Insults Reserved for Islam
Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)
Recently, when a Danish newspaper published cartoons offensive to Muslims, Muslim protests met claims that our Western democracies had to uphold the sacred principle of free speech. Under no circumstances could we Westerners be expected to give up that important right simply because others objected to being criticized or insulted.
But wait a moment. Don't our Western democracies ban racial criticisms and insults? What happens to our sacred principles and rights then?
Indeed, even as the debate over the Danish cartoons was under way, an anti-Western Muslim in Britain was sentenced inter alia to 21 months imprisonment for allegedly inciting racial hatred against us Westerners.
And now in the United States and Australia, even speech favoring alleged Islamic enemies can be punished. So what are we to conclude -- that it is OK to disparage people for their religion, but not for their politics or race?
One wonders how educated Muslims view this contorted logic, particularly since it is contradicted by the brutally racist conduct of U.S. and British soldiers in Iraq.
As for the limp-wristed apologies for that conduct coming out of London and Washington, we all know that, if not for the incriminating videos and photos, those atrocities would have remained unpunished. Indeed, it is quite likely they would still be continuing.
In Vietnam, even worse atrocities continued happily for 10 years without any of our governments or media getting very disturbed. Racial contempt for occupied peoples is buried deep in the psyche of the Western soldier.
But getting back to the elevated world of what we in the West say rather than what we do -- the reason we oppose, at least in principle, racial insults is that race is an important part of our identity. We have a long history of racial brutalities, hatreds, discriminations toward each other. So today we have no choice but to try to put a lid on remarks that try to inflame or justify them.
Now turn to Muslim societies. For them religion rather than race is more important for identity. One reason is that they have a powerful religion -- Islam -- that provides a seemingly coherent code of both spiritual and temporal conduct. The global spread of Islam is one result. True, there are factional differences -- Shiite versus Sunni, for example. Even so, all Muslims accept that there is one source of ultimate truth (Mecca) -- something that cannot be said of our fractious Western religions.
The remarkable way Muslims manage to sublimate racial differences for the sake of religion is one result. The sight of millions of Muslims from all nations, rich and poor, all clad in identical white robes, all living and praying together for days on end to complete their Hajj obligations at Mecca, is proof. Could any of our Western religions claim to overcome racial differences as easily?
In short, while we in the West, and Japan, still cling to the tribalistic concept of race as the basis for identity, and are sensitive to any criticisms in this area, the Muslim peoples have moved on to the concept of religion as the basis of identity and are equally, if not more, sensitive to criticisms in this area.
At the very least, to ridicule Muslims for their sensitivity to religious insults while we busily jail people in our own societies for racial insults is not a very impressive example of our allegedly superior Western values in action. But the chances of this penetrating the closed, ethnocentric minds of our anti-Muslim pundits is close to zero, I am afraid.
The same biases pollute our media. Islamic militants fighting to rid their country of Western occupation armies are automatically denounced as "terrorists" (even if not too many years ago they were embraced as "freedom fighters" when they opposed Soviet occupying forces). Those willing to sacrifice their lives in the process are denigrated as deranged, cowardly, fanatical.
Nazi Germany in its efforts to suppress guerrilla and resistance forces in occupied territories would have used such vocabulary proudly.
True, the U.S. says it wants democracy for the Muslim peoples, yet it imposes bans whenever fair elections return or threaten to return Islamic movements it does not like -- Algeria, Iran and now Palestine. Meanwhile it retains close links with regimes that it likes but which refuse elections. It is like American industrialist Henry Ford saying his customers could have any color car they wanted, provided it was black.
The Islamic peoples are not fools. How much longer do we expect them to put up with this kind of self-serving nonsense?
Following the Hamas victory in the recent Palestine elections, we were treated to endless media warnings about the victory of a terrorist organization calling for the destruction of the Israeli state. The allegedly impartial BBC was as guilty as most. Soon afterward, though, the same BBC did give us an impartial documentary that made it clear that Hamas was the only political force offering concerned and noncorrupt government for the Palestinian people, and that its anti-Israel attitude owed much to Israeli defiance of U.N. resolutions condemning takeovers of Palestinian territory and the expulsions of Palestinian people.
More than anything else, it is this inability to realize cause and effect -- that if people lose their rights and their territory by force then they have no alternative but to retaliate with force -- that underlies Muslim anger against the West.
If I were to exercise my right of free speech and suggest that maybe use of force is justified in freedom-loving Australia, I would be jailed, to the applause of the very people who demand the right to insult and use force against Muslims. How hypocritical can you get?
(This article appeared in the February 24, 2006 issue of The Japan Times)