February 22, 2006

Hitchens Stands up for Denmark

The incomparable Christopher Hitchens, in his most recent Slate column, asks indignantly (and rhetorically) why we as a nation are choosing to feign understanding of the heinousness of the Muhammad cartoons and giving only the smallest quiverings of lip service to our erstwhile allies and fellow democracies. His militancy makes things a bit reductive, but some of his peripheral points are very fascinating.

For one thing, we used to treat diplomatic immunity, and the respect thereof, as a crucial part of international relations. Burning embassies seems to have made no greater impression on Americans than if it was Wal-Marts being burned in Beirut.

Hitchens also makes a rather stunning theological point: "The original proscription against any portrayal of the prophet—not that this appears to be absolute—was superficially praiseworthy because it was intended as a safeguard against idolatry and the worship of images. But now see how this principle is negated. A rumor of a cartoon in a faraway country is enough to turn the very name Mohammed into a fetish-object and an excuse for barbaric conduct." So much for iconoclasm; the cartoons of Muhammad are now first-rate negative icons, like Goldstein's image in 1984's Two Minutes Hate or George Bush.

Hitchens also predicts that Islamophobia will soon be one of those invincible accusations, a word which has no rejoinder—"you're an Islamophobe!" will be hurled in order to still any criticism of nearly any act by nearly any Muslim. If you want to criticize a religion's irresponsibility in keeping its followers in line—nominally what a religion is there for!—better stick with right wing Christians from now on.

Finally, there is the criticism that intransigent passion like Hitchens' plays into the hands of extremists. But think for a moment which is more enabling in a situation like this with extremists already inflamed? A person who refuses to countenance the burning of embassies and mob violence, or governments who remain silent and "moderate," hoping things will run their course? Demands for condemnation or genuflections before the sanctity of religion's right to have ridiculous people abuse its name? Moderation for its own sake when facing extremism is simply stupid.

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