Cartoon analysis

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Richard Dawkins closes the second chapter, on pp.46-50, with a description and analysis of the Danish ‘Muhammad cartoons’ controversy. The primary point of his description is to supposed to be to ‘illuminate our society’s exaggerated respect for religion, over and above ordinary human respect’. The point, though, comes not in the description itself (though that serves Dawkins’ wider purposes in other ways), but in what he goes on to say.

He describes an interview between the journalist Andrew Mueller and Iqbal Sacranie. The latter described the importance that Muhammad has for Muslims. The former responded that Muslim’s respect for the Prophet cannot be imposed on other people: ‘nobody else is obliged to take it seriously’ (p.49). Dawkins notes that it is the threat of violence that forces people to show ‘respect’ – i.e., to keep quiet out of fear.

And the punchline comes when he turns back to ‘decent liberal newspapers’ and notes that whilst deploring the violence, they expressed ‘sympathy for the deep “offence” and “hurt” that Muslims had “suffered”.’ Dawkins thinks this is evidence of the bizarre extra respect for religion shown by our society – hence the point of telling the story at this point.

That’s a strange idea, though, isn’t it? ‘Ordinary human respect’ (to use Dawkins’ expression) presumably allows me to take into account the fact that people have beliefs and emotional attachments, and acknowledge that any offence or upset they feel at my words and actions will be relative to those beliefs and emotional attachments. And if their beliefs and attachments are such that they will experience as a personal attack those of my words an actions that criticise or ridicule something that they are deeply attached to – well, ordinary human respect suggests that I should take that into account. So, if I find that some of my Muslim friends, though abhorring the violent reaction of some other Muslims, nevertheless did find the cartoons upsetting, ordinary human respect suggests that I respond to them in a way which takes that into account. That does not mean that I share the beliefs and emotional attachments that underlie that upset; it doesn’t mean that they expect me to share them. But it does mean that, if we end up discussing the incident, and particularly if I find myself attacking some of the responses of some Muslims to this incident, and even more so if I want to argue for the right of people to indulge their free speech like this, ordinary human tact suggests that I should recognise and perhaps explicitly acknowledge their upset. That’s not about some special kind of respect for religion; it’s about treating my interlocutors as human.

As for the violence of the response – well, Dawkins doesn’t really offer an analysis. But he does insinuate one. His language creates the impression of a monolithic Islamic ‘world’, based in Islamic countries, but with outposts in the West. Indignation was nurtured ‘throughout the Islamic world’, ‘the whole Islamic world’; he quotes Germaine Greer to the effect that ‘what these people do best is pandemonium’. He quotes Richard Mueller referring to ‘any of you clowns’, presumably meaning Muslims, and arguing that, possibly, ‘Islam and the west are fundamentally irreconcilable’. And he finishes his initial description with the sarcastic comment, ‘Fortunately, our political leaders were on hand to remind us that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy.’ This is, for him, about Islam pure and simple. There is no historical or political contextualisation, no differentiation. There is no attempt to ask why some forms of Islam in some contexts are in such a state that this kind of response is all too depressingly predictable. There is no sense that there might be any kind of explanation to give, other than it is the fault of ‘Islam’ – as if this would have happened wherever and whenever the cartoons had been published.

As with so much of the rest of this chapter, I simply find that Dawkins’ analysis simply gets us nowhere. He doesn’t offer me concepts with which I can understand what is going on. And when he does offer concepts or distinctions (like the religious respect v. ordinary human respect distinction), I find that far from getting to the heart of the matter, they blunt themselves making superficial grooves on the skin of things. His is not an account that helps me think.

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