Lines get drawn in many ways. Some are pen strokes sketched by artists; others are concrete forms laid out by architects. Many are abstract - dearly held values and unwritten social norms sketched indelibly in our minds, not with our hands. These days, cartoon drawings are crossing a lot of lines and pointing to divisions between worldviews in conflict.
A recent case of this in the U.S. involved actor and Scientology spokesman Tom Cruise who reportedly threw his star power around to persuade Viacom/Comedy Central to suspend rerunning an episode of the animated South Park satire that skewered the beliefs of Scientology. Fellow Scientologist Isaac Hayes left his voice-over role on the show in protest, as well. The event entertained many Americans, enraged loyal South Park fans, and got lots of attention for both the Scientologists and the show. The affair discredited Cruise in the eyes of some fans who see the church based on sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics as a self-important mega-cult, while fellow Scientologists viewed his stand as a heroic defense of their religion. This fusion of animated characters with matters of faith made perfectly good sense on Hollywood terms.
In contrast, many people scratched their heads in utter confusion and dismay when the publication of a set of pen-and-ink newspaper cartoons in Denmark caused outrage because quite a few Muslims believed they had crossed the line. For many non-Muslim observers, the intensity of the reaction made no sense at all. Subsequent reproductions of these inflammatory drawings fanned anger since they were taken as extreme insults and deliberate, in-your-face defamation. Protests and riots ensued as Islamic true believers took to the streets in righteous anger to demand respect for their beliefs. They were countered by calls for freedom of expression and an equally self-righteous refusal to buckle under to threats and intimidation.
Now those Danish cartoons have been posted, reprinted, translated, forwarded, and discussed around the globe. With steadily escalating passion and fury, factions in the Islamic world rose violently against them, then subsided. Stoic defenders of the absolute right of free speech called for the cartoons to be published broadly everywhere, lines be damned. The memes are now filed in the great catalogue of grudges and slights, threats and promises. Why were these cartoons taken so seriously, and why the differences in response to perceived slights?
Mainstream western media framed the flap over the Danish caricatures of Mohammed as ‘modernity meets antiquity,’ or free speech and secularism clashing with fanatical religiosity. The Washington Post, Time Magazine’s February 20 issue, and February 19 edition of CBS’s 60 Minutes all ran analytical pieces trying to figure out what happened, including timelines of events. They described the impacts of a multitude of butterfly wings fluttering furiously over the lines that were crossed. Journalists, scholars, pundits, and comics had a field day with the emotions the Danish cartoon flap has drawn out and its escalation into a serious matter.
However, none of these goes quite deep enough. They report actions and events, not the dynamic that pulls the underlying motives together. In an age where the costs of colliding worldviews are high, we no longer have the luxury of ignoring differences at that level; deep currents shape things more than surface acts. Tools like Clare Graves’s ECLET model of human nature are becoming crucial for anticipating and explaining such conflicts involving visions of what life is all about.
The first section of this paper describes how some predictable “hot buttons” get pushed and trigger predictable kinds of reactions. Next is a discussion of the two specific Gravesian worldviews involved in the Mohammed cartoon conflict and how they impact the width and depth of lines drawn in the social, political, and religious sands. One common to both embodies the absolutistic thinking present in the West and the Middle East, including the pervasive theme of persecution in the face of enemies. The other embodies the multiplistic thinking that fosters individualism, secularism and often crosses lines just to tease the other side. Double standards and hypocrisy in both add elements that bend the lines and push the limits. Finally, free speech and multiplism, both dire threats to absolutism, grind away at it, threatening world peace at the points of greatest friction.
Absolutistic Thinking Produces Authoritarian Worldviews
There’s a growing belief in a sharp divide between East and West. In reality, they are closely connected by the same problem: both East and West are having difficulty with their absolutistic factions. One characteristic – obedience to rightful higher authority – is at the heart of the cartoon controversy. Concern with authority – its prescriptions and proscriptions - is symptomatic of absolutism and its reverence for hierarchy.
There are elements besides obedience to authority in an absolutistic perspective. The locus of control is external, meaning that one looks outside the self for directions as to how to think and behave, and for moral anchor points to draw lines between right and wrong. Structures built by higher authority and outlined in sacred texts derived from the Supreme Being – God, Allah, or the state - offer certainty, stability and order. The well-defined Way lays out how to live and what to believe.
When absolutism is high on both sides of a polarized conflict, when each side believes God or Allah is exclusively with them, when each runs into the other with an incompatible “truth,” and when conflict enters the picture, then, as psychologist Clare Graves found, “[Absolutist versus absolutist] ultimately became the most vicious of the conflicts.” Christians attack Muslims and Muslims attack Christians; Israelis attack Palestinians and Palestinians attack Israelis; in a never-ending, escalating cycle of violence “that lingered in spiteful and revengeful form far longer than in any other [worldview].” The most intractable battle lines form within populations that would appear to have a great deal in common but differ absolutely on specific issues. Thus, civil wars are often the most brutal and bloody because they focus on insults and injustice in a context that is familiar and known.
