One of Broadway’s big hits this season is the musical The Book of Mormon, a creation of the scatological geniuses behind the cartoon South Park. As one would expect, the show is “blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak,” as the New York Times put it, satirizing every dimension of Mormonism from its obligatory missionary work to the planet Kolob God supposedly lived on or near. But despite this ridicule, the Times reports, “there have been no pickets or boycotts, no outraged news releases by Mormon defenders and no lawsuits.” In fact, “The Mormon Church itself . . . has signaled to members to turn the other cheek, while quietly preparing to make the best of the publicity.”
Meanwhile, the burning of a Koran on March 20 by a fringe Florida pastor sparked riots in Afghanistan. On Friday, ten foreigners, including two who may have been beheaded, and several Afghans were killed when a mob of thousands, chanting “Death to America” and “Allahu Akbar,” attacked a U.N. compound in usually placid Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. The next day, nine Afghans died when riots broke out all over Kandahar, the spiritual homeland of the Taliban.
So a highly visible and critically praised Broadway play that will be seen by thousands is met by the insulted church with a shrug, while a solitary act by the leader of an obscure, 50-member, non-denominational congregation triggers lethal violence aimed at the same Western nations that are spending blood and treasure to give Afghans political freedom and liberation from bloody tyrants. What do we make of this contrast?
The obvious point is that such violence on the part of Muslims whenever they feel their religion has been insulted has been common for decades. The first major global outbreak of Muslim violence happened in February 1989 when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa––reaffirmed by Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, by the way, in 2005––that enjoined the murder of Indian writer Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. Over twenty people died in the subsequent worldwide rioting and attacks. Since then, a Dutch filmmaker was murdered on an Amsterdam street for insulting Islam, 139 people died over a Danish newspaper’s publication of mildly satirical cartoons of Mohammed, and a priest and nun were murdered in retaliation for Pope Benedict’s quotation of a medieval Byzantine emperor, to name just the more famous instances of such violence. Other critics of Islam such as Ibn Warraq, a former Muslim who wrote Why I am Not a Muslim, or Bat Ye’or, who has chronicled the historical oppression of non-Muslims subjected to Muslim power, are forced to live incognito. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who exposed Muslim misogyny and intolerance, has to live in hiding, and Dutch politician Geert Wilders requires police protection because he produced Fitna, a short film documenting the Koranic sanctions for Muslim violence against Islam’s enemies.
More significant has been the response to this violent intolerance and disdain for free speech. Westerners who delight in attacking Christianity or Judaism suddenly develop exquisite sensibilities when it comes to Islam. For example, the same New York Times that reproduced on its pages the notorious photograph “Piss Christ,” which depicted a crucifix in a beaker of the photographer’s urine, rationalized its decision not to print the Mohammed cartoons as “a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols.” So too with popular culture, which attacks with relish Christianity, but makes an exception for Islam. Have you noticed these days that Muslim terrorists have disappeared from movies and television, despite the fact that the vast majority of terrorist attacks these days are perpetrated by Muslims? In the just-released movie Source Code, the plot of which turns on preventing a terrorist from detonating a dirty bomb in Chicago, the villain turns out to be a white guy who frequents “anti-government”––lib-speak for Tea Party––web sites.
But we know–– as do the jihadists attacking us––that this double standard has nothing to do with respect and tolerance, and everything to do with fear. At least director Roland Emmerich, whose 2012 delighted in depicting the destruction of St. Peter’s in Rome and other Christian monuments, confessed that he didn’t show Muslim holy sights being destroyed because he feared a “fatwa.” Our brave, hip media and purveyors of popular culture, who fancy themselves edgy dissidents for attacking hoary clichéd villains like fundamentalist Christians, oil company executives, and the CIA, lose their nerve when it comes to Islam. That’s why, as Terry Teachout pointed out in his review of the The Book of Mormon, “Making fun of Mormons in front of a Broadway crowd is like shooting trout in a demitasse cup. And while we're on the subject of imitation courage, let it be duly noted that if the title of this show were ‘The Quran,’ it wouldn't have opened.”
Those who indulge this double standard may pretend that they are displaying quintessential Western principles of tolerance for the “other” and sensitivity to the victims of Western oppression. But tolerance for intolerance and violence is not a virtue, but camouflage for weak beliefs, since those who stand for nothing will often stand for anything. Worse yet, our willingness to practice self-censorship or to censor others who criticize Islam bespeaks a betrayal of one of our most important rights, free speech. Nor is there any reward for such appeasement. Certainly the jihadists aren’t moved by our protestations of respect and tolerance for what we fatuously call the “religion of peace,” a characterization contradicted by numerous Koranic verses, the history of Islam’s conquests, and the speed with which Muslims world-wide will riot and kill in the name of Islam. Nor are the jihadists impressed by our willingness to betray our own ideals just to save our skin. Rather, they see our indifference to Christianity, the foundational faith of Western civilization, and our groveling hypersensitivity to Muslim feelings as another sign that we are spiritually corrupt hedonists, and that Islam is the superior religion worth killing and dying for, and thus in the end destined to triumph.
(photo credit: Anton Raath)