Friday, February 10, 2006

More on Danish Cartoons

I almost didn't want to get into this, but...

It's weird to see hardline Islamists who would laugh at political cartoons depicting greedy Jews but who freak out when their own oxes are gored freak out, but...

A friend who knows (because he's studied and visited the region, including a visit to post-war Iraq) that in the dictatorships of the Middle East, the only non-governmental civic society that's allowed to exist is the society of the mosque.

I don't want to single out Islam when I say this, because Christianity, Judaism and even the Heaven's Gate cult are guilty of this too: Religion is a problem.

It is. It's a problem.

I'm a skeptical atheist but I still value religion. I value the symbolic stories about life on Earth and I'm willing to look past my own prejudice towards a random universe that's allowed life to think about it, in order to find the truths about living that life within religious writings. Heck, I even regret that I'm sometimes not open enough to find those truths. Even as an atheist, I see the value in the stories of religion and not just from the stories of the modern world's "Big Three" but from the religions that are long instinct and from the beliefs of people who are members of what most of us would call cults. When you think big, and when you write about or talk about the big questions of life and when you're sincere about the writing or talking, you're bound to stumble upon some ideas that, even if they fall short of being universal, still have resonant meaning.

But, to me, if you've thought hard, spoken hard, written hard, debated hard, on a position that's based in any sort of faith, from the faith of belief in some divine order to the faith of human emergence from chaos -- you haven't gotten anywhere if you can't take a joke.

I'll even say that the sign of true faith, a faith earned through a lifetime of asking questions and dealing with uncomfortable answers, is the ability to take a joke. Even, in the case of a the lame Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammed with a bomb weaved into his turban, the thoughtfully faithful should be able to... take a joke.

Seriously... WWJLA? What Would Jesus Laugh At? WWMLA? What Would Muhammed Laugh At? WWYLA? What Would Yahweh Laugh At?


WWVLA? What Would Vishnu Laugh At?

WWZLA? What Would Zeus Laugh At?

WWOLA? What Would Odin Laugh At?

WWCLA? What Would Coyote Laugh At?

Coyote would laugh at almost anything, the prankster he is. So that's a good place to stop with my acronymns.

Any fervent religious believer should be fervent enough, sure enough, should have answered questions about their faith enough, to deal with any joke, no matter how crass.

A key strength in life, after all, is the strength to be yourself and to deal with the world on your terms, in spite of what you're told, in spite of what you're cajoled to say or do and, most certainly, in spite of the names you're called.

So, back to the Middle East and the cartoon riots: We should remember, when watching footage from there, that in the US, fundamentalist religious types have tried to defeat the teaching of evolution to public school students, to deny women the right to have an abortion and to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

Oh, but they're killing people over there?

Doctors who have performed legal abortions have been killed here.

I said, in this post, that religion is the problem.

I take that back.

Extremism is the problem.

It doesn't matter what the issue is, either. An extreme Nazi will hurt innocents. An extreme Communist of Socialist will do the same. Even an extreme proponent of democracy will kill and maim to achieve that end. Extreme anarchists will, uh, wind up in a battle royal that will be won by the most powerful anarchist.

To laugh at yourself or your most cherished beliefs requires humility.

In the Middle East, people are ruled, to a degree that's unfathomable in the west, to the point where they can only find an outlet for their emotions in the mosque. The people of the Middle East, whether they be in totalitarian Iran or our friendly totalitarian state of the moment in Pakistan, are denied any outlet for personal expression, save the mosque.

No wonder the Middle East has so many religious extremists?

In the US, people have an almost unlimited variety of venues for self expression and yet, even we have our religious extremists -- of the type who try to ban evolution in schools, or who follow David Koresh or who, like Timothy McVeigh, strike at our government with deadly force.

Sure, if I ruled the Middle East, I'd direct its people to counter a crass Danish cartoon with jokes about Denmark, rather than violent protests. In the ideal world, every butt of a joke should respond with a new punchline.

I've wandered and meandered about this issue and haven't fully thought out the implications of my conclusion but, I think that in any society, whether you're thinking about the Middle East of the United States, that the real dannger is that people, as individuals rather than a collective, feel that they have no other way of getting through life than to fully devote themselves to some sort of dogma.

If we want a better world, where people feel free to make their own way in life and to define their own relationships with both reality and whatever they think underlies it, we need real freedom.

Real freedom.

We don't have that in the US. Here, we have political freedoms, but no economic freedom.

In the Middle East where despots try to guide so many.

Most people, whatever they face from their societies, are not extremists. There's a group of Christians in the U.S. who want evolution banned from the schools or taught alongside "Intelligent Design," theory, but they don't represent all U.S. Christians. Heck, most U.S. Christians seem to believe in evolutions.

Most Muslims won't burn flags or get into street fights over a political cartoon, either.

Extremists of any stripe command attention and influence based on their willingness to say or do what most people won't.

But, we have to ask what makes them lurch towards such extremes?

I think it's, in part, a lack of other outlets for personal expression.

Extremists in the Middle East are a great example of that, as they're ruled despotically by a fortunate few and forced to work for a global economy that tends to benefit cultures that they find alien.

Extremism, in any form, is at the root of the world's current problems. But the U.S., as a dominant global power by dint of our military and then our economy (both as a consumer and producer but, increasingly, mostly the former) has some responsibility for all of this. A lot of U.S. foreign policy is dictated simply by economic interest, and economics is a very cold science because it affects people and yet it is indifferent to the wills, hopes, dreams and aspirations of individuals.

Part of me wants to simply dismiss hypocritical Muslim extremists who'll kill over a cartoon or novel by Salman Rushdie and yet laugh at anti-Jewish jokes or stand by idly while their own rulers slaughter members of their own religion.

But, at the same time, while I find no common cause with people who will become irrationally fervent over a bad political cartoon in the Middle East, or Brokeback Mountain in America, I kind of sympathize... sometimes, I figure, individuals are manipulated, or hurt by governmental or corporate forces that are so vast as to be immune to revenge, and they just have to do something.

I said religion was the problem.

I clarified that extremism is the problem.

I think I nailed it the second time. But if extremism is the problem, both in the US and abroad, then we have to start addressing the question of why some people will go to such extremes that they can't even take a bad joke.

Feeling powerless.

That's the problem.

Forget religion. Forget extremism.

It's when people feel powerless that they violently test the limits of civic life.

That's the problem.

Being powerless.


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