When the absolutistic, true believer psychology dominates, look for Freudian ‘projection’ and ‘repression’ to play a major role. In projection, internal perceptions are distorted, then attributed to Other. One’s worst fears, compulsive thoughts, wayward intentions, and repressed desires are externalized and claimed as motives driving the Other to behave poorly. It is as if the Other is simply a mirror of the dark side of self without impulses or drives of their own.
In repression, undesirable urges and impulses are ignored or denied and forced out of conscious awareness. When they are projected onto Other, they look all the worse. The more mysterious that Other, the stronger the feelings about the issue, the deeper the repression, the greater the polarity of thinking, then the more likely the Other will be viewed as “evil.” At the same time, one’s own side is seen as noble and virtuous in intent because the negatives have been displaced onto Other. Aspects of this are very well explained in Muzafer Sherif’s Social Judgment Theory. Drawing stark lines between views, concepts similar to one’s own are assimilated toward one’s own position and differences are contrasted and pushed further away. Battles with the Other are often battles with aspects of the self; in some respects, the cartoons acted as a mirror for uncomfortable aspects which remain repressed and rarely acknowledged.
Dichotomous thinking in the absolutistic worldview draws hard and fast lines in the sand which rise to become walls for keeping enemies at bay. The absolutist sorts ideas: evil, false, and wrong go to one side of the wall; true, right and good go to the other. Higher authority and/or (the One True) God directs true believers to avoid or fight evil if neccessary. As absolutists seek to obey these instructions, they project their motives, concepts, and desires upon their ultimate authority, be it God, Allah or the state.
When the world is sorted into clear-cut camps, when real or imagined enemies are at the gates, and when great meaning is attributed to symbols such as cartoons, then seemingly small acts, words, or images can cross absolute lines. In so doing, they can become triggers for violence. To the absolutist, failures to respond to transgressions are weakness or proof of heresy. Living is a series of tests imposed by God for proof of worthiness against adversaries. Externalized forces of evil must be rooted out and destroyed for Divine purpose.
Threat, insult, or injury to one’s people, beliefs, God or way of life leaves a festering sore in a long memory. This provides fertile ground for ‘hot buttons’ to form and for over-zealous guarding to develop. Absolutists applaud self-sacrifice in the name of the greater good, while they reject selfish expression and lusty desire. They repress, reject, project, and punish impulsivity and undesirable urges, particularly sexual obsessions. These relate to misogyny, control (self and other), disgust with emotions and carnal desires, and treatment of women. Aggression erupts from fear-driven desire to protect and preserve, to eliminate ‘evil’ lest it overwhelm, and to defend the beliefs one is sworn to uphold. The minds of believers hold sharp lines passionately; ignorance of them is no excuse for trespass.
Punishing wrongs to shape respectful and good behavior is a common theme in the absolutistic world. While punishment and fear of punishment are major buttons, there is an inherent problem as one group seeks to punish the other group for its misdeeds and, in the process, to correct them. In this worldview, punishment only works when it comes from the right kind of higher authority: authority within one’s belief system. Otherwise, the recipient sees the act as an aggressive affirmation of intention to harm or destroy, and retaliates accordingly if possible, or stores up hatred until it is. Christians think they can punish Muslims; they’re wrong. Muslims think they can punish Christians; they’re wrong, too. Only the right kind of Christian higher authority can punish Christians. Only the right kind of Muslim higher authority can punish Muslims. Only the right kind of Jewish higher authority can punish Jews, or Palestinian punish Palestinians. Danish cartoonists will not teach Muslims a lesson in free speech.
Punishment from the wrong source is seen as unjust and triggers a backlash rather than compliance. Recipients retaliate with counter punishment. The cycle continues tit for tat because neither group can accept the other’s action as punishment; rather, they become evidence of a war declared by evil, itself. So on it goes, gaining strength. Thus, the mirroring of thoughts, motives, punishment and attacks back and forth causes violence to escalate, fueling some of the most vicious, intractable and long lasting conflicts on the planet. Once started, the cycle is nearly impossible to break and has potentially devastating consequences in a thermonuclear age.
Crossing Lines and Punching Buttons
People cross lines when they punch “hot buttons” and egos become involved. Push one and you’re likely to trigger an abreaction, a ‘whoa, Nelly’, indicating you’ve gone too far in someone’s opinion. The following hot buttons are extracted from our Gravesian studies into the absolutistic (fourth) level of existence. This list contains some of the factors fueling outrage and virtually compelling the riotous backlash over the Danish cartoons. For those who have studied Gravesian theory and Spiral Dynamics® with us, this sampling should come as no surprise.
- … attack country, religion or authority figures.
- … desecrate symbols, images, or their Holy Book.
- … put down or make fun of religious beliefs or customs.
- … disregard rules or directives of their authorities.
- … use ‘bad’ language or employ signs of disrespect.
…unless you want a backlash and are prepared to deal with its consequences.
