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February 16th 2015 print

Lawrence Cross

Why Muslims Can’t Take a Joke

Unlike Jesus, who preached that redemption is no us-vs.-them affair, Islam's sword-in-hand war cry has always been ‘convert or die!’ After centuries of atrocities in the Prophet's name it is surely time to recognise that cartoonists' pens and Enlightenment values are a feeble shield against fanaticism

head lopperThe appalling murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have focused attention on fundamentalist Muslims’ violent reactions to religious insults. But few have asked the question: ‘Why do Christians not react that way?’ Certainly there have been enough examples of denigration and incitement, such as the notorious Piss Christ episode. Charlie Hebdo, for its part, also did its share of mocking Christ and the Church. The answer points to the real legacy of universal tolerance that underpins Western civilisation.

The protests after the murders have pitted two very partial views of the world against each other. On the one side we have people on the fringes of Muslim tribalism rejecting the society in which they live. On the other side, we have secular positions on freedom of expression that are notoriously selective and easily co-opted by vested interests. In this secular view, creating images of Mohammed that are deliberately offensive is seen as a blow for free speech. Yet doing the same thing against other groups – denying the Holocaust, for example, or demonising people on the basis of race — is seen as a crime.

Free speech is constantly constrained; it is not an absolute. Nor should it be. We are not allowed to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre when there is none — precisely because of the harm that such irresponsibility might cause to real people. However, just before the murders, France, supposedly a bastion of free speech, became the first Western democracy to ban public protests against Israeli actions in Palestine. Even more bizarrely, just days after a free speech rally in response to the murders, 54 people were arrested for expressing their views. They were charged with “glorifying” or “defending” terrorism.

Neither Islam nor secularism offer universality. Contrast the position of Apostolic Christianity, which is the real foundation of tolerance in Western civilisation, a fact often sinned against, but true. The Christian God is universal in every sense. God created the universe, his Son is incarnate in the world, and all humans are equal before Him. No wrongdoing, committed by all of us, is fundamentally different from any other. Without Christ, no sin is redeemed. With Christ, all sins can be redeemed.

Both the taunts directed at Muslims and the murders that occurred in response to the taunts come within that universality. Whereas the Muslims or the secularists see it as a contest of values, Christians see it as all coming within the same universal value.  That is why Christians do not see insults against them as an existential threat, demanding violent defence. It is simply another sin in a world that needs Christ for redemption of sin. In that sense, we are all the same, because we all sin.

There is a long tradition in Christianity of the fool figure, the clown who tells rulers the truth. In Eastern Christianity holy fools held a mirror up to society. Satire can have a political and civic value. But that is not what Charlie Hebdo was doing. That magazine’s activities were more a matter of deliberate incitement, which tragically provoked the violent criminals who murdered its instigators. It is one thing to say that this kind of provocation should be tolerated in a liberal society. But it is quite wrong to see it as an act of freedom and tolerance in itself. It was very far from that. Those who whack a hornets’ nest can scarcely be surprised when they are stung.

Only Christianity’s universalism offers a way out of these clashes. Because we are all sinners who can be redeemed by Christ’s love, we are all fundamentally equal. There are no tribes, no “us versus them”, there are only people who take advantage of what is offered and people who do not. This message is not easy to digest, but it is undeniably universal. It is very different from Islam, which is deeply tribal and is based on the teachings of a prophet. A prophet heads up a religious group who believe they have a special insight and position. It lends itself to “us versus them”, even when there are admonitions to be tolerant  of other religions (as do exist in some Islamic teachings).

The activities of this Prophet are also hardly encouraging. According to Islamic sources, Mohammed, an Arab tribal leader, personally executed his enemies in large batches. In one case he tortured a rival tribal leader, then killed him and married his wife. His sexual practices, described in authoritative Islamic sources, are deeply disturbing to modern eyes and hardly offer a timeless guide for moral behaviour. The Prophets bloody escapades make a stark contrast to Christ, who was involved in an unthinkable act of sacrifice as both man and God. As the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, concluded, “Islam is the theology of an immoral Arab” (one wonders why he was not targeted for assassination). Muslims have good reason to examine their religion closely and at least conclude that violence committed in defence of the Prophet does not sit on especially solid foundations.

There has been extensive disinformation, starting in the seventh century, to create the impression that Islam is a religion of peace. There have been periods of reasonable co-existence, but most of Islam’s history has been one of violence. The first 250 years of Christianity’s existence was persecution by the Roman State and martyrdom. Islam came out of the Arabian Peninsula, sword in hand, saying: ‘Convert or die.’ In their origins, the two religions could not be more different. Later, of course, Christianity was much abused militarily, but those were its beginnings.

Islam separates the world into believers and infidels, the latter being worthless before God. Christianity does not separate people at all. It says we all have worth, because God loves us universally, it is only a matter of accepting our salvation. Christianity thus offers human beings true freedom. The Christian God loves all men and women, sinners and righteous alike. The rebellion of the sinner cannot dislodge or nullify the unconditional love of God.

Contrast this with the Islamic teaching on so-called apostasy, for which people are killed. It demonstrates that the favour of Allah is highly conditional. The brutal punishments that are meted out for deviating from sharia law are the most graphic demonstrations of Islam’s tendency towards tyranny. The God that comes out of the desert in the seventh century demands submission: the actual meaning of the word ‘Islam.’ That God is so great that a loving relationship with human beings is impossible. Hence the grim fatalism: Allah is compassionate and merciful, but only to the submissive, but he dwells at the infinite distance of transcendence, and is so radically free that he can change His mind at any time about the believer’s fate,  even willing evil over good, so radical is his freedom.

These are questions for Muslims to consider. It is also incumbent on Christians to assert that the universalism at the core of their religion is the true antidote to the clashes that are emerging. It is telling that the framers of the Constitution of the European Union could not manage to include even one sentence acknowledging Christianity’s role in shaping European civilisation. With such a cringing attitude toward their own religious heritage, it is small wonder that they cannot handle the Islamic threat.

As impressive as were the French mass protests over the Charlie Hebdo slaughter and other terrorist atrocities, quoting the slogans of the French Enlightenment as a counter to terrorism is like opposing a Kalashnikov with a water pistol. The two world views are irreconcilable; there is no possibility of a universal solution emerging.

In the past, La Belle France was described as the First Daughter of the Church. The true answer to the Muslim extremists is to be found not in Voltaire’s cleverness and in that of his cultural heirs, but in the universal apostolic Christian faith embraced by Clovis at Notre Dame de Reims in 496/99 AD.  And further. Is it time for the reconciliation of the Enlightenment and the Faith, particularly in Europe?

Archpriest Dr Lawrence Cross OAM is the pastor of Holy Trinity St Nicholas Russian Catholic Church in East St Kilda and leader of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Mission in Australia. He is an alumnus of the University of Sydney, of St John’s College, Oxford and the Melbourne College of Divinity

andrew bolt