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A Case in Point: the Mohammed Cartoon Imbroglio

A good illustration of an "us against them" antagonism is the much ballyhooed controversy of some years back over the publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper that lampooned the Prophet Mohammed.  Much of the Muslim world was infuriated at what it saw as a deliberate attack on Islam, while the Western mainstream media came down heavily on the side of an assumed right of the press to freely express editorial opinion.   They also railed against the alleged small-mindedness of Muslim indignation.

For me, however, the Western position seemed to point up a widespread misunderstanding of the role of religion in the life of society. If religion were in fact, as perhaps it should be, primarily a vehicle for personal redemption or self-transcendence, its doctrines, dogmas, scriptures and rites might well be fair game for lampooning.   In such a case, the focus of the faith would be on the universal human quest for spiritual transformation, and its adherents would tend to view its parochial observances as a subordinate symbolic framework rooted in a particular human culture.   The symbols could therefore be satirized without touching the integrity of the religious experience.  

The reality in all faiths, however, is that only the rarest of souls relate to their religion in this way.   For most of humanity, religion is not primarily a spiritual matter, but a set of shared cultural and social values in which it finds a fundamental sense of self-identity.   This is clearly evident in the case of the American Christian Right, for example, which is alienated from the mainstream secular culture and can therefore find its self-identity only in its own religious values.   It may also be the case for many Americans of Jewish faith, who, though not alienated from the secular mainstream, are nevertheless a minority within it and so also stand on their ethnic distinction as a bedrock of self-identity.   In significant contrast, most American Christians find themselves both in the majority and swimming easily in the secular mainstream.   For them, religion may offer the comfort of platitudes, but it plays a very small role in shaping their sense of who they are.  

For me, these distinctions are important, as both my own observation and history itself lead me to believe that achieving a sense of social identity is a compelling driver of human behavior.   Obviously, humans share with other animals the need for food, drink, shelter, sex, and association with others of their kind.   As creatures capable of reflection, however, they also need an identifiable place or role in the world from which their thinking can be channeled to definite ends.   In affluent democratic societies, such as those of North America and Western Europe, individuals generally seek that place or role in one of three ways: in small numbers as a creative artist, entertainer, or athlete, a professional practitioner, or a business entrepreneur; in greater numbers by a voluntary attachment to commercial, institutional, professional, cultural, or value-based groups organized for particular ends; and, in special cases, by the shaping of a genuine social identity within such groups based on the development and constructive application of innate creative capacities.  

To this day, however, even in the global economy in which we now live, the sense of place or role for most human individuals in the world continues to be shaped primarily by the cultural, social, political or religious orders into which they are born.   It is no surprise, therefore, that the values of those orders are jealously defended by those born into them.   Such attachments surely explain the determination of Diaspora Jews to build and defend a viable nation in the land of their fathers.   In the case of the Mohammed cartoon controversy, they explain no less the outrage felt by Muslims throughout the world over what was for them an assault on the very core of their sense of social identity.

As it happened, of course, nominal American Christians in the secular mainstream took issue with the Muslim response.   Many even exulted in the notion of how open-minded they would be in the event of a similar parody of their own religious symbols.   One has to wonder, however, how difficult such open-mindedness might actually be for mainstream Americans whose sense of self is firmly entrenched in so many attachments outside religion.   I have in mind such supports as the power and influence of the American state and its culture; the political prerogatives of the Bill of Rights; economic opportunity (though now more and more theoretical); and, not least, the American surrogate religion of Super Bowl Sunday.  

It is illuminating to contrast such privilege with the lot, say, of the Palestinians, so many of whom have been deprived by history of nearly every prop of secular identity.   In the case of Palestinian and other politically-driven suicide bombers, for instance, that emptiness is so complete that they have been willing to subordinate the very evidence of their own senses and life experience to a fantastic group ideology that promises a martyr's reward in a paradise unrelated to this world.   What about the millions of other poor Arabs who have been exploited for decades by Western imperialism and suppressed by their own strong-man leaders?   What social identity has been available to them outside the strict observance of the rites, codified rules, and prohibitions of their religion?   Among the latter, of course -- to reference again the Danish cartoons -- is a strict injunction against images of the Prophet in any form, let alone an insulting form.

