Thursday, February 09, 2006


Being the local religious correspondent for the paper doesn't quite qualify for Tony Robinson's (Baldrick, Blackadder) 'Worst Jobs in History' but sometimes the subject matter does make me scratch my head...this offering will appear in Saturday's paper, thought I would let blogland see it too...

I remember a time when cartoons were a source of laughter and joy, a moment of escapism and innocence for child and adult alike. For some reason ‘Tom and Jerry’ spring immediately to mind from some safe place of childhood happiness. Not so this week. Sometimes I think we need to leave the people who we are and move into the people we will become, people who embody some kind of sense of beauty, compassion, respect and trust. At the moment much of the world has been thrown headlong into some of the deepest human questions, and you know what? All I can think is that as a race we are pretty hopeless.

It was Albert Einstein who suggested that, “only two things are infinite – the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.” And after reading the papers and watching the news these last few days I find myself warming to his observation.

Headlines on the BBC News 24 read:
• Four die in Afghan cartoon riot
• World figures deplore cartoon row
• Muhammad cartoons – ‘global crisis’
• Nigerian Mps burn Danish flag
• Boycotts sweep Mid-East
• Denmark-Iran tensions rise

Lets be clear on one thing. Muslims take blasphemy far more seriously than do Christians or Jews, and statements (or drawings) that denigrate Islam and its prophet elicit extreme visceral reactions among the majority of a billion-plus people of the world who identify themselves as Muslim.

One of the cartoons shows the Prophet wearing a headdress shaped like a bomb. In another he says paradise is running short of virgins for suicide bombers. Islamic tradition bans depictions of the Prophet or Allah. Religious affairs correspondent Karen Armstrong suggests that we are, ‘seeing a clash of two different notions of what is sacred’. I think she may be right.

Whether we like it or not this is what the secularised world invites. Even (especially) religion is satirised. Freedom of expression though shouldn’t be used as a tool to abuse and provoke hatred and division between communities. Freedom of expression isn’t a licence to attack a culture or religion. Again, Karen Armstrong prudently advocates that these cartoons ‘have been an absolute gift to extremists – it shows that the West is incurably Islamophobic’.

In truth I think it reveals something worse – that so many in today’s secularised world just plainly do not have an ounce of respect for any world view different to their own, showing we are clearly not a compassionate culture. Armstrong further suggests (and rightly so) that depicting Muhammad as a terrorist is utterly inaccurate and that this further feeds an Islamophobia, ‘that has been a noxious element in Western culture since the Crusades’. It only inflames matters at this very crucial juncture of our mutual history.

Yet Christians (though I use that term loosely as any Christian worth their salt would not behave in such a way – Christ’s teaching and Yahweh’s commandments leave no space for discussion on this one) and Muslims for the last thousand years have been comparatively harmonious. Mohammed himself never meant for Christians and Muslims to be at such odds with each other. Moreover he taught that all Muslims should protect the Christians who lived among them as 'people of the book’.

As I write I am reminded of the reconciliatory story of St. Francis and a Sultan. Late in the year1219 whilst travelling to Egypt Frances of Assisi’s avowed task was to communicate the love of Christ to the great Sultan Al Kamil. Both Arabic and English sources tell of how Francis won the Sultan’s respect and yet more than that, further still, his heart. Records suggest that the lives of both men were never the same again. Francis stayed for an extended time in the Muslim camp and Kamil gave permission for Francis to preach the gospel in Muslim lands. It is said that Kamil once acknowledged to Francis that, ‘if I ever meet another Christian like you, I will become a Christian’. Then again Francis did have the finest evangelistic methodology I know of – go therefore into all the world and preach the gospel: and if necessary, use words -something we Christians would do well to remember.

I close with some final thoughts from Ms Armstrong. She says that ‘Modernisation and secularisation has this bumpy ride…we are all living in this multicultural society cheek-by-jowel with one another, not even within a single country but we are linked to one another in our global village’. Surely’ she says, ‘we have to learn to live side by side better than this’.

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