grease-money, if you will. And, just in case you didn’t understand, the phrase “mutual respect” is another euphemism for “not daring to question Islam.”
But why should Islam be questioned, you may ask? For the very same reason that Christianity and Judaism should be questioned and have been peaceably in recent years. Religious texts are often outright contradictory, and therefore the interpretations therein devised are not fit for calm discourse but rather for inane violence.
Sure, it’s easy to argue about ideas such as politics, science and literature without resorting to violence, but there isn’t much amicable wiggle-room when yours is the ‘only’ group dealing with the unadulterated word of god and three groups are vying for this very position. The only way to temper the violence inherent to all “great” religions is to subject them to rational scrutiny. Thus we must analyze, satirize, lambaste and – gasp – even offend. For it is in this very spirit of free inquiry, and only in this spirit, that the greatness and liberty of Western civilization was wrought.
Victoria Bekiempis is a sophomore majoring in history and French.