Imagine if a similar list had been posted on editor Flemming Rose’s office wall at Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper which commissioned and first published the now infamous cartoons.
Reportedly, Mr. Rose felt strongly that local media were self-censoring too much. Would having such a list, and understanding the absolutistic worldview have changed his approach? Would he have recognized that such cartoons could be seen as a direct attack on a religion, a people, and their authority figures? Would he have put out the call for caricatures of Mohammed in the first place, knowing images of holy figures are out of bounds for Muslims? Knowing that crossing these lines might well be taken as ridicule of others’ deeply valued beliefs, would he have wanted to push back against religious strictures and try to teach his lesson about the Danish tradition of satire by drawing lines of his own? Would recognition of these triggers be precisely why he would want to do it? If the cartoonists had possessed such a list, would they have produced different designs?
And what of Denmark’s conservative Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen? With such a list in hand, would he have met with the eleven Muslim ambassadors who sought an audience to discuss the issue early on instead of snubbing these esteemed authorities while they were still willing to discuss their concerns? Or would he have seen it as a political pressure tactic to which he could not respond without validating things he disagreed with? Where lies the lash and where the backlash?
We believe things might have turned out differently had the hot buttons been handled otherwise. Here’s why. The imams, furious and feeling their religion, customs, and authority figures under attack and Mr. Rasmussen’s insult adding to injury, called upon a frustrated, true-believer-oriented segment of Muslims to protest. Although it took some persuasion and propaganda, a mass already convinced of their own persecuted status rose to the call to defend the faith. It was both political showmanship and religious fervor.
Some commentators have argued that the clerics were acting for political gain as much as religious principle. Since the social, legal and political are deeply intertwined in Islam, it is far more than a compartment for religion; Islam is a complete way of life for the committed believer. To many Muslims, law, religion, custom, and politics are necessarily inseparable. It’s a level of integration many devout Christians and Jews would enthusiastically welcome; substitute the divine word of God for the corruptible secular and society will function smoothly. Efforts in this direction are not new. Theocracy and quasi-theocracy are exerting renewed influence all over the world – West and East, North and South. While some true believers dream of undoing separation of church and state fusing them with a higher authority from above, others believe in undoing church influence and replacing it with nationalism.
In many cases, this form of living means that when you challenge or demean “rightful” higher authority – or even representations thereof – there will and must be consequences. Failure to act is to extend the blasphemy. Yet the issue embodied in the cartoon controversies isn’t so much about the specifics – God or Allah; the strictures of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism; or even religion and governance. It’s an example of how the underlying thinking, drives, and perceptual filters shape discourse, actions and reactions common to the absolutist worldview. Themes of persecution, from both the Islamic and Judeo Christian perspectives, result from this pattern.
The Persecution Theme
Persecution by a powerful Other ‘known’ to be evil is perceived as real, whether or not it is an accurate representation. When the absolutistic worldview is dominant, themes of victimization and persecution play a large role. It is similar in extremist and fundamentalist perspectives, whether Islamic or Judeo-Christian.
"Politically speaking, tribal nationalism [patriotism] always insists that its own people are surrounded by 'a world of enemies' - 'one against all' - and that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man." -Hannah Arendt (1951). The Origins Of Totalitarianism. p.227
Eric Hoffer describes this phenomenon in The True Believer. These themes are repeated until they become the very fabric of a group or culture. Politicians with the absolutistic worldview see, create and seek to overcome fear. Repressive policies are touted as antidotes. Thus, absolutistic Christians and Muslims alike can draw upon a wealth of examples to illustrate persecution by a powerful evil that must be conquered. Justifications for both their views are represented here:
… in Christianity:
A recent NBC poll reports as many as 58% of Americans believe there are “more violent extremists within Islam than within other religions”. With the growth of the Muslim faith, many in the Judeo-Christian world feel besieged; conservative Christians fear the rise of Islam as a threat to their own religion. A huge number of Americans and Europeans live under a veil of religious fear and suspicion. Many of the following points confirm for them that an enemy is nearing. From the absolutists’ perspective:
- 9-11 is a vivid living memory.
- Suicide terrorists striking in Israel, London, Madrid, Bali, Iraq on a daily basis, and elsewhere prove the enemy is among us. (The very concept of suicide bombing is foreign to western consciousness. It causes heads to shake with incomprehension: “Muslims must all be crazy. No sane person would blow himself up!”)
- The brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, on an Amsterdam street in broad daylight by a Muslim fanatic for his critical portrayal of Muslim women demonstrates the present danger.
- Images of captives beheaded on television in Iraq, bodies dragged through streets, and potential victims pleading for their lives while mysterious figures move ominously in the background, faces covered, illustrate evil doers at work.
- Saudi schoolgirls locked in a burning building, and women punished for failing to cover their faces and heads by Afghan, Saudi, and Iranian religious police are models of oppression.
- Stonings and honor killings are symbolic of backward and repressive societies.
- The absence of popular democracies and the plethora of monarchies and even ruling tyrants like Saddam who tortured his own people and gassed the Kurds prove Muslim lands are Medieval.
