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Cartoons, Videos, and the Politics of Blasphemy

Washington Diarist.

BLASPHEMY IS an instrument of mental emancipation—a blunt instrument, but there is nothing subtle about the mental imprisonment that it wishes to destroy. It is an expression of anger about a confinement, which is why it is always a mockery of power rather than a contribution to thought. Sometimes wisdom is discovered in a shock. The blasphemer is shocking because he enacts a liberty that was supposed not to exist. He goes first, which is heroic. Such a gesture cannot be accomplished without giving offense, but for the blasphemer the system of intellectual control is no less offensive. The blasphemer does not prove that the doctrines of religion (secular religions, too) are false—a shaking fist, or a novel, or a cartoon, or a video, is nothing like a proof; but he proves that the notion that the doctrines of religion are false may be uttered, and that it is within his power to do so. He is a tempter, a seducer, a dangerous man, because he pushes back the boundaries of possibility. He terrifies the orthodox by exposing the secret of orthodoxy: that it, too, is voluntary; that obedience, like disobedience, is chosen. The captive mind is a free mind complicit in a captivity. The orthodox cannot destroy the mind’s freedom: they can merely turn away from it, and rail against it, and pretend that it no longer matters. You cannot coerce somebody to believe; you can coerce them only to act as if they believe. Repression produces hypocrites, not converts. The blasphemer is the enemy of this vast hypocrisy, of this empire of intellectual intimidation. He may be ugly, and driven by hate; but he is brave. He breaks things, and he breaks things open.

THE ROMANTIC PORTRAIT of the blasphemer that I have just painted does not apply to us, not least owing to the success of blasphemy in the West, where it was also called Enlightenment. Diderot needed courage; Monty Python did not. We are beyond shock. The giving and taking of offense is the very structure of our political system, even if we abuse Madison’s privilege. Censors and inquisitors have been replaced by watchdog groups, whose day job is umbrage. We live on the other side of the revolution in decency known as secularization, though religions still thrive in our midst; and the panic of some of those faiths, their ludicrous anxiety about freedom of religion in America, is a measure of their awareness that the spiritual environment has forever changed. I can offer them only the thin consolation that the new order has also robbed blasphemy of its exhilaration. It is not a danger; it is another opinion. Our blasphemy is pseudo-blasphemy. My most vivid memory of pseudo-blasphemy comes from a Madonna concert many years ago. A huge neon cross was suspended above an altar on the stage. She appeared in a dark cassock to sing “Like a Prayer,” and at one point in her performance she started to writhe in a distinctly unecclesiastical manner, until her cassock dropped to the floor and she began to twist her flesh torridly over the altar. I remember thinking: yes, this is a free country, and yes, the Roman church is harsh and authoritarian, but please get your universally acclaimed ass off that altar. It was not as a Christian that I was offended, obviously. It was the secularist in me that she irritated, because she was cheapening the currency of dissent. (When she was later photographed in phylacteries I was not even irritated. It was just more black leather.) Where beliefs matter less, there is more social peace; shallower lives, but more social peace. It is the American bargain.

BUT IT IS HARD TO LAMENT the soul-slackening in American life when one considers all the many countries where beliefs, particularly religious ones, matter desperately, and are enshrined and enforced by governments, even secular ones—where societies “adopt the logic of persecutors,” in Mill’s words, “and say that we may persecute others because we are right, and that they must not persecute us because they are wrong.” Paul Marshall’s and Nina Shea’s devastating study of blasphemy laws around the world, particularly in Muslim states, should make us grateful that we lost the world we lost, and also remind us that we must not play games—freedom games—with the fevers in those places. When the cartoons of Mohammed were published by Charlie Hebdo in Paris, it was another exercise in pseudo-blasphemy, even if they did give real offense, because the right of a French magazine to publish them was never in doubt. The constitutional freedoms of Pastor Jones were never imperiled by General Dempsey when he implored the odious cleric not to circulate “Innocence of Muslims,” the Islamophobic garbage that led ineluctably to violence in the Muslim world. It is not “censorship-by-riot,” as Charles Lane indignantly put it, to attempt to prevent innocent people, Americans among them, from dying. Is this video not crying fire in a crowded theater, or providing theater for a crowded fire? And what algorithm makes this ethically easy for Google? As I watched conservatives applaud the cartoons, I was put in mind of Orwell’s crack about “playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot,” and I wondered whether they now bless the Piss Christ. (Blasphemy is your contempt for my god.) The important point is that the victims of these anti-Islamic provocations are not the believers who claim to be their victims. The moderates and the modernizers, the lonely forces who are battling to break the grip of theology on politics, are the ones who are hurt. “Muslims began to be killed by other Muslims if they expressed non-bloodthirsty opinions,” Salman Rushdie recalls, in his new memoir, about the far-flung effects of his own persecution for blasphemy. Of course violence is an “unacceptable” response to a cartoon or a video, but to intone so editorially over here, self-satisfactorily, in our eden of free expression, as if they should just go and get themselves a First Amendment and call us when they have it, is not any sort of assistance in their fight. This will be a long struggle. The true reckoning, the crack in the yoke, will come when an insult to Islam is issued not in Paris and Los Angeles, but in Cairo and Lahore—when the blasphemy will be theirs, not ours, and people who love their religion will recognize the beauty of the reasons for limiting it.

Leon Wieselter is the literary editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Freedom Games.”