Blunting the Senses in the Name of Fairness
February 16, 2007
“The size of an extremist ‘fringe’ and its relationship to mainstream conceptions of the faith have to be considered as they actually are, not as one might wish, or assume. When given a moment’s thought, all fundamentalisms are not in fact equivalent in their particulars, or the consequences thereof. Yet this is the default prejudice from which many commentators proceed.”
My previous Bad Faith column, which dealt with cultural equivalence and the moral contortions that result, led to a barrage of email and a number of odd exchanges. Most centred on the way in which cultural equivalence can be used to present very different moral phenomena as equal in weight, generally to excuse the larger evil with a much smaller one. Recent events have given further pertinence to the arguments made in that column, and so some additional reflection seems in order.
To recap briefly: Cultural equivalence is evident when Tariq Ramadan depicted those who criticise religious intolerance and intimidation as “extremists,” thereby suggesting some parity of derangement between the people who published cartoons of Muhammad, or argued for the right to do so, and the believers who made homicidal threats and set fire to occupied buildings. This echoed Karen Armstrong’s reference to “aggressive” cartoons, published “aggressively” – again, attempting to suggest parity of motive and blame, as if one excused the other or shared the same moral gravity. Perhaps we’re supposed to believe that unflattering cartoons can hurt a person in exactly the same way that, say, fists, bricks and fire do.
Cultural equivalence is also found in superficial comparisons between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, as if no significant differences existed or should be sought. In February, Reverend Patrick Gaffney of the University of Notre Dame blamed associations of Islam with violence on a history of anti-Islamic prejudice, insisting “there are parallel behaviours in every tradition.” Gaffney maintained there was little point looking for “distinct features” within Islamic theology that might have bearing on the wave of cartoon-related violence. Attempts to deflect attention away from theological specifics are commonplace, even habitual, though not entirely convincing. One cannot simply assume that all religious traditions are exactly equal in how they deal with various slights and taboos.
One might, for instance, contrast how the Christian Messiah and the Prophet of Islam are said to have dealt with unflattering comments. To the best of my knowledge, the New Testament doesn’t inform believers that Jesus sanctioned the assassination of his critics or mocked their dead bodies. While Muhammad did occasionally forgive those who ridiculed him, this forgiveness was by no means a typical response, particularly in his later career. Al-Nadr bin al-Harith, Kab bin al-Ashraf and Uqbah bin Abu Muayt were killed at Muhammad’s instruction in 624 AD, and the poetess Asma bint Marwan was killed the same year for writing a disrespectful verse. Given there are those who view Muhammad as exemplary in all regards and for all time, perhaps these events shouldn’t be dismissed quite so lightly.
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