- Rioting Muslims in Paris suburbs bring fear of chaos and social upheaval as they demonstrate rejection of the Western way of life and values. (“With lives better than their counterparts could ever have back home, why are they not grateful to be living in the West?”)
- Embassy attacks and flag-burning protests throughout the Muslim world over something as trivial as newspaper cartoons prove that “they” are impulsive, dangerous, uncontrollable fanatics who can’t take a joke.
With such assumptions in play, an ideological and cultural war rolls out for absolutists in the Judeo-Christian world. They absolutely believe in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, and that Christendom is again at a turning point. They are convinced that “the west is facing a concerted effort by Islamic Jihadists … to destroy the west and bring it forcibly into the Islamic world.” They believe that “fundamentalist Islam is on the march everywhere,” and “Muslims are streaming into the US in record numbers.” They believe they have evidence that the Christian way of life is both hated and seriously threatened with destruction.
Fear of Other, persecution and danger, all lead directly to a call for powerful leaders willing to protect “our way of life” against the “evil intruder”. These absolutists want to do everything necessary to protect their way of life as they know it given there are enemies at the gates threatening western civilization, both militarily and ideologically. This translates into a desire for a strong foreign policy and military for protection. Insisting on curtailing immigration, they fear terrorists are sneaking into the US through Mexico and Canada. Quick. Protect the borders!
There is a fear that surging Islam will eventually take over the planet. Should this happen, then Muslims might again seek to enslave Christians and force conversion. Every Christian captured, killed, beheaded, or imprisoned is further evidence of a war on Christians. There is a belief in, and fear of, victimization by evildoers. They also feel persecution from within US borders as is evidenced in a study that claims a majority of Christians feel their religion is under attack, with 90% of Evangelicals agreeing. For example, many feel a “War on Christmas” is underway led by forces of secularism. Thus, they feel under threat from the external Islamic world, from within by the secular Western world, and by evil itself.
A Google search for The Life and Religion of Mohammed by Robert Spence unveils the tip of an ideological iceberg. The Council on American-Islamic Relations describes his book as “anti-Muslim hate”, while right wing groups describe CAIR, itself, as a “hate group” backed by Hamas with “extremist terrorists” as members. Spence’s book they take to heart. Jewish World Review recommends distance from CAIR which they characterize as apologists for Islamic extremism. Spence states that it is important to “discredit Mohammed and Islam to win the war on terror.” Advertised in the National Review, a staunch right wing magazine, promotion for the book drew heated letters of protest from Muslims until the magazine pulled the ads.
The handling of this incident parallels the story of the cartoons. That the Muslim protest to National Review succeeded was extremely threatening to many on the right. For some, this symbolized the weighty power of Islam over a vulnerable America under siege; National Review’s action validated fears and feelings of persecution and willingness to surrender to intimidation. (See: www.militantislammonitor.org, http://www.frontpagemag.org and www.jihadwatch.org).
To these people on the absolutist Christian right, America is under attack and their way of life is seriously threatened. To them, the reluctance of American media to republish the Danish cartoons (with only a couple of exceptions) is further evidence of weakness and appeasement. These same people call out for free speech, and their outrage is meant to reassert values Americans hold dear – freedoms of the press and of expression. For some, widespread publication of the cartoons would have proven that Islam has not yet beaten the West. For others, publication would be a symbolic reassertion of the values of liberty, democracy, and the strength and willingness to protect home and country – defending a line by crossing another.
When the world is haunted by danger and aggressive threats, then a powerful state or individual ruler, rooted in a solid foundation of tradition and strength, is needed to meet the challenge to restore order and safety. Hobbs’s Leviathan (or Orwell’s Big Brother) comes to the rescue of a frightened people. They see this ruler, and the safety provided, as well worth the sacrifice of a few liberties. All that is good resides in rightful, higher authority - to be obeyed without doubt or question. This view is not exclusive to a small minority in the West; it’s a worldview common to many around the world.
… in Islam
Many Muslims also feel besieged. For those operating from the absolutistic perspective in the world of Islam, the following fuel the perception of a Christian versus Muslim religious war and validate the theme of persecution and anti-Islamic sentiments. By reinforcing the perception of aggression and hatred for Islam, they justify retribution and self-protection. These hot buttons include:
- Reports of the US military flushing the Holy Koran down a toilet, symbolic of Western disrespect for Islam and crossing the line.
- The American military’s holding and reportedly torturing hundreds of Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere by using violation of religious prohibitions as a weapon, reinforcing the notion of a war against religion in the name of terrorism.
- Collaboration by multiple Western nations in “extraordinary rendition” communicates the message that the Judeo-Christian world is in cahoots against Islam.
- Administrative approval of torture and tolerance for abuse from the very top of the American chain of command.
- Western boots trampling holy mosques; soldiers and those acting on behalf of the West destroying sacred sites; non-Muslim troops camped upon or near holy places; intrusion into Muslim homes without regard for custom, honor, or culture; and the killing of civilians.
