When it comes to the science of evolution, PZ Myers and I are in almost complete agreement; when it comes to other issues, it’s scarcely possible that we could be further apart. The latest example of this is his essay on the Muhammed caricatures and the attending controversy. PZ appears to believe that because Muslims are a “poor minority”, they are insulated from satire. I could not disagree more with his assessment of the caricatures:
I’ve seen the cartoons, and they are crude and uninterestingâ€”they are more about perpetuating stereotypes of Muslims as bomb-throwing terrorists than seriously illuminating a problem. They lack artistic or social or even comedic merit, and are only presented as an insult to inflame a poor minority. I don’t have any sympathy for a newspaper carrying out an exercise in pointless provocation.
There is hardly a word of this that is accurate. Is it the case that the purpose was merely to “perpetuate stereotypes of Musliems” rather than to “illuminate a problem”? The facts do not support this claim. It must be remembered what the context was. A Danish writer could not find an illustrator for a book about Muhammed because many artists were afraid to draw any representation of Muhammed for fear of reprisals from reactionary and violent Muslims. There was much concern about the degree to which that fear, based on a long history of violent threats (Salman Rushdie, Theo Van Gogh, etc) and worse against artists and writers, was leading to de facto censorship. Surely PZ would agree that it is a bad idea to allow violent thugs to intimidate artists and writers into silence. Understanding that context clearly cuts against any argument that the goal of the caricatures was merely to perpetuate stereotypes.
Also cutting against that argument is the fact that some of the caricatures are not aimed at Muslims at all, but are aimed at the newspaper and at the Danish author who was seeking an illustrator for his book. In fact, if you look at them there are really only 3 out of 12 that appear to be critical of Islam’s violent tendencies (possibly 4, there’s one I don’t understand at all), while at the same time there are at least three that are critical either of the newspaper (one calls them “reactionary provacateurs”) or of the Danish author.
And of the ones that are critical of Islam, one of them is clearly making fun of the ridiculous notion that homicide bombers receive 72 virgins upon reaching heaven for their martyrdom (clearly a perfectly legitimate criticism and one that I’m sure that PZ finds equally ridiculous) and another is critical of the oppression of women under fundamentalist Islam (another criticism that I’m certain PZ shares). Given that, I have to confess to being baffled by his position here. Surely he agrees with those criticisms, yet he says that he has “no sympathy” for a newspaper that publishes such criticisms and then is the target of violent protests. He appears to be taking the very odd position of saying that this criticism is entirely true and valid, yet because he perceives Muslims to be a “poor minority”, it’s not okay for anyone to actually express such criticisms. I can make no sense of this.
I would also note that I simply don’t believe him when he says, “I don’t have any sympathy for a newspaper carrying out an exercise in pointless provocation.” If a newspaper prints cartoons critical of Christian leaders, we hear no outrage from him (nor should we, of course). So what he really means here is, “I have no sympathy for a newspaper carrying out an exercise in pointless provocation unless it is of groups to whom I have a strong opposition.” And this is hardly an objective perspective on the situation.
He also takes the position that publishing the caricatures amounts to an “affront to their dignity as human beings and citizens”, yet he has no problem mocking Christians far more severely than those caricatures mocked Muslims. It seems to me that if one is going to object to satirizing a belief, then it shouldn’t matter whether the people who hold that belief are a “poor minority” or a rich majority. Of course, I reject the notion that satire is an affront to anyone’s dignity as a human being. The only thing I require is that the satire give some insight into the object of the satire, and surely no one could seriously argue that the violent tendencies of radical Islam is a legitimate target of criticism in whatever form it might take.
The fact is that what is being satirized here absolutely deserves such treatment. Believing that any artistic representation of someone is blasphemy is ridiculous. Believing that someone engaging in such blasphemy should be murdered, along with everyone who agrees with them and their innocent countrymen, is nothing short of psychopathic insanity. And the fact that some of the people who believe that are members of a poor minority does not change those facts even a tiny little bit.
There are two things I believe as firmly as I believe anything. The first is that we should never withhold legitimate criticism because we are intimidated by sociopathic thugs. The second is that we should never withhold legitimate criticism because the people who are the object of that criticism are part of a protected group. There are many groups for whom I have a deeply ingrained empathy as hated minorities; that does not mean that they are immune to legitimate criticism. I am strongly for gay rights, for instance, but that does not mean that we should make them legally protected from criticism, even if that criticism is unwarranted (and here, the criticism is clearly on target).
There are lots of minorities in the world who are treated unfairly in a variety of ways. They don’t all scream for the extermination of those who dare to satirize them. It’s time for Islamic fundamentalism to grow up and join the civilized world, where we react to criticism intellectually and not violently. That is an absolutely valid criticism, regardless of whether Muslims are a poor minority or not. Our first concern should be for the truth, not for social status.