I usually write on defence and national security issues for On Line Opinion and - with Iraq descending deeper into sectarian conflict, and serious concerns about the quality of equipment issued to our Defence Force personnel - there are indeed issues in the field worth addressing. Nevertheless I am devoting this column to the furore about the “Prophet cartoons”.
Everyone who hasn’t been on Mars for the last few weeks knows the background, so I will not waste space on that. What I want to address are the deeply disturbing implications of the extreme reactions to these not-very-good cartoons.
I am strongly committed to liberal democratic values, including religious freedom. The same freedom that allows me to be an atheist allows others to adopt and practise the faith of their preference. Muslims living in the West have this freedom, including the freedom to proselytise - a freedom not available in some Muslim states. (The public practise of any religion besides Islam is, for instance, forbidden in Saudi Arabia.)
Here we are more fortunate. But it is an essential component of our freedom that people show a degree of respect and tolerance for beliefs they do not share. Thus, to desecrate a mosque, church, synagogue or other place of worship is in my view unacceptable behaviour, even though to me personally they are places of no importance or significance (except where they have, for example, architectural, artistic or historical value).
In our modern secular western society, Christians have had to put up with such creations as Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which spoofs the crucifixion of Christ, or the famous artwork Piss Christ. Some indeed have protested about the latter, using their freedom of speech to do so. They even have to put up with me saying that their faith is an empty delusion. And they do so, just as I willingly endure their (to me) pointless supplications to a nonexistent deity and occasional attempts to show me the error of my ways.
Those Christians who declare themselves “pro-life” in the abortion debate have similarly availed themselves of the democratic process. The lunatic minority (mainly a few American fundamentalist types) who think it’s all right to torch clinics or even kill doctors who perform abortions are condemned by all others and when caught are dealt with by law.
In my experience, most believers - in whatever religion - believe that theirs is the one true faith. All others are in some way false, heretical or at least deficient. History (and current events) teach us that this logic can easily lead to appalling religious violence, bigotry and division.
After centuries filled with horror, most of us in the West have learned the bitter lesson of tolerance, even where one’s religious corns are trodden upon. George Pell (Catholic Archbishop of Sydney) may believe that his Protestant colleagues are ultimately doomed to the fires of hell as heretics, but he does not want to forcibly convert them, burn them at the stake or forbid their worship. And vice-versa for the Protestants.
But it seems that this lesson has yet to be learned by many (though by no means all) Muslims. The violence in Iraq is actually a case in point. The al-Qaida Sunni extremists who target Shia areas and shrines seek to exploit this underlying intolerance; the Shia who indulge themselves in reprisal killings reveal that they too are infected by this poison. Even the Saudi regime that makes other religions illegal stigmatises itself with the sign of intolerance.
The reaction to the “Prophet” cartoons likewise bears this stigma. In a theological sense, the cartoons should be less offensive to Muslims than an attack on Christ would be to a Christian, because whereas Christians believe Christ is God, Muslims are emphatic that the Prophet Mohammed was only a man (albeit an exceptional one). But some have seized on the cartoons as though they were the greatest and most offensive provocations possible, and have used their appearance to justify riots, torching of embassies, boycotts and even fatalities.
In all honesty I am about out of patience with this kind of Muslim (I long ago ran out of patience for that sort of Christian or Judaist). I have been willing to cut Muslims a little slack because it is true that they have often been the victims of western imperialism, aggression and exploitation, and this explains, even if it does not justify, a degree of hypersensitivity. (I used to take a similar attitude to the Israelis because no people could possibly endure an atrocity like the Holocaust without significant scarring. It was Sharon’s complicity in the Lebanese massacres in the early ’80s which finally exhausted my patience in that case.)
It is high time that some Muslims learnt the tolerance lesson. The key to it is this: it’s easy to tolerate those with whom you agree, but the secret is that you have to be equally tolerant towards those with whom you most deeply disagree. Let them go to hell, if that’s their destiny in your view, in their own way. And require from them that they let you go wherever you’re going in yours.
You don’t like the cartoons? It’s fine to say so. It’s fine to boycott those who produced them. It’s not fine to torch their embassies, stage riots and see people killed.
That’s tolerance. Learn it or, by alienating those who believe in it, you may well suffer consequences a lot less palatable than a few low-merit cartoons.