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R*E*S*P*E*C*T—cartooning religion
By George A. Ricker

In case you missed it—maybe you were living in a cave somewhere without any means of communication with the outside world—we’ve been having a bit of a flap about a handful of cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper last fall. The cartoons contained some caricatures of Muhammad and tried, with mixed success, to poke a little fun at the religion of Islam. Since a sense of humor is a very individual thing, whether or not you found them funny would be a matter of personal taste.

That’s not what I want to talk about anyway. I also don’t want to talk about the motives of the people who published the cartoons, although there has been lots of speculation about that in various places. Nor do I want to speculate about the motives of the Danish Imam who saw to it the cartoons were publicized widely in the nations of the Middle East and the rest of the world—along with some fakes that were possibly more offensive than those that had appeared in the Danish newspaper.

As far as I’m concerned all of those are side issues. What I am interested in is the extreme, violent reaction to the cartoons. I understand many Muslims were offended. I understand Islam has a tradition that says one should not make images of the Prophet. I understand all of that. And I respect their right to have such traditions. I even respect their right to be upset about the cartoons. Certainly, no reasonable person should complain if someone speaks up about what they consider an affront to their religion.

I understand and respect all of that.

But the question I put to you is, “So what?”

Muslims certainly have every right to object and to protest when their favorite sacred cow gets gored. But they have no right to demand that the rest of the world kowtow to their icons. They have no right to destroy property or take lives. They have no right to demand that others pay homage to the dictates of their religion and to underscore that demand with the veiled threat of still more violence. That's not just true for the followers of Islam. It's true for the followers of all religions.

As free people we reserve the right to lampoon, ridicule, satirize, castigate, dissect, analyze, criticize and generally poke fun at all icons and all ideas. Those of a religious nature are no exception.

That doesn’t mean I think we should go out of our way to offend people. But it does mean that being offended grants no one the right to act as a thug or a barbarian. Legal protests and complaints are the hallmark of civilized conduct. Allowing a fit of temper to cause one to engage in wanton destruction or to commit violence against other people betrays a lack of maturity and an absence of moral standards.

Voltaire (Francis Marie Arouet) wrote famously, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.”

I have always thought the statement—and this is one of several renditions, each slightly different—summarized the proper attitude one should show to another’s rights of conscience. We must respect the right of others to free minds. We may not suppress or condemn others for the exercise of their own intellectual capacities.

But that is as far as it goes. The respect we owe another’s right to hold different ideas does not extend to the ideas themselves. Once those ideas are submitted for our consideration, then we are entitled to show them no respect at all. We may treat them with honest reflection, with consideration or with contempt. The respect we extend to other ideas will depend partly on the inherent worth of those ideas and partly on our own mental architecture, but its exercise is strictly voluntary.

One might easily reverse Voltaire’s statement while preserving the meaning and render it, “I may honor your right to say what you have to say, but I shall demand, to the death, my right to disagree with it and to poke fun at it if I so choose.”

For too long religion has been treated as a “special” category of human existence. But religious ideas are entitled to no special consideration just because they are religious. Think of all the absurd ideas that have been held by various religions throughout human history. Should we treat women as inferior beings because someone claims it is a “religious matter?” What about stoning disrespectful children or people who commit adultery to death? Both of those are “religious” ideas? Should we bite our tongues if someone decides to put them into practice because, after all, we must show respect for religious traditions?

Religious people have every right to speak out on the issues. They do not have the right to expect anyone to respect what they have to say regardless of how sincerely those opinions are held. And when the religious presume to tell the members of secular societies how they should act and to critique their performance, they should expect their own ideas and performance to receive scrutiny as well.

There can be no honest dialogue about religion and its role in our world if the religious are going to wrap themselves in the mantle of righteous indignation every time someone pokes a bit of fun in the direction of their beliefs—whether it's done with skill or not. Besides, there's so much about most religions that is offensive, it's absurd to think their absurdities should be off limits.

We can play the game with the net up or down. Unfortunately many among the religious want the net down when they are putting the ball in play but want it back up for everyone else.

Respect isn’t really what they want because that would suggest their ideas and icons should be evaluated on the same basis as all other ideas and icons. The religious don’t want equal treatment for religions at all. They want special treatment.

That’s not respect. It’s called “stacking the deck.”

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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