FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, February 06, 2006

Cartoons and the "Prism of Pain"

Over the past few days the world has seen escalating violence in the Muslim world against European countries for what Muslims believe is a grave insult and offense against them. What did these Europeans do to Muslims? Did they kill anyone, destroy their homes, ruin their economy?

No. They printed cartoons -- cartoons! -- in their newspapers depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Now, to the Western mind, this reaction seems incredibly petty... especially given that depictions of Jesus and other Biblical personalities make up the foundation of the Western world's artistic heritage. Images of Jesus are everywhere in contemporary America, from The Passion of the Christ to sketches on Saturday Night Live. However, in Islam, making images of the Prophet for any reason is blasphemous.

Then again, this conflict has nothing to do with cartoons or graven images, and everything to do with how poorly the Western and the Muslim worlds understand each other. Not only do the two have utterly different perspectives -- what is perfectly acceptable to one is an outrage to the other -- but, in this age of globalization, the two worlds seem to be moving ever farther apart.

While in the US we advocate religious tolerance, many Europeans are moving in the direction of greater secularlism. According to one study, only 21% of Europeans surveyed said that religion was "very important" in their lives (as opposed to nearly 60% of Americans). Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism and fanaticism in the Muslim world is growing.

Fueling much of this anger is what University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami calls "prisms of pain" through which groups see their world.

Nations, religions and ethnic groups, says Telhami, derive their self-image through their most painful experiences, from which they have legitimate grievances. For Jews, the Holocaust is their prism of pain. For African-Americans, it's slavery. For Americans over the age of 70, the Depression and World War II were prisms of pain that shaped their worldview -- prisms that their children and grandchildren struggle to relate to. For Baby Boomers, it was the Kennedy assassinations and the Vietnam war. And for all Americans, our most recent prism of pain is 9/11.

Muslims' prism of pain extends all the way back to the era of the Crusades and Western domination. For Europeans, it's centuries of religious persecution (which fuels the desire among many for a secular society) as well as the totalitarian legacy of Nazism. Thus, European newspaper editors feel fully justified in printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, while Muslims feel equally insulted and outraged in return.

In the past, the Western and the Muslim worlds could largely ignore one another safely. But because of today's global media, modernization, immigration and our intertwined economies, the two cultures collide, often with explosive results. As a post in the PBS blog MediaShift says, "Pre-Internet days, a newspaper in Denmark that printed cartoons could be assured that they wouldn't be seen in other parts of the world. Those days are over. With protests and riots still burning bright in the Middle East over cartoons depicting Mohammed, we cannot ignore our global neighbors even if they live on the other side of the world. As newspapers in the U.S. consider whether to run the cartoons, simple searches online can show anyone what the fuss is about."

Just as friction between political ideologies dominated the 20th century, conflicts between religions, and between religion and secularism, will be driving forces of the 21st century. The conflict will not go away... but we can manage it so that the outcome will be constructive rather than tragic.

UPDATE: Martin Borjesson elaborates on this post in his futuramb blog, noting the technological and economic trends that have led up to this recent unrest, and how our increasingly interconnected world is exacerbating cultural differences rather than eliminating them.

UPDATE 2: Christopher Hitchens weighs in on the matter, not giving any ground to the Muslim fanatics in this piece in Slate subtitled "The case for mocking religion."

UPDATE 3: Americans, especially conservatives, are seeing their worst assumptions about the Muslim world coming true. On Fox News Channel's political talk show Hannity and Colmes yesterday (2/6), Col. Oliver North declared that "there is no such thing as an Islamic moderate."

UPDATE 4: Personal Democracy Forum reports that many of the mobs attacking Danish and other European embassies have been receiving instructions from Islamic study centers via cell phones and SMS text messaging. Smartmobs gone bad, for sure...

UPDATE 5: An Iranian newspaper is attempting to ratchet up the tension by sponsoring a contest for cartoons mocking the Holocaust.

UPDATE 6: Western thought seems to be rallying around the Danes and others who have chosen to print the controversial cartoons. Writes Andrew Sullivan in an essay in Time, "Should non-Muslims respect this taboo [against images of the Prophet]? I see no reason why. You can respect a religion without honoring its taboos. I eat pork, and I'm not an anti-Semite. As a Catholic, I don't expect atheists to genuflect before an altar. If violating a taboo is necessary to illustrate a political point, then the call is an easy one. Freedom means learning to deal with being offended." The point, though, is probably lost on Islamic fundamentalists who don't share our ideas about freedom. Meanwhile, protests in the Muslim world continue to escalate, as the US is inevitably drawn into the fray.

UPDATE 7: Journalist Souheila al-Jadda provides a Muslim perspective on the controversy in USA Today. "While it is legitimate to raise questions about censorship, it is quite another thing to address the issue by defaming the most revered Muslim prophet in the name of press freedom... Though free expression is a value cherished in the West, it is not a carte blanche to say anything. With speech comes responsibility."

UPDATE 8: The ongoing cartoon riots appear to be uniting the American left and right wings in a way not seen since 9/11, and driving a wedge ever further between Western and Muslim thought. Writes Nina Burleigh in the liberal blog Huffington Post, "Leave it to the fundamentalist imams to align me with [UN Ambassador and critic] John Bolton and [conservative blogger] Michelle Malkin." Meanwhile, MSNBC's conservative commentator Joe Scarborough blogs, "[L]et’s stop lying about how Muslim radicals are a small, misguided group of violent renegades who have perverted the true meaning of Islam. I actually believed that Urban Media Legend until Palestinian election results handed Hamas a landslide victory. Hamas is, after all, an ultra-violent terrorist organization who has spent the last decade blowing up little children at bus stops and grandmoms in public markets."

UPDATE 9: Text messaging and blogs are being used by both sides in the conflict, though many sites contain rumours and errorneous information. Meanwhile, the controversy has sparked a hacker war, in which both Danish and Muslim websites have been defaced.