The case for mocking religion.
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006, at 4:31 PM ET
As well as being a small masterpiece of inarticulacy and
self-abnegation, the statement from the State Department about this week's
international Muslim pogrom against the free press was also accidentally
"Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images,
as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief."
Thus the hapless Sean McCormack, reading painfully slowly from what was
reported as a prepared government statement. How appalling for the country
of the First Amendment to be represented by such an administration. What
does he mean "unacceptable"? That it should be forbidden? And
how abysmal that a "spokesman" cannot distinguish between
criticism of a belief system and slander against a people. However, the
illiterate McCormack is right in unintentionally comparing racist libels
to religious faith. Many people have pointed out that the Arab and Muslim
press is replete with anti-Jewish caricature, often of the most lurid and
hateful kind. In one way the comparison is hopelessly inexact. These foul
items mostly appear in countries where the state decides what is published
or broadcast. However, when Muslims republish the Protocols of the Elders
of Zion or perpetuate the story of Jewish blood-sacrifice at Passover,
they are recycling the fantasies of the Russian Orthodox Christian secret
police (in the first instance) and of centuries of Roman Catholic and
Lutheran propaganda (in the second). And, when an Israeli politician
refers to Palestinians as snakes or pigs or monkeys, it is near to a
certainty that he will be a rabbi (most usually Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the
leader of the disgraceful Shas party) and will cite Talmudic authority for
his racism. For most of human history, religion and bigotry have been two
sides of the same coin, and it still shows.
Therefore there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten,
who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the
right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general. And the Bush
administration has no business at all expressing an opinion on that. If it
is to say anything, it is constitutionally obliged to uphold the right and
no more. You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also
printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and messianic
Israeli settlers, and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when
this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken.
Which is what taboos are for. Islam makes very large claims for itself.
In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at
all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another
male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or
alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then,
let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the
right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning
and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only
an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to
possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in
the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.