It was in the context of such thoughts that my own first reaction on learning of the Mohammed cartoon imbroglio was to sympathize with the Muslim outrage and decry the insensitivity of our own privileged culture.   How could we smugly invoke the right of free expression to defend acts of religious insult that would predictably humiliate and outrage many millions of people who have little else than their religion to live for?  

Then it occurred to me, however, that the offending cartoonists were themselves part of a global fraternity of journalists, media commentators, editorial writers, and cartoonists who are also deeply identified with a particular belief system -- in their case the product of centuries of struggle for the right to free expression.   Today, they too hold to their beliefs with intransigence, claiming the right to report any facts or assert any opinions about anyone or anything at any time, no matter what the hurt to others or the resulting outrage.   The Western press, I now saw, was as adamant in asserting the prerogatives of its own values as the Muslims were in defending the integrity of theirs.  

It occurred to me, too, that, just as the Danish press might have brought itself to sacrifice the dubious satirical benefits of publishing the cartoons to the larger consideration of a vulnerable religious pride, the Muslims themselves might have shown the tolerance to accept the non-violent lampooning as an eminently forgettable epiphenomenon of what the West considers an essential human right.   Unfortunately, such creative openings to conciliation were in this case, as in others, foreclosed by a mindset on both sides that perceived the confrontation in rigid terms of "us against them."  

The Power of Human Openness

As the Mohammed cartoon imbroglio shows, the primary function of value-based groups may well have little to do with working toward broader acceptance of views and aims, and more to do with attacking the views and aims of opponents.   To repeat what has already been suggested, this is because value-based groups are composed largely of individuals who seek to gain or reinforce their sense of social identity by adopting wholesale the group's ideology.   Such meaningless group attachments discourage critical input from individual members of the group that is needed to broaden its perspective.   The resulting group-think, in turn, leaves little opening for creative strategies to narrow differences with competing groups.   Instead, it encourages each group to simply discredit its opponent, eliminating any chance of achieving constructive social change.

Of course, one also finds many individuals, including members of rigid value-based and interest groups, who resist subordination to group-think, and are driven, even in association with others, to express insights or find solutions that stem from their own creative powers. Characteristically, such persons also exhibit an unusual breadth of openness:   They interconnect with other people simply as one human being with another.   They see through the differences between individuals and groups to the common psychology that drives them all.   They understand things from various points of view.   And they can appreciate the distinctive charms of the vast variety of natural beauty and plant and animal life around them.  

Such openness is especially characteristic of creative artists, such as writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, and others, who draw inspiration from their own wellsprings of imagination.   It is has seemed to me, in fact, that the difference in perspective that distinguishes creative artists from those who seek their sense of self in group attachments is so consistent that it constitutes a principle of group behavior.   I now believe that it is only people who act from out of their own creative core who have the capacity to break down barriers between themselves and others, whether the others are part of their own group or of different groups.   Such people seem to seek and find a common ground of shared humanity with others from which different, often conflicting, values, needs and interests can be fairly reconciled.

I have no doubt that the special powers of insight and creativity so often seen in individuals recognized as artists offer an important clue to the possibilities for human brotherhood and peace.   At the same time, of course, I recognize that the reality of such a future requires the exercise of similar qualities in many other men and women who are not artists -- at least not in the conventional sense.   If society is ever to be transformed into a true community devoted to, and capable of, meeting the real needs of others, a critical mass of all of its citizens, including its decision-makers, must, like the special class of artists, live their lives and relate to others with the openness that derives from the inspiration of their own inborn powers of insight and creativity.  

Fortunately, it appears that such a development is not a pipedream.   American history already offers many examples of successful social movements made possible by an openness to the perspectives of other people.   Struggles such as those for workers' rights, civil rights, and ending unjust war all demanded creative collaboration to overcome institutional resistance.  

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Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, Bob has continued his work as a (more...)
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