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Modernity's threat

Cathy Young

The Boston Globe

Monday, February 13, 2006

As the Danish cartoons satirizing Muhammad continue to cause violent protests throughout the Muslim world, many people are asking what this incident says about the ability of Islam, at least in its current state, to coexist with modern democratic civilization and its cherished freedoms.

That is a legitimate question, and we should not be deterred from asking it by either political correctness or intimidation. But the tension between traditional religion and modernity, between piety and freedom, are not limited to Islam alone - though Islamic radicalism today represents a uniquely deadly form of this tension.

In a New York Times column (IHT, Feb. 10), David Brooks wrote that the West, with its "legacy of Socrates and the agora" and its "progressive and rational" mindset, is open to a multiplicity of arguments, perspectives, and "unpleasant facts," while radical Muslims cling to "pre-Enlightenment" dogmatism and shrink from the "chaos of our conversation."

Yet Brooks overlooks the fact that a large segment of the population in the West, and especially in the United States, rejects the progressive, rational mindset and embraces pre-Enlightenment values as well. Fundamentalist Christians, traditionalist Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not, with very few exceptions, call for violence in response to heresy. But they too often equate criticism (let alone mockery) of their beliefs with "religious bigotry" or "hate speech." And they, too, often seek not simply to protest but to shut down offensive speech.

In 1998, when a Broadway theater announced the production of Terrence McNally's play "Corpus Christi," depicting a gay Jesus-like character, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights began a letter-writing campaign against it. There were also threats of violence and arson, which at one point swayed the theater to cancel the play.

Interestingly, the head of the Catholic League, William Donohue, applauded the decision of most American newspapers not to publish the Muhammad cartoons and lamented only that his group's protests against offensive material have been less successful. Many of the same newspapers that decided - quite wrongly, in my view - not to reproduce the cartoons even as part of a news story about the reaction to them have run photos of controversial works of art considered sacrilegious by Christians, and defended the display of those works in tax-funded museums.

Donohue makes an important point when he says that this double standard reflects fear of violence by Islamic extremists, and that caving in to such intimidation is a deplorable message to send. But he, too, agrees that freedom of the press should take a back seat to respect for what is sacred to believers. Respect is of course a fine thing, but where does one draw the line between insult and criticism or questioning?

Others from America's Christian right, such as Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition, have echoed the notion that the media should show the same deference to conservative Christians that they show to Muslims. And a few have openly voiced sympathy even with violent manifestations of Islamic extremism. Pat Buchanan recently wrote:

"When Bush speaks of freedom as God's gift to humanity, does he mean the First Amendment freedom ... of Salman Rushdie to publish 'The Satanic Verses,' a book considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith? If the Islamic world rejects this notion of freedom ... why are they wrong?"

The truth is that modernity, with its "chaos of conversation," its chaos of lifestyles, its attitude that there is nothing more sacred than freedom of expression, is profoundly threatening to many religious traditionalists of different faiths. (Last year, quite a few American conservatives applauded Pope Benedict XVI's assault on "the dictatorship of relativism.")

At present, for a variety of historical and cultural reasons, radical fundamentalism holds a particular sway in the Muslim world, where it is wedded to political violence in ways that have no parallel in other religions. To ignore this difference and this danger would be foolish. But it is also unwise to ignore the religious backlash against modernity in the West, and its own tensions with individual freedom.

(Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.)

 

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