Thu, Mar 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Ideas of the sacred clash in cartoon crisis

The Muslim view that the West has double standards has been entrenched, and reconciliation has been postponed

By Karen Armstrong  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The crisis occasioned by the Danish cartoons, which depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist, has become a microcosm of the wider conflict between Islam and the Western world. It also represents a clash between two competing conceptions of the sacred.

The sacred, of course, does not necessarily imply an external deity. Some faith traditions, especially those originating in the East, have no conception of the supernatural and are not theistic in the Western sense. The sacred symbolizes that which is inviolable, non-negotiable, and so central to our identity that, when it is injured in any way, it seems to vitiate the deepest self. For the Muslim protesters, the figure of the prophet is sacred in this way; for the supporters of the cartoons, free speech is the sacred value.

Freedom of expression is both a product and a prerequisite of modernity. In the pre-modern world, social order was regarded as more important than freedom of thought. It was not feasible to encourage people to have original ideas or to criticize established institutions in the hope of improving them, because agrarian-based society lacked the resources to implement many new notions.

But independent thinking became essential to the modern economy; society could only become fully productive if inventors and scientists were able to pursue their ideas without the supervision of a controlling hierarchy.

Our right to free speech and free thought has been hard won, and Western civilization could not function without it. It has become a sacred value, symbolizing the inviolable sovereignty of the individual.

Nevertheless, we should not be surprised and affronted if people challenge it. Culture is always contested. Today all over the world religious conservatives and secularists feel deeply threatened by one another; they all fear the destruction of sacred, fundamental values.

As a result, the modernization process has been punctuated by such conflicts as the Scopes trial of 1925, when Christian fundamentalists in the US tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the state schools, and the Salman Rushdie affair, when Muslims felt mortally wounded by Rushdie's portrayal of their prophet.

These conflicts both began with what was perceived as an aggressive assault on religion by the proponents of free speech. But they ended by making the religious contenders more extreme.

Before the Scopes trial, for example, Christian fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum, willing to work alongside socialists in the slums of the industrializing cities. But as a result of their media humiliation during the trial, fundamentalists swung to the far right, where they have remained.

In other traditions too, the militant piety that we call "fundamentalism" has developed in a similarly symbiotic relationship with a liberalism or secularism that is experienced as hostile and invasive.

The cartoon crisis is simply the latest of these disputes, and as such could be seen as part of the bumpy process whereby societies at different stages of modernization gradually learn to accommodate one another. But in the current political climate, we can ill afford this escalation of tension. On both sides, the conflict has been fueled and exploited by radicals, who do not represent the majority.

At last week's meeting of the Alliance of Civilizations (AoC), a UN initiative with the mandate of drawing up a list of practical guidelines for member states to prevent the acceleration of hatred and misunderstanding, we were given the result of a recent poll of Muslim youth. This showed that 97 percent of the young people surveyed deplored the violence and rhetoric of the Muslim protesters, even though they had been offended by the cartoons.

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