- The brutal use of white phosphorous, depleted uranium, cluster bombs, and urban destruction against civilian populations in Iraqi cities.
- The citizens of Fallujah returned to a flattened city and were forced to submit to retina scans, finger printing, and bar coding permanently placing every returning man, woman and child on a terrorist watch list.
- Continued massive U.S. funding of Israel, resulting in ongoing attacks on Palestinians and failure of peace initiatives since the “western” giveaway of Palestinian lands has long been an open, festering sore.
- In addition to their invasion of Iraq and aid for Israel, U.S. military bases throughout the Islamic world provide sufficient evidence of western imperialist intentions.
- Muslim communities in Europe experience higher unemployment than their European counterparts, and the popularity of anti-immigration, right-wing politicians like Holland’s Pym Fortuyn, prove that “They don’t like us. They want us to go away.”
- The banning of headscarves in French schools was an affront to Islamic tradition – disrespectful egalitarianism imposed by law, from above, by authority which is not seen as rightful authority in many Muslim eyes.
These dynamics helped the newspaper cartoons turn into an animated issue. They have come to symbolize a litany of disrespect, abuse, violence, hypocrisy, humiliation, and disregard of Muslim beliefs and values on all fronts. They are a double whammy. For absolutists in Islam, the depiction of Mohammed (or any of the prophets) is a violation of basic rules and an insult to faith which cannot be tolerated. They take the cartoons literally as an attack on the prophet and a generalization equating a whole people with terrorists, insulting their beliefs and their way of life. It is yet another slap in the ongoing war against Islam.
The very creation of such images is blasphemy, one of the points of separation between Islam and many Christian sects where representations of Jesus and Mary are commonplace. Thus, the cartoons disregard rules, tradition and custom; they insult authority, a way of life, and religion and they invite backlash from those with a strong foundation in the absolutistic worldview. Therefore, absolutistic Muslims take them as further evidence of a global war against Islam.
Certain imams have seen these problems as an opportunity to shore up power and support, to reinforce their legitimacy, and to manipulate anxious populations through fear. Samuel Huntington’s myth of The Clash of Civilizations becomes useful when people are looking for predrawn lines. Leaders on both sides reinforce notions of division and difference rather than tolerance and acceptance.
Bipolar thinking narrows categories to stereotypes and emphasizes a world full of evil because this worldview frames human nature as fundamentally bad and in need of controls. At its fundamentalist extreme, fanatical absolutism insists on punishing transgressors and infidels. That is their duty. So, rather than a clash of civilizations, this is better described with Tariq Ali’s phrase, a Clash of Fundamentalisms. Two of these, Occidentalism and Orientalism, play key roles in the cartoon conflict.
Windows on the World Tinted by Absolutism: Occidentalism and Orientalism
Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit write of “the dehumanizing picture of the West painted by its enemies” and call it Occidentalism. They compare it to Orientalism, a biased view applied by Western thinkers to the Islamic world. In Orientalism, the entire Western world is painted with the same broad brush. Occidentalists do a similar thing in reverse since they both fear and are angered by the West. Viewed as subhuman, selfish, materialistic, and both mentally and spiritually deficient, there is a mix of paternalistic patience, outrage, and fear directed toward Americans and the West in general by the Occidentalists. They cite the magnificence of the Islamic world of a thousand years ago when literature, science, architecture and the arts were the world’s pinnacle. Today’s purists condemn the West and America, in particular, for worship of the material, of freedom without obligations, of democracy, of individualism, and the reverence for reason through secularism. In this view, all Westerners become soulless and Godless barbarians because they worship false idols and ideas.
Occidentalists are convinced that a dark, Western, Satanic force is challenging their faith, their way of life, and everything they hold dear. As evidence, they cite occupation of territories in the Middle East by Europeans from the beginning of the 20th century, US shelling of Beirut in 1983 and 1984, Western support of the Shah in Iran, support for and arming of Israel, support for the Philippine government against minority Muslims, and the backing of the House of Saud, not to mention the continued bombing and sanctions imposed on the Iraqi people from 1991 through to the present day occupation.
The cartoons are an example of Orientalism, a monolithic view of residents of the mid-East described by Edward Said in his book of the same name. He sees it as both a historical body of work studying the complex interaction between West and East by Westerners, and a European colonialist attitude still used by the West in regards to the Middle East; thus, the Orientalist stereotyping of the East as dark, fanatical, violent Muslims rioting at the smallest provocation. The message it communicates is that Islamic people, jealous of the Western way of life and seeking to destroy it by murdering innocents via suicide bombers, are driven by Mohammed’s violent teachings to impose Islamic will. Since the Prophet Mohammed is framed as a breeder of terrorism, all Muslims are, by extension, terrorists. The September 11 attacks and other violent incidents have seared this one-sided imagery into the public imagination as de facto truth. Continued suicide bombings in Iraq and Israel stoke the flames of generalization.
