A boy carries a cross as he takes part in a procession during Holy Week in Mexico City, Friday, April 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)
As I write, mobs all over the world are rioting about an amateurish video portraying Muhammad as a horny buffoon. Death toll so far: at least thirty, including Christopher Stevens, US ambassador to Libya, and three embassy staffers. Not to be outdone, Pakistan’s railways minister announced he would pay $100,000 to anyone who murdered the videomaker, and added, “I call upon these countries and say: Yes, freedom of expression is there, but you should make laws regarding people insulting our Prophet. And if you don’t, then the future will be extremely dangerous.” More riots, embassy closings and a possible assassination attempt or two followed the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s retaliatory publication of cartoons of Muhammad naked. To bring it all full circle, an Iranian foundation has raised to $3.3 million the reward it’s offering for the murder of Salman Rushdie. (Just out and highly recommended: Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s humane and heroic memoir of his years in hiding.)
Shocking as these events were, some reactions here at home were not helpful: Newsweek’s notorious “Muslim Rage” cover, for example, with its photo of crazed-looking zealots. All together now: there are 1.6 billion Muslims, only a tiny minority of whom are involved in this nonsense. Would Newsweek present a story about opposition to gay marriage with a photo of the Westboro Baptist “God Hates Fags” church and the headline “Christian Rage”? Even worse are the posters that went up on September 24 in ten New York City subway stations, the thoughtful offering of birther blogger Pam Geller and her American Freedom Defense Initiative: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” (The ads also appeared in August and September on public buses in San Francisco.)
What about acknowledging and honoring the huge demonstrations by Libyans against the militias who are believed to have killed Stevens? And let’s not forget the Muslims who took over Newsweek’s hashtag: “Twitter is over capacity. Heading to the U.S. embassy. #MuslimRage.” “I won a lifetime supply of bacon #MuslimRage.” The Muslim response to the subway ads was also classy: “If you see something (stupid), say something (smart) #MySubwayAd.” “Hatred is the first savagery. Being a wanker is the first freedom #MySubwayAd.”
What if the right to be a wanker—a jerk, an annoying obsessive—is indeed where freedom begins? On WNYC’s The Takeaway, John Hockenberry had a confusing exchange with BBC chief Jeremy Bowen:
Hockenberry: I’m wondering if it’s possible for the United Nations to create an initiative that would talk about some sort of global convention on blasphemy, that would create a cooperative enterprise to control these kinds of incidents, not to interfere into anybody’s free speech rights but to basically recognize that there is a global interest in keeping people from going off the rails over a perceived sense of slight by enforcing a convention of human rights, only in this particular case it would be anti-blasphemy?
Bowen: It would be a great idea if they could make it work, but of course you know, you think that the United Nations struggled for ages, and I don’t think it’s yet succeeded in coming up with a definition of “terrorism.” So, in the end, how do you define “blasphemy”?