IN THE YEARS since the Danish broadsheet Jyllands-Posten, or Jutland Post, incited retribution for its publication of satirical Mohammed cartoons, we’ve had a negative case study of Bertrand’s Russell’s 1940 observation that “in a democracy, it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.”
This Russell controversy concerned a New York State school board decision to hire the atheist philosopher, a decision reversed as the result of a pious defamation campaign. The recent killings in Libya of American diplomatic staff (a revisiting of the 2006 cartoon “controversy”) remind us that neither democracy nor the endurance of having one’s sentiments outraged are principles universally accepted, which is why I designate the outrage of some Muslims a negative manifestation of Russell’s principle. Nonetheless it’s into these camps — the democrat and the outraged revenge-murderer — rather than into race or tribal or national categories, which we may in the present instance be most usefully divided.
As did many of you this week I wasted thirteen minutes of my time on the amateurish Innocence of Muslims video, my amusement over its barrel-bottom production values and the shoddy acting of its chubby twenty-first century midwestern American cast (am I alone in seeing the resemblance to a young Michael Gross, from the sit-com Family Ties, in the actor chosen for the lead role?) tempered by the knowledge that revenge had been exacted on dedicated and by all accounts decent public servants.
As I write this, speculation concerning the identity of Sam Bacile, the film’s supposed creator, is abundant. The complete film itself, like Bacile, may not even exist. But does it even matter who made this obvious and clumsy piece of calculated slander, and why? Bertrand Russell’s challenge cuts through the fat and gets to the bone of the current contention: human sentiments will from time to time be outraged, and it is the distinction of civilized persons to endure and to find peaceful means by which to mediate their differences.
We ought to be mindful that the Jutland Post cartoons were the culmination of a debate, at the centre of which were, for example, a September 2005 article “Dyb angst for kritik af islam” (“Deep anxiety over the criticism of Islam,” which registered a cresting Scandinavian fear that candid talk of the world’s youngest monotheism was dangerous and ill-advised), as well as the death of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the precarious existence of the Islam critic Ali Hirsi Ali. That debate is as vital and important as ever and, I would add, while it is more active in the West, it will have universal application.
If Innocence of Muslims’ ramshackle depictions of Mohammed invoke Edward Said’s Orientalism (and they do), the intemperate and insecure response of a fringe rabble invokes the indictments, as well as commitments, of Hirsi Ali. Writing of the conflict between religious extremism and “the values of personal freedom,” in her book Infidel, she asserts that “I was a one-issue politician, I decided. I am still. I am also convicted that this is the largest, most important issue that our society and our planet will face in the coming century.” Such is the big picture for these acts of the small minded.