Most religions have rules against blasphemy, but it’s understood that insulting God is less egregious than attacking human beings. The God of monotheistic religions cannot be harmed by coarse words and images. Theological mockery, which has a long history in religious debates, is the price of a free society.
When I have debated with notable atheists—Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others—they have often said offensive things about God in Judaism. Against each of them I debated, protested, parried, and occasionally resented the argument. Afterwards, we shook hands.
Yet for some in Islam, an attack on Muhammad is felt as an attack on Muslims, not only a theological insult but also a communal insult. The “Draw Muhammad” contest sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, where police killed two armed gunmen, was deliberately offensive. As many of its critics have alleged, it was intended to provoke a response and to anger Muslims. Such antics make it harder for Muslims who preach against radicalism to gain a sympathetic hearing. Humans just don’t warm to a culture that disparages what they hold dear.
And yet the measure of a truly tolerant society is only seen in its most egregious provocations. “The Book of Mormon” is an undisguised attempt to be as insulting as humanly possible to the Mormon faith. It is witty, vulgar, caustic, and extravagantly offensive to anyone who is a believing Mormon. Yet, to the enduring credit of the Mormon church and community, there was no demand that it be silenced. Mormons did not take to the streets. The play continues to be seen, and the church continues to thrive.
When Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was displayed, some tried to shut it down. Immersing an image of Jesus in urine was calculatedly repulsive. Yet here, too, free speech advocates made the persuasive case that it was only in provoking that you test tolerance. A similar instance was when Nazis marched on Skokie, Illinois, in the mid 70’s, when it was home to a large population of people who survived the concentration camps. Our limits are stretched by hard cases.
If I were Muslim, I would be hurt and offended by the “contest,” as I would be as a Mormon watching the musical, or as I was as a Jew witnessing the Nazis march. It is painful to see your most cherished beliefs deliberately and coarsely mocked. Yet I would be even more offended by the two men who came to Garland, Texas, to kill. The decision of two evil people is not the reaction of an entire community.
No group in America is exempt from the kind of crude lampooning that characterized the contest. Each group has an unfortunate tendency to say “we are the only ones who ever get mocked that way.” Not so. The truth is that if you are fat, or short, or black, or Jewish, or Mexican or Muslim, or Asian, or awkward, or any number of other things, you will hear nasty things said about you and those like you.
We can encourage sensitivity in speakers, but even more urgent is to encourage stoicism in listeners. The creed of a free society is simply this: God may deal with blasphemy however God wishes, but as people we wince, argue back, and then leave other alone. You do not have to be serene in the face of slanders but neither can you be violent. It is no victory for the Divine to kill one of Her children.
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