Why Muhammad isn’t funny: a cultural perspective

20 Sep

In between the French publication of a cartoon mocking the Prophet Muhammad (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/world/europe/french-magazine-publishes-cartoons-mocking-muhammad.html?hp) and the release of the US-made online video mocking Muhammad (http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/11/obscure-film-mocking-muslim-prophet-sparks-anti-u-s-protests-in-egypt-and-libya/), the NY Times published an article that enlightened me as to why these acts aren’t just disrespectful, insensitive, in poor taste, inconsiderate or “politically incorrect.”

Putting the argument in terms of mutual respect (as Egyptian Muslim Khaled Ali does when he states, “We never insult any prophet — not Moses, not Jesus — so why can’t we demand that Muhammad be respected?”) seems fair enough, but it’s tricky to respect mutually what isn’t valued equally.

The question is not just how Muhammad is valued across cultures, but within Muslim ones. As religious scholar Ismail Mohamed notes, “Our prophet is more dear to us than our family and our nation”  (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/world/middleeast/muslims-rage-over-film-fueled-by-culture-divide.html?pagewanted=all).

How dear? More than human life. As David Kirkpatrick of the NY Times writes:

In the West, many may express astonishment that the murder of Muslims in hate crimes does not provoke the same level of global outrage as the video did. But even a day after the clashes in Cairo had subsided, many Egyptians argued that a slur against their faith was a greater offense than any attack on a living person.

“When you hurt someone, you are just hurting one person,” said Ahmed Shobaky, 42, a jeweler. “But when you insult a faith like that, you are insulting a whole nation that feels the pain.”

I am one of those who are astonished.

And humbled, as I regard anew the very different cultural bias of our nation, which values free speech so much that we lead with it in our Bill of Rights, and tolerate arguable abuse and distortion of that right in order to preserve it.

So while I don’t believe that ideological differences ever justify violence, I also don’t believe that ignorance is a good excuse for ongoing and intentional provocation. I do believe that it’s possible for us to have empathy and make discerning choices (not just fearful or “sensitive” ones), through perspective-taking and cultural humility. In these particular instances, perhaps it’s not such a cultural stretch for us in the US to understand the real injury a cartoon or video can inflict. It was, after all, an English playwright (Edward Bulwer-Lytton) who wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

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