Of cartoons and taboos

February 20, 2006

In May 1985 an Austrian movie described as a “satirical tragedy set in Heaven” was confiscated in Innsbruck, its exhibitor charged with “disparaging religious doctrines.” A nine-year legal battle ensued.

The film, “Council in Heaven,” featured scenes from the 1895 blasphemy trial of an Italian playwright, Oskar Panizza. He was imprisoned for writing a Renaissance-era play in which God consults Satan before unleashing syphilis on mankind. In the movie, re-enactments of Panizza’s prosecution bracket a performance of his play. There, a court recounted, “God the Father is presented both in image and in text as a senile, impotent idiot, Christ as a cretin and Mary Mother of God as a wanton lady with a corresponding manner of expression…”

Austrian courts banned the film. The case was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights which, in 1994 decided that while religion wasn’t above criticism, “in extreme cases the effect of particular methods of opposing or denying religious beliefs can be such as to inhibit those who hold such beliefs from exercising their freedom to hold and express them.”

And so, because it constituted “a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance, which must also be a feature of democratic society,” a movie about the century-old suppression of an anti-clerical fabulist was itself suppressed – by Europe’s highest rights tribunal.

I learned about that case while looking into the storm of anger provoked by caricatures of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, that ran in a Danish newspaper and which touched off widespread rioting, with Islamist mobs goaded into fury by those who hope to gain by deepening their sense of victimization.

But it’s not the misconceptions of Muslims that concern me here. It’s our own misconceptions, the ones peddled by U.S. and European commentators about just how endlessly indulgent of robust expression our advanced culture truly is.

Time and again, this affair is cast as a faceoff between a dogmatic, tyrannical intolerance that’s medieval in its bigotry and narrowmindedness, and the West’s post-Enlightenment freedom of thought  warmly receptive to criticism, humble in its certitudes, respectful of independence of mind, endlessly questioning.

There’s some truth to this – but less than we might like. And reiterating this self-serving belief in that polarity will, I fear, make devising honest rules of engagement between cultures intractably hard.

Islamists have no monopoly on theological idiocies. The Japanese worship their emperor, still. Argentina’s constitution bars non-Catholics from the presidency. West Bank resettlement has been led by Jews convinced the land was promised them by God. Our own leaders include believers who know that, any day now, they’ll physically ascend to Heaven leaving their clothes behind.

Castigating Muslims for protesting when their taboos are violated doesn’t mean we have no taboos of our own. When it comes to irrational devotions, fierce loyalties, a capacity for deep and unthinking anger, a knee-jerk tendency to presume innate superiority before God, they are not alone. Their faith forbids icons and punishes those who make them. We venerate icons and punish those who disrespect them. (Try infringing a trademark or burning a flag.) They honor innocent victims of the intifada; we honor innocent victims of 9/11.

My point isn’t moral equivalence. It’s that engagement between cultures cannot proceed from the easy assumption that we’re obviously right. If the enemy is dogma, let’s acknowledge our own. If we believe irreverent expression is indispensable to the rough and tumble of cultural life, maybe we shouldn’t ban films that make us wince.

What should the rules be? For starters, let’s be truthful, factual. Be careful about holding groups up to ridicule and belittling their beliefs, customs, faces, accents. Let them speak for themselves. Acknowledge fallibility. And be willing to listen and to explain, as Danish officials apparently weren’t.

The big flap now among U.S. media is whether to republish the offending cartoons, which is a bit like turning up the music after your neighbor complains about the noise. Aren’t they newsworthy? Maybe. But suppose some malcontent editor decided Coretta Scott King had been unduly lionized and marked her funeral with cartoons deriding her. Would you republish them in covering the outraged aftermath?

Now the Islamists bring up the Holocaust. Iran is offering cash for cartoons lampooning the Nazis’ murder of millions, which they’ll dare European newspapers to publish to prove their commitment to free expression. (Evidently, the Iranians believe the Holocaust is taboo in Europe, where anti-Semitism has been a fixture for a millennium.)

But the Holocaust, like the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda it prefigured, is relevant. All were fueled by crude, insulting imagery, by lies and vilification. Iran’s offer unwittingly reminds us what can happen when that is the language people use to talk to each other.

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