Saturday, February 11, 2006

Is the essence of Voltaire dead in the west?

Neale News led me to this gem of Christian outrage:
Poland's Roman Catholics expressed outrage on Thursday after a magazine published a picture of the much-revered icon of the Black Madonna with pop icon Madonna's face transposed on to it.

"We are shocked to see, yet again, the miraculous icon of the mother of God used in a [profane] way for advertising and business purposes," said Paulinian monks at Jasna Gora monastery in the southern city of Czestochowa, who are custodians of the icon that Poles believe was painted by St Luke the Evangelist.

Pop magazine Machina published a photograph of the sacred icon, with pop idol Madonna's face transposed over the face of the Virgin and one of the singer's children in the place of the baby Jesus, on the cover of the issue that hit the newsstands on Thursday after a three-year publishing hiatus.
"Current events have shown us where abuse of religious images and symbols can lead," the statement said, referring indirectly to the wave of protests that have hit the Muslim world since the publication of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad in several European newspapers.

Ultra-Catholic daily newspaper Nasz Dziennik slammed Machina's cover photo as "another act of profanation of sacred symbols", and Poland's website has received scores of messages of protest.

Catholic nuns will be burning flags and imploding at the offices of Machina at 11:00 am past not going to happen. Stop and think for a moment why that is, even if there are those who secretly harbour a longing for the simplicity of the old days when blasphemers would be put to death. Certainly, there was a time in Christendom that any lampooning, mocking or the profaning the use of religious symbolism would have resulted in severe penalties or even death under the law.

Voltaire is still called the Father of Liberty and for good reason. If the average student in the West does not study Voltaire’s work in any great depth today it has more to do with the fact that the theological battles he fought are largely irrelevant to every day modern life in the West because he won. Voltaire’s victory over ecclesiasticism and superstition in the public domain made them relatively dead issues for us. The philosophical premises and religious superstitions that he rallied against in Candide no longer dominate governance or the public discourse in our society. But where would we be today if Voltaire did pen his famous creed, “I disagree with what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it?”

And where would we be if he was not unjustly forced early in his career to seek sanctuary on a small Isle at the very edge of Europe where men like Bolingbroke, Pope, Addison, Newton and Swift said, wrote and published what they thought?

Voltaire had no experience with the English prior to crossing the channel and he was profoundly influenced by the religious tolerance he witnessed. Men of science and reason who were allowed to publish their theories and thoughts without the prior approval or the need to seek sanction by either the Church or King. A King who shared rule with a parliament and ordinary citizens who could not be deprived of their liberty without due process of law rather than the infamous lettres de cachet issued at the whim of the either the aristocracy or religious authorities.

Voltaire was philosophically and intellectually nurtured by his time among the English. When his exile among the English ended he took these ideas back to his native land and not only spread the word but expanded on it. He tilled the soil so that the French Age of Enlightenment could blossom. And with his pen he decisively satirized, mocked, and lampooned all who would stifle the free exchange of ideas or inhibit the intellectual or philosophical discourse of his day. He was merciless with his use of reason and wit to trivialize or demean those who would silent all detractors and wrap chains around men’s minds and limbs. Dwelling among us in exile may now very well be a Voltaire for the Islamic world but who will nurture him or her? Not a press that meets any criticism of radical Islamism with silence under the guise of not flaming the flames of prejudice or racism.

Those innocuous and on the whole badly drawn political cartoons make a political point however you wish it were not so. By not publishing the cartoons you allow others with a different agenda to hijack and stifle even the mere suggestion of rational dialogue. Mark MacKinnon on Muslim outrage over the cartoons (in The Globe and Mail) interviews the man on the street in Beirut and this point becomes even clearer:
BEIRUT -- Hussain Saad has never seen the controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed that were published in Europe, but he's furious anyway. What he's been told is enough to get his blood boiling.

One picture, he's heard, shows the Prophet wearing a turban with a bomb tucked inside it. That one appeared last September in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and has since been published by some other newspapers in Europe and elsewhere, sparking an angry reaction from Muslims worldwide. Mr. Saad believes the picture is insulting, since it implies an association between Islam and terrorism.

But it's the second image he's heard was published that makes him really irate, featuring, he's been told, a bent-over Prophet having sex with another man.
"They are showing the Prophet in a sexual position with another man. We don't have this here. We don't have men sleeping with men, or women sleeping with women," the bearded 20-year-old Shia Muslim said, as other young men listened and nodded their heads in angry agreement.
The cartoon Mr. Saad and the others have heard about in such graphic detail has never appeared in any Western newspaper, nor is Sweden holding an insult-the-Prophet competition. But such myths are popular in the slums of Beirut and the adjoining Palestinian refugee camps, and are helping to fuel the anger boiling across the Muslim world.

Many who have taken part in the violent anti-cartoon protests that have hit places as far-flung as Lebanon, Afghanistan and Indonesia are poor and illiterate, with no access to the Western media or the Internet. They got their information about the drawings largely from word-of-mouth accounts, allowing preachers and politicians who have a stake in feeding the outrage to spread a distorted version of what the offending images contain.
Perhaps Voltaire said it best when he wrote, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”


Kurt said...

Hmm! Very nice entry including some Voltaire. Thanks :)

Ian Scott said...

Excellent post, Kateland. But you probably knew I would appreciate it, and put so well too.