Imagination reinforced by the recent cartoon protests and by cherry-picked facts to support preconceived notions, fuel deep resentment of the mysterious violent “other.” The cartoons and stereotyping are both built on the presupposition that all Muslims are cut from exactly the same cloth and share a single mind. Said believes Orientalism reflects the Western belief in its own superiority and in Oriental inferiority, thereby promoting dichotomous differences between the familiar superior “us” and the mysterious inferior “them.” It is the reverse of Occidentalism. Both fit the absolutistic worldview.
Like Occidentalism, the Orientalist perspective is both paternalistic and fearful. Paternalism requires decisions to be made for the “unsophisticated” and to be done for their own good from a position of superiority. This Orientalist view frames Islam, on the whole, as a backward tribal people who are stuck in the 14th century and desperately in need of Jesus and/or an Enlightenment. The fearful view requires that threats, i.e. terrorists, be captured and their savagery contained and eliminated. Some Americans, when referring to the Islamic world, generalize all of them into potential terrorists and enemies. Stereotyping of this kind comes from a conceptualization of the world that polarizes people into two categories: good (usually ‘like us’) and evil (usually ‘like them’). This view, by default, links fundamentalism (other than own kind), terrorism and Islam into a single evil category. Collapsing these three ideas into one narrows perception to a pin hole. That further narrows thinking about alternatives and possible behavioral options.
Orientalists demonstrate little ability to differentiate between groups of individuals who think in a variety of ways, or to recognize the many members of the Muslim faith who do not support violent extremism any more than many Christians or Jews do. Neither group of absolutists - Orientalist or Occidentalist - does very well at recognizing those who live by humanistic traditions of tolerance, inquiry and questioning without religion as a base at all.
We experienced an example of this with the Dutch translation of the book, Spiral Dynamics. Released just two weeks after the murder of Theo van Gogh, the filmmaker assassinated by a fanatic for his harsh criticism of how Muslim women were treated, one passage struck a particularly sensitive chord in back-translation: it read “a fundamentalism of some kind” in English but had been translated into “a Muslim fundamentalism” in Dutch. It was as if fundamentalism were the exclusive domain of Islam, and that other kinds of fundamentalisms didn’t exist – an Orientalist interpretation. A Dutch Muslim friend pointed this out after a number of reviewers had completely missed it. We remain troubled by the message it conveys, and the implications suggested. But these are the blinders that Orientalism and Occidentalism impose.
Such stereotyping becomes dangerous, particularly when continual repetition installs an unconscious, generalized attitude through a population. The memes grab hold and become common knowledge, even when they’re aberrations. They reinforce the idea of a separate ‘we’ and ‘they’ rather than an interconnected and interdependent ‘us’ sharing a planet. On terms of ‘our kind’ and ‘Other,’ common ground is nearly impossible to find. Such thinking is not localized to any nationality, ethnic or religious group: fundamentalism is a part of absolutistic thinking, behaving, and motivation, whether Occidentalist, Orientalist, or something else. It comes from an inability to differentiate multiple views beyond good and evil, us and them. It results from lines drawn hard and fast in the absolutistic worldview.
In this absolutistic brew of Orientalism and Occidentalism, a clash of fundamentalisms threatens to boil over into the prophesied Western and Muslim Armageddon, an end-times nuclear fantasy dreaded by secularists and welcomed by some believers who see their afterlives rocking in the cradle of civilization. The in-your-face handling of the cartoons briefly amplified the intensity of conflict.
More important, it is symptomatic of the underlying worldviews which could erupt in a much larger conflagration. With Islamists active, terrorists scheming, and the U.S. on the move occupying Muslim and Arab lands with the support of Denmark and other western states, the fuse is just waiting for a match which some are just itching to light. With these dynamics in play, the cartoon issue became yet another symptom of a dangerous flame looking for a fuse in Orientalists and Occidentalists, alike. This is a long way from the popular framing of the issue which has been one of free speech. But is it?
Is it a Matter of Free Speech?
There are several views of free speech when it comes to the cartoon issue. While acknowledging the right to free expression, some people take a moderate position believing in limits and good taste – all speech need not be spoken. Those with greater empathy and willingness to temper a little free expression to convey respect are expounding a more nuanced view. They believe there’s no reason to hurt people unnecessarily, so a little self-censorship is not a bad thing.
Then there are those who cannot understand what could be so offensive about “a bunch of cartoons” anyway. They see the empathetic souls as weak, soft-headed, and cowardly for giving in to Muslim pressure, as in the case of the ad pulled from National Review. For them, ‘tell it like it is’ is the honorable course. For many in Europe and the US, “It’s time to live by the rules of your new country, not your old religion. If you don’t like it here, then leave,” they claim. “Your standards don’t belong in our world.” Freedom of speech means not complaining when others exercise their rights to do it.
This need to express rights and exert freedoms came through loud and clear in European media. Taking the attacks upon Danes in Muslim protests as a rallying call, many strove to protect Western values by resisting what they perceived as pressure tactics. Outraged at a combination of threats and feelings of self-censorship, and to express solidarity while asserting rights to speak and publish freely, media outlets across the European Union insisted upon publishing the cartoons depicting Mohammed while American media held back.
