Friday, February 03, 2006

Clashes of Definitions

When George Bush says "freedom" he means something very different from the meaning of "freedom" to me and most likely to many of the listeners in his audience. Yet we are all going to plug his message into our own system of memories and values and definitions. That's why the policy wizards in the Republican party spend so much time thinking of soundbites that will play our inner violin strings, melodiously passing our thinking brain. They are experts in this game.

But they are not the only ones playing the game. The recent uproar over the small right-wing Danish paper which published cartoons of Mohammed is an example of the same clash of definitions and systems of memories and values. It is not really a spontaneous clash of civilizations as much as a manufactured clash, having to do with playing different violin strings in different people.

For believing Muslims the depiction of the Prophet is forbidden, and these cartoons amount to blasphemy. For most people in Europe or North America, these cartoons are an unsavory and fairly stupid example of the freedom of expression. My reading of the European newspaper articles on the dispute tells me that what we have here is an enormous difference in the frameworks people use to interpret evidence, an enormous difference in their experiences of how governments work and what this work translates into. For example, many Muslim organizations demand the Danish government to punish the newspaper that originally published the cartoons. But what the newspaper did is not against the Danish law, and the Danish government can't punish it without a legal reason to do so. Countries with less freedom of the press would act differently, and these organizations are located in such countries.

This lack of understanding (and I mean a visceral lack of understanding, not an intellectual one) means that the Muslims then extend the anger they feel at the cartoons to the Danish country, all Danes, and as the cartoons get reprinted elsewhere, also to the governments and citizens of those countries. And then finally to the whole "Western Civilization".

Knowing the history of Europe and the history of how blasphemy has been treated there would have helped. It is equally true that knowing the history of Islam and its rules would have helped, though I think that the original publishers of the cartoons hoped for the exact scandal that has ensued. On both sides there are people who try to light the flames of a religious war. Yet I'm fairly sure that the vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims alike would find the idea of such cartoons in bad taste but would also see the value in the freedom of expression for the media on the whole.