Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Rant: Religious intolerance.

You know, I think we might be headed back to the times of the crusades and the Spanish inquisition (to pick a couple of examples). Only these days, instead of torturing individuals to death, we now have vastly impersonal weapons of mass destruction. How stupid can we be, as a species, really? And, more importantly, is the stupidity of regimes of all kinds going to be the end of us?

A couple of months ago, there was an international furore over the publication of some cartoons that originated in Denmark, with entire countries boycotting other entire countries because private companies within those countries had made the decision to publish. One of the cartoons in particular was at issue, which showed Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.

Let's deal with both sides of this issue, starting with the publication of the cartoons. Yes, the publisher is a private company. Yes, the issue is topical, and therefore ripe for cartoon. Yes, they have every right to publish nearly anything they want (there are some issues with specific ideas here, holocaust denial and hate speech come to mind as things that one can't publish without fear of censure). But why on earth would any newspaper publish cartoons that weren't even very good when the obvious ptoential to offend Islam extremists and therefore cause death? By all means, be topical, witty and acerbic, but at least produce high-quality cartoons that aren't a license to kill anyone (and yes, I agree, there should be no-one killed over a cartoon, but more on that later)

It is my opinion that after the furore started then it was a fair call for other agencies to reprint the cartoons as an element of news. It is also my opnion that this reprinting does not reflect badly on the reprinting paper, nor does it show a lack of respect fort the Islamic community. In my opinion the only institution on whom any reprtinting of this material reflects badly is the Jyllands-Posten for publishing such low-quality, poor-taste cartoons to begin with (right up there in league with the Waikato Times, on that front). Not, however, in the opinion of the New Zealand government. Hiding behind their tragic bleeding heart liberalism, but in fact covering the financial ass of the agricultural sector (one of the largest in New Zealand), the New Zealand government criticised the one New Zealand newspaper that ran the cartoons, saying it could incite tensions, and that the newspapers needed to consider the impact of publishing such a thing before publishing. Sure, but the more important considerations are 1. Is it newsworthy, and 2. is it necessary to make a complete story? I can see the answer justifiably being yes in both cases.

The kiss-ass reaction of New Zealand brings me onto the Islamic response. Yes, the cartoons were offensive, but they should be no more offensive than other representations of Muhammad that already exist, if what is being claimed is true. Moreover if it is offensive to show Muhammad with a bomb because he was a peace loving man, then protest yourselves, and urge your religious fellows to respect his ways and protest peacefully. Much of the Islam response to these cartoons validated the content of the cartoons.

As to the governmental response to the cartoons, notably Iran implementing a nationwide boycott of Danish goods (and threatening to do the same to other countries), sure, that is the right of the Iranian government. However, I ask is it fair to punish an entire country for the actions of a private institution using its (misguided) right to freedom of speech? I don't think so. And to be honest, if I had the opportunity, I would like to ask the shah or whoever is in charge there now, could you really live without the goods of all the countries you threatened to boycott? I mean, I would be glad to see the end of halal butchering, which is provably cruel, in New Zealand. But more than that, I am not impressed at the bullyboy tactics of a theocracy trying to impose its will on a democracy (and I'm even less impressed that it worked).

The whole issue could have been avoided with a little concern for what the guy next to us thinks, but since it wasn't avoided, violence and governmental bullying are disgraceful responses. Clearly, the Catholic Church have grown some since the days of the crusades, because compared to the Islamic response to the cartoons, their response to the infamous 'Bloody Mary' episode of South Park was comparatively restrained. So, now let's talk about that.

South Park is generally offensive and disgusting, and this episode, I understand, is no exception. In my opinion, anything that shows anyone's menstrual blood for kicks is taking things a little too far. And unlike the Jyllands-Posten, South Park set out to offend the Catholic Church in particular, and women in general. This is nothing new, and a lot of people claim that no-one should be offended because the show goes after everyone. I can't possily comment on that, I find the show offensive, and so I don't watch it. I certainly have never heard of an episode where they went after white men, however. In the long run, this was a deliberately offensive, planned, and pretty revolting attempt to shock on the part of the South Park creators, and I consider it a low blow, and I think it is excellent that they have been challenged on something, because it forces them to evaluate their (in my opinion) sick and twisted motives.

Even given that the episode in particular and the show in general is disgusting, though, do the Catholic people have a right to have the episode destroyed? As much as we would like it, no, they do not, just as they do not have the right to prevent non-Catholic women from taking birth control, or non-Catholic children from blaspheming in the street. Do they have the right to use legal force to ban it from being aired? Maybe, in a theocracy, but here in New Zealand we are far from a theocracy, and they tried to have it censored.

Having said that, though, those are the only aspects of the Catholic response I can fault. The rest of the protest was at a level of conscience (personal boycotts) and peaceful prayer. I know that to many of you the Catholic church may seem antiquated, and goodness knows that I don't believe they are perfect, but here, when a private institution set out to deliberately offend them, they responded in peaceful ways. Kudos for that.

We could all learn a little from the peaceful response of the Catholic Church. Is it really any concern of ours what religion our neighbour practises, so long as he harms no human or animal? If our neighbour does something we disagree with because of our moral convictions, are we better to beat the shit out of him, to call the entire neighbourhood to stop speaking to him, or are we better to leave others to their own conscience and make our concerns known peacefully, if at all?

If we cannot answer this question peacefully, I think we're in deep trouble as a species. Thousands of years of evolution, and we can't do better than thinking with the alligator brain when it comes to religion? I hope that's not the case, for all our sakes.