My view of mockery of Islam is the same as mockery of Christianity:
That is: it is in everyone’s interest that such mockery be normalized, not discouraged. Whether it’s flippant, silly, rude, juvenile, absurd, insulting, thoughtful, or whatever it might be, people need to get used to the idea that it’s going to be out there if you go looking for it.
And no, I don’t care who does it, how stupid it is, how ugly or stupid anyone thinks it is. Or not much. As in, no, I won’t be writing any asinine fart jokes about anyone’s prophet (tho’ mostly because I can’t make those funny anyway), and, absolutely, if something’s genuinely and clearly racist, yes, fine, I want that discouraged, too. That, I think, is more than fair enough.
But it’s not some abstract ideal that when someone wants to make fun of someone else’s god or prophet, they should absolutely be allowed, nor is it a chip you should even be imagining put on the table. And if someone gets killed because someone takes offense, no, the person who wrote the joke isn’t a murderer, however callous or cruel or even deliberate was the apparent incitement. If someone loses it and kills someone over the mockery of a mythologized god figure that’s been made sacred and declared protected from such excesses, that someone who held the knife or the gun or who lit the fire is the murderer, not the one who scrawled something lewd on the bathroom wall. And the first accessory I’ll be looking for is the one who told them such things are sacred and that such mockery is forbidden in the first place.
In the long run, again: normalization has to be the goal. We have to get to the point that when an extremist imam wants to whip up his flock into a proper rage over random YouTube video X, his protest goes off like a damp squib because they’ve become so used to this stuff, that it’s just not shocking or particularly upsetting to anyone anymore.
We need to stick our elbows out and create space for open discussion of all religions, Islam included. We have to make it harder and harder for people to be raised in a vacuum, unaware that there are no unbelievers, unaware anyone might mock, and utterly convinced that if someone does it’s somehow your prerogative to hurt people and break things. Get to that place, and the voices from the ancient books and the frothers in their pulpits can rage on and on about what a travesty this is if they like; the world will have moved on, and that is how those voices will be made irrelevant. Get to that place, and it opens up people’s lives and minds, gets people thinking, gets people talking. Push that door open, and eventually calm and fearless scholarly secular discussion of early Islam will be that much easier for the academics. Push that door open, and Channel Four can run all the documentaries it likes, and it doesn’t matter how ‘revisionist’ is the historian scripting it. Push that door open, and one more lever for driving people to excesses is taken out of the extremists’ hands.
Religion has ever done this ‘you must respect/you must hush yourselves’ thing. It always will, if you give it even half a chance. It keeps on trying even when it has no chance, because that is central to its survival. Give it any excuse, it will try to sneak through such restrictions on that excuse, and ‘people will get hurt’ or ‘those most insulted are already oppressed and this is additionally hurtful’ will also do just fine.
And the reality about normalization is: we’re partway there already. The increasing ubiquity and interconnectedness of the data networks has changed the game already. It’s been pointed out: those imams could probably find a steady supply of perfectly insulting videos for the purposes of incitement anyway, with very little effort, just through YouTube, right now; ‘Sam Bacile”s flatulent little mess of a trailer was nothing special, in this regard. The reality is probably also: we probably can’t even change this entirely if we were stupid enough to allow legislation directed that way. Such legislation would make a life a misery for those who got caught, and would be entirely unconscionable, yes, but the light would still sneak in around it, now.
Speaking of: while plenty of attention has been paid to the geopolitical dimensions of this, and yes they are significant, and yes there is real resentment that has little directly to do with religion, and yes there’s absolutely some justification, that dynamic of increasing interconnectedness and increasing closeness is also probably significant, here. The world is changing quickly because of it, and those extremists and those religions are fumbling around, trying to work out how to survive and how to work within it. They see opportunities, but the reality is: they also have much to fear: the old formula of hushing entirely dissent and driving it out by the force of social sanction and the plain old iron fist is now greatly complicated by the many additional avenues through which people can see around the monoculture of ideas they try to create, and into a larger world. That, too, is part of what’s happening here.
So they’re off balance, and real human freedom from their previously extremely effective techniques of trapping their flock within a bubble of unquestioned dogma is opening up as a real possibility. Letting the clerics dictate the terms, doing their work for them, joining in hushing the mockery and trying to cooperate and close up the space in which it can be made just because they manage to get a tiny percentage of their population (and yes: these protests are tiny, from my understanding, against, say, the scale of the Arab Spring, and the violent elements tinier still) angry enough about is just incredibly counterproductive, utterly against the interest of anyone who wants genuine freedom of conscience to prevail, and a huge step backwards.
So if they incite by screaming ‘thou shalt not mock’, focus your criticism on them. And, conversely, if the Copts want to make fun of the Muslims, or the Muslims want to make fun of the Copts, I say: shrug and say: that’s your right. Because it is. And it should be. And it’s in everyone’s interest that it should be.
Now: I am absolutely grateful to those trying to tamp down the discord, here get some calm restored, stop people getting hurt. I am beyond grateful to those who step up and say any statement is racist when it clearly is…
But as that former thing, I don’t think we need to compromise the longer view in doing so, at all, anyway. Remember: the protests are relatively small. The Salafists are making a power play, here, and it’s probably winning them a few more loyalists, but it’s costing them, elsewhere, too. There are a lot of people in the countries
effected affected who are pissed off those who talked this stuff up, and just want things to calm down.
So it’s back as always to diplomacy and discussion. Calm. Keeping your sense of proportion. Keeping in mind the long view. You probably can’t often say ‘Great video, that’ (and as widely noted, it’s not, particularly, anyway), but you can absolutely say ‘Look, these are our laws, and that is anyone’s right under them’, and people will accept it. There are those of them who don’t see anything wrong with the larger direction I’m seeking here, anyway, others who may not much like it, but probably do realize and/or fear: that’s probably where the wind is going eventually anyway.
So summing up: fine, call out racism, where you really see it. But do not forget this larger direction, in doing so. And do not assist anyone trying deliberately to close in the boundaries of discussion around their sacred cows, whatever you do.