eligion is not particularly funny. The pope is not funny. Patriarchs have beards but are largely laconic. Osama bin Laden’s sense of humor is manifestly limited, though he is Comedy Central by comparison to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who wore one scowl for two decades.
What is funny — albeit in macabre terms — is pluralism.
Funny in the way its affluent advocates hew to its supremacy. The Newtonian chaos in the wake of the printing of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed is a case in point.
In September, the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 satirical drawings poking secular fun at the Prophet, making him into a nefarious Santa Claus. In one, he was outraged and semi-lewd; in another he stood perched on a cloud telling smouldering suicide bombers he’d run out of virgins.
The newspaper commissioned the drawings in wry response to a local author’s lament: He could find no one to illustrate his life of Mohammed. That’s because Islam forbids such representations.
Within weeks, 10 Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia, demanded an apology from the Danish government, which it rejected. Jyllands-Posten, in turn, was defiant: “Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure — unconditionally!”
The matter percolated on the diplomatic backburner until January, when a Norwegian paper reprinted the drawings.
In a matter of weeks the time bomb detonated.
Saudi Arabia and Libya pulled their envoys from Copenhagen. Both those nations urged a boycott against Scandinavian products, with many pulled from Middle East shelves. On Jan. 30, the Gaza office of the European Union was raided.
A day later, Jyllands-Posten reluctantly backed down. The drawings were not against Danish law “but have indisputably insulted many Muslims, for which we shall apologize.”
But the apology merely passed the free-speech torch. In what was labeled a gesture of solidarity, the drawings were immediately reprinted across Europe.
The equal and opposite reaction was a foregone conclusion: Violent protest, much of it left to run its course by Syrian and Lebanese authorities.
The Vatican denounced the violence but hedged its bets. Free speech did not include mocking the beliefs of others.
The view, not surprisingly, is backed by Christian evangelicals who know the pitfalls in the field of play. “Respecting someone does not imply that you necessarily agree with them or subscribe to their doctrines,” writes John Edmiston, who manages a California Internet site for Catholic missionaries. “I will never be anything except a born-again Christian, however I would not offer a Muslim a pork chop or a glass of alcohol. That is just decent human behavior.”
But the secular world, reared on pluralism, is duty-bound to sarcasm and impiety. Respect is a tenet reared from dissent. Freedom of expression, and mockery, should be available to all who choose to embrace it. Such sentiments account in part for Europe’s irreverently visceral resistance to George W. Bush’s religious convictions. His unwillingness to keep zeal and policy separate have generated 10,000 caricatures. It’s pluralism in the context of West vs. West.
The cartoon dilemma functions outside such norms.
In a non-plural world, particularly in pockets that are incipiently theocratic, elasticity and sarcasm are inevitably reprehensible. The give-and-take subtleties that regulate subversion, giving comedy its common man reach, are stillborn. Hamas called Danish behavior “idiotic,” which has a strangely rational ring.
How would you would react, asks evangelical Edmiston, “if a gigantic pornographic billboard was put up just across the road from your church? The intense anger, that sense of personal affront and violation… What would you do? Burn down the billboard? Probably.”
To which secular Europe responds, “No. You must play by our rules,” or, responding to violent protests against its embassies, “The principle of diplomatic relations is that diplomats can work safely.”
Enlightened principles, civil principles, good principles — it goes without saying that these many-splendored principles have been wisely thought out.
Including the one that calls for offering pork chops to a whirlwind and hoping someone taught it table manners.