The Profane Comedy

Dante’s excruciatingly long 14thcentury poem, The Divine Comedy, never really struck me as funny when I was forced to read selections in high school. In the poem’s most famous section, The Inferno, Dante, as would most intolerant Christians of the time, placed Mohammed and Ali in Hell. But, so far as I know, Dante never killed a Muslim for his beliefs.

I buy (but rarely read) Salman Rushdie’s tedious books as a tiny token of respect and support for his right to pen tedious books that offend Muslim fanatics whose response to his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses, was to place a private-sector death warrant on him. This seemed excessive punishment even for the tedious and improbable nature of the book exemplified by its interminable, fantastical opening scene of Gibreel and Saladin tumbling and babbling and then flapping down through the sky 29, 500 feet to a soft landing in the English Channel after their airliner explodes. (This by the same guy who recently slammed the plot of the terrific film “Slumdog Millionaire” as unrealistic.) Several booksellers declined to stock Verses and people tended to grant him more than the usual personal space. To its credit the British government provided guards for Rushdie. Eventually the fatwa seemed to rot away or expire and Rushdie was able to resume a more normal life although riots in a few Muslim nations followed his knighthood in 2007 and the Pakistani Prime Minister noted that the honor justified suicide bombings.

Then pre-emptive cowardice in the face of radical Islam became so common that a false 2005 story in the Lancaster Evening Telegraph reporting that British banks were banning piggy banks because they were offensive to Muslims was widely believed. The British were once made of sterner, if a bit more intolerant, stuff. In 1853 when sepoys who believed that their new Enfield cartridges were coated with pig fat revolted, the Commander in Chief in India, General George Anson, said, “I’ll never give in to their beastly prejudices.”

In 2005 the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, seeking to highlight and confront  incidents of fear-based self-censorship, commissioned and published a dozen cartoon depictions of Mohammed. A group of Imams then took the paper’s cartoons and a few uglier ones of their own creation and toured Muslim countries whipping up violence that resulted in calls for sanctions against Denmark and cost about 200 people their lives. A fairly large number of papers and Internet sites have since published the cartoons with little follow-on hysterics, though the Danish police did arrest a few people suspected of plotting to kill the cartoonist responsible for the portrayal of Mohammed wearing a turban in the form of a bomb. It is fair to question the motives of the newspaper, it is fair to question the use of unflattering depictions of The Prophet that conflate him with current extremists (we don’t use distorted depictions of Jesus’ to represent moronic super-fundamentalists). But the paper, however misguided or insensitive, should be free to comment on an important subject.

Disturbingly, a lot of people seem to believe there should be a constraint on freedom of speech if its exercise might cause mayhem. They have moved all controversial discussion of Islam and its followers under Justice Powell’s exemption to free speech for “yelling fire in a crowded theater.” But Powell was referring to false cries of alarm. The new cowards don’t even want you to whisper truthfully that the theater is smoking though they would yell at you if you were.

The cartoon incident revealed some distressing flaws in many Islamic fundamentalists’ senses of tolerance and humor. The incident also provoked many to question western commitment to free speech – especially that from the right side of the political spectrum. So, Jytte Klausen, a Danish-born professor of politics at Brandeis, set out to explore the incident in a book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, that included not only the newspaper cartoons but a selection of historical Mohammed art from western and Muslim artists. Her publisher, Yale University Press, then seems to have taken pre-emptive cowardice a step higher by commissioning a group of experts to perform a risk assessment of the consequences of publication. The group, not surprisingly, warned of dire consequences should the illustrations remain in the book. The YUP then browbeat Professor Klausen into accepting reluctantly the gutting of her book and diminishing its value to readers. Now my quandary is that I can’t buy Professor Klausen’s latest book because that would benefit also the YUP. So, to be consistent with my Rushdie Rule, I’ll have to buy one of her earlier works –none of which really interest me.

The YUP has been criticized by some journalists, academics, and authors, though the denunciations of censorship seem mild to my ears compared to the uproar when NASA’s James Hansen accused the agency that employed him of censoring his public statements about climate change. A subject which, holding aside the unsettled science and unclear consequences, has its own intolerant believers. But, so far as I know, none of them have murdered any “deniers.”

The most recent event, the one that prompted this note, is the admitted cowardice of Roland Emmerich, the director of the disaster movie “2012” which features the destruction of a Buddhist Temple, the White House, the Sistine Chapel, and a number of other western cultural and religious icons – but not the Kaaba, the strange black cubic structure  that looks like a small Borg space ship landed in the center of Mecca. At least he was honest about his cowardice, “We have to all in the Western world think about this. You can actually let Christian symbols fall apart, but if you would do this with [an] Arab (sic: he doesn’t distinguish between Arab and Muslim) symbol, you would have a fatwa…” Sadly, the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist objecting to his film “Submission” that was critical of the treatment of women in Islamic societies suggests Emmerich has reason for his fear.

I’ll buy Rushdie’s books, I’ll buy Klausen’s, The Challenge of Islam: Politics and Religion in Western Europe (Oxford University Press, fall 2005), but I’ll be damned if I will buy a ticket for “2012”. I hope you’ll do the same.

Bob

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