Wednesday, February 15, 2006

COLUMN -- Add value of respect to debate about faith, politics

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:41 AM |  

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Having generated an incalculable number of commentaries, the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad have exceeded their pictorial worth of a thousand words. What, if anything, is left to be said?

Voices of rationality have condemned the worldwide violence. Some blame Muslim "extremists" or the cultural isolation of "radical" Islam. Some say Muslim violence is proof of Western cultural superiority.

Our local newspapers reflect the media debate over freedom of speech and the responsibility to use that freedom wisely. Say some, no matter how purposefully sacrilegious the cartoons might be, individuals have a right to see them and judge the offensiveness for themselves. Say others, sensitivity and tolerance are the appropriate response.

"Not so" is the counterclaim. Capitulation is a sign of weakness. The press must take the stand that America cannot be intimidated. Why show tolerance for those intolerant of us? Citing slanders suffered by Christians, some declare what's good for the Messiah is good for the Prophet. Others throw up their hands, "They're just cartoons, for God's sake," they say.

Indeed a little truth is voiced in each of those views. But a little truth, like a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing. Resorting to comfortable rhetoric often obscures the greater insight.

We make a mistake associating the violent reactions to the Danish cartoons with Islam, even with a politically correct "radical" or "extremist" modifier. A war against "radical" Islam is still a war against Islam. That statement is neither a defense of violence in the name of Islam (or any other religion), nor a denial of the need to defend ourselves against those seeking our destruction. It is a warning that equating political action with religious belief sends a definite message to individuals of all faiths — while it may be OK to practice religion in private, don't take religion too seriously and inject it into public debate.

Attempting to sort out this confusion of religion with politics, I visited with Zafar Siddiqui at the Al-Amal Islamic School in Fridley. Siddiqui is a volunteer member of the school's board of directors and also a volunteer with the Islamic Resource Group, whose mission is bridging the divide between Islam and non-Muslims.

Like virtually all American Muslims, Siddiqui denounces the violence over publication of the cartoons. He is also deeply offended by the drawings. It takes only minutes with him to appreciate, albeit with a non-Muslim's lack of full understanding, his reverence and love for Muhammad. What I consider rather innocuous cartoons affects him beyond mere anger — perhaps the emotion of Christ at seeing the money changers in the temple is a fair comparison.

The irony is that the same deeply held religious conviction that makes the Danish cartoons blasphemous to him restrains Siddiqui's response to their publication — an inner tension inherent in dynamic faith.

"The Prophet suffered many indignities during his life," Siddiqui explained. "He was taunted and beaten. But he responded with love and forgiveness, never violence."

Reaching out to non-Muslims, however, Siddiqui finds that it is not enough that he denounces violence. It is not enough that he honors freedom of speech. As long as he contends that the drawings of Muhammad are deeply offensive for religious reasons, some will not be satisfied. For Siddiqui to fuss over a few simple cartoons as a matter of faith is, they say, on its face irrational. That brings us back to the implication of the Danish cartoons for all individuals who believe religious faith ought to matter.

America, wrote Stephen L. Carter in his 1993 work "The Culture of Disbelief" is not anti-religion; rather it treats God as a hobby, "something private, something trivial — and not really a fit activity for intelligent, public spirited adults." Religion is tolerated, not necessarily respected, in proper secular society.

Tolerance is not respect. Tolerance implies an inherent superiority. What tolerance grants, it can withhold. Toleration is easy — until that which is tolerated becomes a political liability.

Like the press, organized religion is a vital check on government power. In a free society, religion creates inner tension. It provides moral criticism, restraining both individual and government conduct. Trivializing religion with tolerance rather than empowering it with respect is done to the detriment of all religions. How ought a society deal with religious activism? On that issue, much remains to be said.