Writing from London. I’ve been watching the ongoing controversy over the media framing of blasphemy and its reaction in the Middle East and in Europe.  In prior posts, I’ve suggested that what is needed is something we don’t have—a truly global discourse and context for that discourse in which the misunderstandings at the heart of this controversy might be aired.  It is a complex and layered problem.

Elite voices in the West, particularly in the media (and certainly here in the UK) have been a bit too quick to dismiss two of the layers as important. This not really about either “religion” or about “media” (the offensive video). It is about politics and history.  And that is true, but both media and religion play a role. This cannot be denied.

There have been good and helpful examples of the discourse I am calling for in these same media.  Work that moves to that larger level of understanding.  Here are examples from the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Independent.

But, the latest round—the recent cartoons in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, introduce a new factor.  Presenting as advocates of free speech, its editors—and their defenders—contend that somehow on some level, it is symbolically important to do this.

To me, it seems self-important, pompous, and gratuitous.  How many more times do we in the West need to satisfy ourselves that a direct and intentional offense directed at “their” prophet will result in this kind of reaction?  It’s a variation on Einstein’s definition of madness. Its doing the same thing again and again expecting the *same* result.  What more do we know each time?  Nothing.

It all seems pointless, and seems doubly gratuitous when we consider how carefully and intentionally offensive such efforts must be.  There are no globally-recognizable icons of Mohammed.  There is no equivalent of  the Christian “heads of Christ” that appear on everything from commercial products to black velvet.  No visual nomenclature of beard, flowing hair, pious, wooden expression.  In the case of Mohammed, one needs therefore to craft a stereotyped generic image of a medieval Arab man, and then say “…oh yes, I *intend* you to think that this is Mohammed….”  The self-consciousness of the intended offense is obvious and tendentious. And, unlike the countless artistic uses of Jesus or Buddha images, there is no articulation or parsimony in the representation. These are not—in my view—really art or expression, they are just fighting words.  So, what is the point?

The point may be some arch and sophomoric attempt to ritualize the Miltonian ideal of a free market of ideas and of expression.  It may be “flying the flag” for expression.  I can understand and of course support a rather absolutist view of the absolute value of expression.  But, what is the point here?  What is the new point that is made each time something like this—done in the West—is opportunistically used by forces in the Middle East to foment political protest against “the West?”  Unless the point is to actually start a—real or metaphoric—shootin’ war in the clash of civilizations.

tt seems irresponsible to me.  Unless it is—and this is probably the case—just about self-promotion?  And then, is the fallout, the damage, the deaths, the disruption “over there,” really worth it? I think it is time for us in the West to start doing the reasonable and mature thing here. Otherwise, our claim to hold the moral high ground in all of this is seriously eroded.