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The Great Divide


The continued controversy and violence over the Danish cartoon depictions of Muhammad have made strange bedfellows of two groups in the U.S. whose worldviews often clash: Liberals support the right of people in Muslim countries to be self-governing; conservatives support the right of the United States to bring democracy to where it deems it is needed, and the uproar over the cartoons is proof-positive that it is needed. These two views are worlds apart.

But political conservatives and liberals alike are joined in their rejection of the violence the cartoons have engendered. And the rejection of that violence is based on the jointly-held understanding that it is a grievous error to mistake journalistic freedom for governmental policy.

In spite of quarrels over whether our own press actually promotes this, both liberals and conservatives would endorse the need for a free press as the cornerstone for the exchange of ideas and the best defense against political hegemony.

And so people on both ends of the political spectrum have found themselves ruefully concluding that “They don’t understand the inherent value in having a free press.”

So what’s the answer to that?

In an interview published at Germany’s Spiegel online, Europe’s leading advocate of liberal Islam, Tariq Ramadan, observes, “People need to break out of their intellectual ghettos, break out of their religious and cultural ghettos and come to some common, universal values. And these values do exist. . . . This needs to be a pre-emptive strategy based on a true understanding of what pluralism requires.”

It seems like solid advice. But who decides what is a universal value? Doesn’t our government see democracy as the means by which universal values can be guaranteed? For those living in theocracies, the universal values most sought after are those related to religious doctrine and not civil codes of conduct.

This is the complicated question we can’t duck.

Literary theorist Stanley Fish, writing in The New York Times, sees the free press as part of the problem, not part of the solution, precisely because it is guided by the first tenet of the “the religion we call liberalism.”

Sounding a little like someone James Dobson might welcome as a guest on Focus on the Family, Fish says “The first tenet of liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously.”

“This is itself a morality—the morality of withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of liberal editors.”

The innocence of the cartoons derives from their “relativizing of ideologies and religions”—apparently a journalistic hallmark and sure sign of liberalism.

In opposition to that relativism, Fish says that anti-Jewish and anti-Christian cartoons are published in Arab countries precisely because their content matters: “they believe that Jews and Christians follow false religions and are proper objects of hate and obloquy.”

Fish has a point—but criticizing the liberalism of the media while also assuming an ossified religiosity in the Muslim world is a dangerous cocktail.

Sitting at a safe distance and observing the rift doesn’t heal it. And it’s a big, frightening rift. The debacle these cartoons has sparked has made the need for healing that rift even more clear, while at the same time making the means for healing even more murky.

In response to the interviewer’s observation that there are many people who listen to the radical voices of the Islamic fringe, Ramadan shoots back: “But there are many who don’t. The media should speak about these Muslims who are trying to become active and committed citizens . . . They need to be helped. Media pressure is undermining our work and we are regressing. Every six months you have some new event which ratchets up the pressure and focuses the attention on Muslims committing violence.”

“If Muslims and Europeans, as equal citizens living together in a democracy, are not able to trust each other, if we are not able to talk to each other, if we are not able to come to a reasonable agreement about how to live together, we are sending a signal to Islamic majority countries that there is no way for Muslims and Westerners to live together. We in Europe have a great responsibility.”

The same can be said of the United States, of course. We have a great responsibility to stand in the gap between radical Islam and colonizing westernization. But how?

That there is no easy answer doesn’t lessen the urgency of the need for an answer, but Ramadan makes the mission clear: “We need to stand between the people who are prophets of a very dark tomorrow. If we end up with a clash of civilizations we are both going to lose. If there is a dialogue of civilizations, then we are both going to win. We have to realize that whether we win or lose, we are going to do it together.”

And it is Ramadan, a Muslim living in Europe, whose words seem to me to carry more authority—and certainly more of a pre-emptive plan for healing—than Stanley Fish’s safe editorializing from the United States. At least, I’m choosing to hope so.

—Jo Page 

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