The alarming power of unreason

SCMP Feb 7, 2006

There has been an alarming rise in the mix of politics and raw emotion stirred by governments. Take, for example, the uproar in the Muslim world about cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed which appeared in Denmark and were reprinted in other European countries as editors sought to demonstrate that press freedom must not be constrained by religious sensitivities.

As one who was in the Arab world when this erupted, it was clear that governments and editorialists everywhere were jumping on the bandwagon of emotion, calling for boycotts of Danish products, apologies from the countries and action against the perpetrators. These reactions seemed to typify the ignorance, self-importance and low levels of education which prevail in much of the Islamic world, notably the Arab part of it which, despite oil wealth, now boasts the lowest literacy rates of any region.

For sure, religion is a sensitive subject - but so is the freedom of speech and the press in open and plural societies. In Muslim exclusivist societies such as Saudi Arabia, it is understandable that making fun of the Prophet is no more acceptable than making fun of Mao Zedong was during the Cultural Revolution in China. But in Europe and North America the spirit of Voltaire still, just about, lives - that you may detest a person's opinions but defend to the death his right to proclaim them.

The cartoons were deliberately provocative, offensive and in bad taste. But most good cartoons offend. Are Muslims so sensitive that they cannot abide being laughed at? The Prophet Mohammed was a man, not a god. Christians in Europe are often outraged by "blasphemous" depictions of Christ. If God is offended, so be it. But that's a judgment which will have to wait.

The west has itself partly to blame for its problem over the cartoons. There has been an erosion of freedom of speech and the press through legislation allegedly designed to combat racism and terrorism. If you can have a law against racist or sexist language, why not a law against criticising another's religion? In the case of the cartoons, the offence was to link the Prophet Mohammed to suicide bombers. But is it not the bombers who have linked the Prophet to their cause? The cause may seem, to many, to be a just fight against foreign occupation. But no Muslim can deny that the bombings were in the name of God any more than Christians can deny that they have launched holy wars, starting with the crusades and, in the eyes of many, continuing to this day in Iraq.

Muslims may feel they suffer prejudice in the west (and elsewhere). They may reasonably consider that on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear programme to Israel's expansion they are victims of western imperialism. They may reasonably see the hypocrisy of the west's demand for democracy with reality. But reaction to the cartoons displays just the region's obsession with symbols, the paucity of intellectual activity, the dominance of assorted dictatorships in political life and the failure to learn from Asian examples of economic and social development.

Unfortunately, it is not a unique example of the power of unreason. China apparently dare not release the movie Memoirs of a Geisha for fear of public reaction to a Chinese actress playing a Japanese. One might have thought that if anyone was to be offended it would be the Japanese. But this feared popular response to a movie is the flip side of the crude nationalism unleashed by Beijing's persistent, politically-motivated Japan-bashing. Having sowed the wind, the leadership now fears the whirlwind.




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