Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Tariq Ramadan Speaks Out

In an opinion piece "Free speech and civic responsibility," adapted for the International Herald Tribune from an interview with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels, Tariq Ramadan (image to right from Islam Online [9/5/03]) states three main points "to bear in mind about the controversy over the cartoons published in the European media depicting the Prophet Muhammad":
First, it is against Islamic principles to represent in imagery not only Muhammad, but all the prophets of Islam. This is a clear prohibition.

Second, in the Muslim world, we are not used to laughing at religion, our own or anybody else's. This is far from our understanding. For that reason, these cartoons are seen, by average Muslims and not just radicals, as a transgression against something sacred, a provocation against Islam.

Third, Muslims must understand that laughing at religion is a part of the broader culture in which they live in Europe, going back to Voltaire. Cynicism, irony and indeed blasphemy are part of the culture.
I'm not sure what to think about Dr. Ramadan. He's the grandson of Hassan al Banna, an Islamist who founded the Muslim Brotherhood, which pushes for the Islamization of Egyptian society, thus making the Coptic Christians nervous.

Ramadan himself has been accused of secretly holding to Islamist views. Critics have noted that in a 2004 televised debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, French minister of internal affairs at the time, Ramadan declined to condemn Islam's hudud laws, which apply such harsh punishments as amputation for theft and the stoning of adulterers. Instead, he called only for a "moratorium."

The debates were in French, so I don't know if the word "moratorium" was used, but if it was, then Ramadan was suggesting merely a temporary suspension of such punishments as stoning. Now, to put a positive spin on this, perhaps he needed to keep his credibility with Islamists but in his heart of hearts opposes hudud laws. Perhaps, but how can we know?

So when Ramadan states that representing Muhammad in imagery is a clear prohibition according to Islamic principles, does this mean that in Islamic countries, he in principle supports decapitation for those who depict Muhammad but would call for a "moratorium"? Or that he fundamentally opposes decapitation? On this issue, his article remains silent.

Concerning the latter two points that Ramadan makes, I'll make just offer two brief observations. While he may be correct that in the Muslim world, there is not much laughter at other people's religions, there does seem to me to be a lot of ridicule of religions other than Islam. As for Ramadan's remark on European culture, he's right to note the status of irony. I think that the Islamic world could use some, too.


At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Voltaire is something of a latecomer. People who feel confident in their religion may find it easier to laugh about it.

C.S. Lewis noted the "the medieval taste for humorous blasphemy" ("Allegory of Love," page 20). I don't think I need to argue the point for him.

There is a minor Jewish genre of particularly elaborate "Purim jokes," in which Scripture, the Prayer Book, and Rabbinic texts are raided for familiar phrases to be strung together in absurd arguments and outrageous stories. They wouldn't be appreciated the rest of the year -- or at least not if read aloud in the synagogue. Some examples are pretty abstruse, and seem to have been written by scholars for an audience of other scholars. (Most of them fall rather flat in translation. The examples I know required extensive annotation. And, unfortunately, I'm not sure how old the genre is.)

Arabic literature includes examples of Koranic phrases cited in wildly inappropriate contexts, although I rather doubt that these survive modern censorship, if the works are printed at all. Burton's notes to "1001 Nights" are replete with examples, but I've seen them elsewhere, usually in somewhat more dignified settings.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, that last point is very interesting. Ramadan speaks as if the Islamic world were monolithic, but he's seemingly speaking of the reified Islamist ideal. The history of Islamic peoples would probably offer a great number of counter-examples to Ramadan's claim that the Muslim world cannot imagine jokes about Muhammad. We've already seen that Muslims have depicted the Prophet, so why assume that they haven't at times joked about him as well.

Jeffery Hodges

At 11:57 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

This all vaguely reminds me of "In the Name of the Rose" and the search for Aristotle's treatise on comedy. If only Jorge hadn't eaten the pages . . .

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessica, exactly right. Some Islamists even claim that laughter is forbidden because Muhammad is not known to have laughed.

I know for a fact, however, that some Muslims tell jokes about Muhammad. When I was living in Germany, I had a Kurdish friend who mentioned knowing several jokes about Muhammad.

Of course, my friend Memo was an Alawite...

Jeffery Hodges

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