There are a variety of reasons for this. One reason is that individualistic, expressive, multiplistic worldviews demand freedom. The locus of control is internal, which means dismissing and rejecting external controls; imposition of norms, boundaries and taboos invite mockery and present an inviting target rather than a forbidding line.
Newspapers with this view exercise their right to satirical criticism with deliberate efforts to generate controversy. Conflict sells papers. A question throughout has been Should U.S. Media Reprint the Cartoons? Should European, or for that matter, should Middle-Eastern outlets reprint the caricatures? Some absolutists and multiplists say “yes” and others say “no” for differing reasons, but absolutely.
Those who say “yes” advocate free speech and denounce censorship. Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose felt he was resisting self-censorship when he called for the cartoons. Indeed, sometimes ridicule and trenchant wit exposing folly can force change or self-examination; but this wasn’t the case with Rose’s publication, since ridicule of others’ religion is a cultural taboo in the Muslim world. While defending his right to publish the satirical representations of Muslims, a couple of years earlier Rose had refused to publish a mockery of Jesus, not wanting to offend Christian readers. Some consider his strategic approach a double standard - self-censor to avoid insulting a majority; free speech rules when a 2% minority might take offense.
Another form of censorship - corporate/employer censorship - is looming larger than self-censorship. France Soir’s editor was fired for deciding to reprint the cartoons. Ramy Lakah, the Egyptian owner of the financially ailing paper, cited “respect” as the critical factor in dismissing his editor. Evidently, he crossed the line. Battling with collective obligations, self-expression, the business of selling newspapers, and tending to public and social needs is an exercise in media contortionism when it comes to free speech and press freedoms. This issue tests the extent to which freedom of expression exists and under what conditions.
One Russian newspaper was closed for its publication of the cartoons. Officials cited fears of a Chechen backlash. In the Middle East, editors have been arrested for daring to publish the images. They simply wanted readers to see for themselves what people were getting so angry about. Yet the majority of US media outlets refused to carry the cartons. Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Harper’s Magazine, criticizes mainstream media for taking its “cues from government.” The April edition carried a piece entitled “Mute Button”. He writes, “Here was a coordinated attack on the freedoms of thought and expression fundamental to the existence of a liberal society and the workings of democratic government, and where were the public voices willing to say so? On sabbatical or leave of absence, mumbling apologies.”
Lapham points to a problem more troubling than either self-censorship or corporate-censorship - government censorship. The fact that the insidious, cozy, well-embedded relationship between US government and corporate-owned media isn’t as overt or heavy-handed as some governments’ manipulation of media doesn’t exclude it from the censorship scale. When governments draw lines, individuals, companies, or smaller nations crossing them must be wary.
For example, US president George Bush made comments about bombing Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar to silence their speech, which was getting in the way of his war. When this memo was leaked in the United Kingdom, the Attorney General cited the Official Secrets Act and intimidated media outlets from publishing relevant lines from the leaked document. Also in Britain, Milan Rai is being prosecuted under the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act for reading out the names of dead Iraqis and soldiers opposite Downing Street. His two-person protest was declared a threat to national security. Similarly, an increasing trend for protests in America against the Bush administration is the practice of designating “free speech zones” in fenced enclosures located far away from the events the demonstrations are meant to highlight. It seems far-fetched that government censorship in this day and age can trump free speech in two countries priding themselves on exemplifying freedom and liberty.
Reminding us about government censorship meeting the holocaust is the Academy Award nominated Sophie Scholl, a new film about a university student and her efforts to distribute anti-Hitler publications as a part of the White Rose resistance in Germany. She, among others, was executed by guillotine for her role in speaking out against that government. This low-key depiction of huge events reminds us how fragile and threatening the right of free expression can be when governments draw lines; there are no guarantees that rights will be preserved, much less expanded. Today, Germany and Austria forbid denial of the Holocaust and minimization of its consequences. On Monday, February 20, 2006 an Austrian court sentenced David Irving to 3 years in prison for his 1989 writing that denied the Holocaust despite his claims to have recanted his earlier views.
While government censorship invites resistance and struggle, social censorship demands objectionable messages be silenced in the name of the people and good order. Approved messages which don’t make waves are fine. Social pressure can be a powerful form of censorship as Ibsenesque ‘enemies of the people’ are told to shut up. It can also support or topple governments. While Islamists, holding tightly to faith with moral certitude, are burning flags and embassies and rioting in the streets over the cartoons, social frustrations with current problems and regimes can be safely vented and deflected in the pressure release of anti-Western sentiment. But social pressure in the form of anti-Western riots doesn’t exist solely in the Muslim world. Anti-Muslim riots led by Christians validate beliefs in separatist myths like Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.” For example, in Nigeria, Christian mobs on the rampage killed Muslims who had been protesting cartoons in the streets. This comes back full circle to the clash of fundamentalisms.
