Lesson Time

Anthropologists are reliable sources of you have to understandism. Pnina Werbner does her bit.

There are some lessons (the British) learned from “The Satanic Verses” that I’m afraid others in Europe still need to learn. One of them is the simple lesson that blasphemy is a double-edged sword.

Okay, now it’s time for anthropologists to learn a simple lesson: words like ‘blasphemy’ and ‘haram’ and ‘apostasy’ don’t apply to people who don’t subscribe to the religion in question. It’s a rather disgusting form of coercion to pretend that they do.

But there was no gain on either side in terms of reaching mutual tolerance or understanding. The novel just inflamed peoples’ feelings – Muslims felt they had been disrespected and their feelings disregarded.

Another simple lesson for anthropologists. Here it is. So what. Is every novel ever written supposed to respect the feelings – the alleged feelings, the attributed feelings, the assumed feelings, the guessed-at in advance feelings – of ‘Muslims’? If so, does that apply to the feelings of everyone? Might that be a tall order? Such a tall order that compliance would simply shut down novel-writing entirely? And by extension all writing and all thought? Do you really – academic that you are – want to say that ‘feelings’ about writings should necessarily be respected? If you do, I think you’re an imbecile. That’s a simple lesson.

The Satanic Verses affair taught people in Britain a lesson about the depth of religious feelings among Muslims. Although the affair died down, it remains an underlying, painful memory for British Muslims even today.

Yes. It did. And not only people in Britain – people over here, too, and other places as well. It taught us the lesson that religious zealots were willing to threaten and kill people over a novel they didn’t like. It taught us to fear and despise people like that. It did not, however, teach us to admire or respect or love or think good the ‘depth of religious feelings among Muslims’. It’s not clear whether Werbner grasped that part of the lesson or not.

Even if an artist had failed to find someone to illustrate a children’s book on the Prophet for fear of reprisals, this does not constitute an attack on freedom of speech. It could be construed as recognition and respect for the sacred taboos of another religion.

Yes, it could, and that is a good thing why, exactly? Because all ‘sacred taboos’ are benign and harmless? Are they?

It is a matter of having some kind of voluntary understanding – one that says that the price one pays for a sort of entertaining bit of journalism is not worth it because there are people who will feel genuinely offended. It is difficult for us Westerners with our secular upbringing to understand and sympathize with the depth of feeling of believers. Their passionate belief is puzzling and alien to us.

Here’s another simple lesson. We’re not required to sympathize. Understand, yes, but sympathize, no. I don’t sympathize with the depth of feeling that motivates school boards to order science teachers to read religious statements to their students, or to murder abortion doctors, just as I don’t sympathize with the depth of feeling of Nazis or Fred Phelps of ‘God Hates Fags’ or people who think Howdy Doody is God’s messenger. I don’t, and I don’t have to. Sympathy is not the right subject here, because the beliefs in question have content, and we are allowed to evaluate the content. We are not obliged to give sight-unseen unconditional pre-judgment sympathy to any and all feelings provided they are deep enough, and as a matter of fact we ought not to do that, we ought to do the opposite. That’s not hard to understand, is it? Even for us with our secular upbringing that makes it so hard for us to understand things?

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