Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has a thoughtful post on the violent reaction to cartoons published of the prophet Mohammad. An excerpt:

An open society, a secular society can’t exist if mob violence is the cost of giving offense. And that does seem like what’s on offer here. That’s the crux of this issue — that the response is threatened violence and more practical demands that such outrages must end. It’s back to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses

The price of blasphemy is death. And among many in the Muslim world it is not sufficient that those rules apply in their countries. They should apply everywhere. Perhaps something so drastic isn’t called for — at least in the calmer moments or settled counsels. But at least European governments are supposed to clamp down on their presses to heal the breach.

In a sense how can such claims respect borders? The media, travel and electronic interconnections of the world make borders close to meaningless.

So liberal mores versus theocratic mores. Where’s the possible compromise? There isn’t any. On the face of it this gets portrayed as an issue of press freedom. But this is much more fundamental. ‘Press freedom’ is just one cog in the machinery of a society that doesn’t believe in or accept the idea of ‘blasphemy.’

I agree that there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of a long-term compromise in this case. In a diverse and increasingly interconnected world, the only hope for peace comes from accepting the right of individuals anywhere to criticize, even mock, anyone else’s beliefs. In the absence of such debate, we will eventually move back to a world of tribal, state-sponsored religions, with scientific inquiry halted or limited (which on some days seems to be the world that the Bush administration prefers).

That said, I’m not sure that all the clucking and finger-waving coming from opponents of Islam is going to get us to any solution either. Traditionalist, reactionary thinking always gains strength when there is meddling by foreigners identified with another faith. There is a tendency to close ranks when one’s people, culture, and fundamental beliefs are threatened.

Such was the case as far back as the early history of Christian Europe. If Muslim armies still had control of Spain in the 16th century, would there have been a Protestant Reformation in Germany and elsewhere? Dissent could take root in part because Europe’s Christians no longer felt as vulnerable to invasion from a foreign, infidel power; now they could simply turn on each other.

Muslims in the Middle East already have to deal with the presence of foreign troops on their soil, and foreign governments in their politics. The latest round of attacks on Islam from Europe and America has given extremist religious leaders all the more credibility among their followers.

With time and without meddling, the Islam that the West fears so much — the Islam that set the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus on fire — can surely evolve, in much the same way that other faiths have evolved to blunt, and even expunge, traditions incompatible with liberal, capitalistic democracy. (We may forget, for instance, how far today’s mainstream Christian denominations have come from their traditional, once vehement, opposition to practices like usury and divorce.) After all, contrary to the views of some critics of Islam, not all Muslims think alike. In each of the countries now experiencing riots and upheaval over the Mohammad cartoons, there are growing numbers of highly educated professionals who want to see their societies move toward the protection of Western-style civil liberties. The problem is that these liberties are still seen as too “Western-style.”

If foreigners continue to intrude on domestic affairs in these countries, homegrown reformers will continue to have to counter charges that they are merely flunkies of the foreigners. And their voices of reason and moderation will continue to be drowned out in the strident, unnecessary conflict between East and West.

Victor Tan Chen

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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