Multiplism: a Dire Threat to Absolutists Everywhere
Multiplists know the rules of the multiplistic game. Absolutists know the rules of absolutistic game. When the field opens to both and the rules are in direct conflict, each seeks to prevail using the rules they understand. Whereas collective submission to authority is a dominant theme in absolutistic thinking, the dominant theme behind freedom of expression means individuals have the right to criticize, inquire, and challenge established truths free from limits and restrictions. This pluralistic approach is often referred to by Clare Graves as multiplistic thinking. There are many alternatives between black and white and one can choose. This freedom-of-speech-loving individualist believes that one is free to say or do whatever they want. Authority, rules, norms, and taboos are meant to be tested, challenged, criticized, and resisted if need bee. All this to maintain autonomy, rationality, and independence.
When absolutists decide to enforce submission upon individualists, then a backlash arises – inter- and intra-culturally - because hot buttons were pushed; sometimes lines were crossed intentionally. This is the challenge which absolutists fear greatly – disobedience and the possibility of disorder. The multiplistic psychology enjoys stirring things up and challenging absolutists.
For absolutists, the theme is “I believe, therefore we are right.” For the multiplist, the theme is “I think, therefore I am right.” Because rationality trumps religiosity, believers often bear the brunt of the skeptic’s sword. When the challenge is extended to revered authority or religious dogma, it cuts important lines. Tables turn and the skeptic is at the mercy of the believer’s wrath. Conflict between those advocating submission and those criticizing cherished ways is inevitable.
For absolutists, free speech means behaving appropriately within the constraints, but not violating the taboos, criticizing authority or other revered figures. Free speech directed at authority threatens authority’s dictates if there is disagreement. Therefore, the rationale goes, it must be suppressed for the sake of the collective and for the sake of unity, to keep the religion or country or people together. Western absolutists value free speech when it is used to attack Islamist absolutists - the clash of fundamentalisms. And absolutists like the current Iranian president value free speech when it comes to pointing out Western hypocrisies, weaknesses, or excesses of individualism and selfishness.
While religious absolutists engage in a preoccupation with apocalyptic visions, the dark nature of humanness, obedience to authority, and the end times, skeptical multiplists paint over those dark images with colorful visions of bounty, the rational nature of humanness, and an optimistic future. The interplay between absolutism and the growing multiplism symbolizes the dawn of enlightenment – testing and questioning authority, becoming the authority and thinking for oneself rather than submitting; optimism and fresh starts; conquering a dark, stagnant status quo; and relishing punching every absolutistic hot button and crossing every rigid line possible.
So autonomous, free-thinking individualism goes to war with rules, restriction and collective submission. Western collective absolutism resists Western individual multiplism, particularly when freedom of criticism is directed towards idealized authority figures, nationalism, a cherished way of life or particular beliefs and values. Similarly, collective Islamist absolutism rejects Muslim multiplism, particularly since questioning and criticism from within leads to increased feelings of betrayal by brothers. The issue is not West versus East; rather, it is collectivism versus individualism, submission to authority versus challenges to authority, and absolutism versus multiplism in both East and West.
Multiplism and the individual freedoms so cherished in the West have risen since the Enlightenment began. The break from absolutistic authoritarianism and rigid hierarchies in both church and state forced alternatives. It is often said that the mid-East needs an enlightenment of its own to enter modernity. Represented by inquiry, rational reasoning, questioning norms, and freedom of independent thought, the birth of Western multiplism was the birth of its Enlightenment. However, the West is not alone in its tradition of inquiry and rationality. This tradition in Islam, called ijtihad, initially surged between 750 and 1250 A.D., a Moslem “enlightenment” (often called The Golden Era) which predated the European enlightenment by roughly 500 years. The works of Ibn Rushd, one of the many proponents of rationalist and independent thought in the Islamic world, were studied during the Renaissance and helped lay the groundwork for multiplism.
That these pressures surged in free-thinking Islam one thousand years ago is noteworthy. Muslim multiplism faded then rose again and has been in an absolutistic shadow over the last one hundred and fifty or so years. The tug of war between absolutism and multiplism surged for the West about five hundred years ago and continues playing out today.
While Western and Islamic absolutism eye one another warily, the battle between absolutism and multiplism continues in both East and West. Khaled Abou El Fadl, in The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, devotes his book to the strides Islamic absolutism has made toward overcoming Islamic multiplism and humanism, a backwards step led by ‘puritans’ against ‘moderates,’ to use his terminology. Kevin Philips makes a similar point in his book American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. Absolutistic evangelical Christianity is vying with multiplism for influence in America, just as the two worldviews were going head-to-head in the cartoon controversy. Islam’s experience suggests that anything can happen in the race between multiplism and absolutism. If history repeats itself, the winner might well be a resurgence of absolute authoritarianism conquering modern and postmodern secular multiplism. For some that will be cause for rejoicing; for others, it’s the beginning of problems which remain a long way from Graves’s idealized momentous leap in human nature.
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