They don't get it (National Post, February 8, 2006)

The escalating furor over the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad has morphed from questions of free speech and cultural insensitivity into a clash of two civilizations, both of which honour the same patriarch, Abraham. As a further irony, both Hebraic and Islamic traditions proudly portray Abraham himself as the original religious iconoclast. To wit: the following legend, which appeared first in post-Biblical literature and later in the Koran.

Abraham's father, Terah, manufactured idols. One day he left Abraham in charge of his market stall. Abraham contemplated the absurdity of grown men bowing down to inanimate objects, and smashed all the idols except the biggest one, placing the cudgel in its hand. When his father returned and asked, "Who did this?" Abraham replied that the biggest idol had become angry with the others and broken them. "Are you mad?" cried his father. "They're made of clay. They don't have minds!" "Just so," said Abraham. "If they have no power, why do we worship them?"

Often represented as a cartoon panel strip for the edification of children, it's an amusing back-story to Abraham's discovery of monotheism, and the world's first recorded example of religious satire. (Luckily for Abraham, a disgruntled idol-worshipper didn't behead him on the spot, in which case history would have taken quite a different turn.)

Everyone seems to agree that when it comes to offending sensibilities, postmodern secular Europeans are from Jupiter, and the "Arab Street" is from Pluto, with no point of reference or compromise between them. One culture believes anarchic behaviour linked to any political or religious ideology whatsoever is fair game for ridicule; the other feels all political or religious systems except its own are fair game for disparagement and harassment.

Whether or not the Danish cartoonists crossed the line from mockery to malice, Westerners understand their motives. In the West, satire is a vehicle for social, moral and political correction. Exposing the gap between a person's or group's ideals and the reality of their aberrant behaviour, satire is routinely employed to prick ballooning egos or deride hypocrisy. The object is to remind the target of his deviance from communal behavioural norms -- our norms, that is -- and bring him to heel.

In the Danish case, the cartoons represent the common Western view of Islamist terror as a grave crime against humanity and an act of religious hypocrisy. Through public shaming, a respected mode of chastisement in the West, the cartoonists sought to "punish" the bad behaviour of Islamist terrorists with a view to rehabilitation.

Western religious and political public figures have developed a thick skin and a high tolerance for quite vicious caricatures. I remember feeling a grudging admiration for Louise Beaudoin, head of the "language police" in Quebec in the '90s, when she was portrayed in a famous Gazette cartoon as a leather-clad, whip-wielding Nazi dominatrix (I thought Aislin went too far) and to her credit took it in stride. The cartoon aroused fury in sovereigntist ranks, but served to modify Beaudoin's militant rhetoric and alert her to the counter-productive effects of her anglophobia. It was both savagely funny and corrective.

Public shaming, however, can't work on a target that doesn't "get" irony. Sometimes, we forget that irony is a peculiarly Western critical marinade, flourishing in societies that value the unfettered freedom of reason and the imagination. Irony is not understood by solipsists and is viewed as a subversive element by totalitarian regimes (which it is). Ironic humour goes underground as a cherished symbol of intellectual dissent among oppressed populations -- explaining for example the disproportionate number of Jews in comedy -- but withers among the literalist flock serving unitary ideologies like Communism or doctrinaire Islam.

Consequently, free-thinking Westerners see ironic humour in Muslims' rage over their religious ox being gored even as the goring of Christian and Jewish oxen is a routine feature of life in Islam-dominated societies; and for satirists, this is but one more reason to mock Islamists. Islamic societies, on the other hand, see only the public shaming component in irony-based criticism, taking it as a gratuitous act of humiliation; and for literalists, it is but one more reason to visit revenge on the West.

Satire is funniest and most effective when its target is capable of modifying the behaviour the ridicule throws into relief. Abraham's father "got" the irony of Abraham's satire, and modified his views. But where no correction is possible, there is no humour -- for a cartoonist, the most offensive crime of all.

© National Post 2006