The western democracies are finally beginning to discuss whether they can tolerate the more controversial characteristics of certain immigrant cultures.
In France, the debate has centered on whether Muslim kids can wear a scarf in school. In Switzerland, on whether the sets for Heidi and the Sound of Music should be contaminated with minarets. In Holland, on whether cartoonists may caricature religious leaders. In Canada, the province of Québéc has launched a wrenching series of public debates over what constitutes ‘reasonable accommodation’. Nearly every other receiving jurisdiction is at least confused over whether complete face coverings (niqab, burqa) should be tolerated in public.
Concurrently, but seemingly not in response, thoughtful elements of the so-called ‘Muslim world’ are immersed in debate over the Theory of Evolution. They are avoiding, remarkably, the most significant issue facing them this century. Idolatry. The very root of thought itself.
This much deeper question precedes any debate over freedom of expression.
Almost as troubling, the West and the Muslim diaspora within it offer precious little encouragement or alternative. Enthralled with the Greco-Roman hairsplittings of secular and constitutional law, Ayan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch press, Irshad Manji, countless American pundits, Jewish academics, and even the Roman Catholic Church have been fooled into framing the debate as a concern over free speech. The United States refer to it self-referentially as First Amendment rights.
They are all missing the point.
Free speech might indeed appear in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, but among Abraham’s children, limits on free speech are not addressed until the second Commandment. The First Commandment deals with an a priori and much more fundamental fallacy: the inherent trap in symbolic thought itself!
Contemporary fundamentalists stand in breach of that First Commandment. They think it forbids drawing cartoons of Muhammad or Jesus. It actually only advises against deifying such images after they have been drawn. The outrageous idolatry at the root of Islamists threatening to assassinate Dutch cartoonists isn’t in their believing the Dutch cartoons insulted the Prophet, it is in allowing that a cartoon, or any other any image, could depict the divine in the first place!
The sin of idolatry is being repeated in the minds of those fundamentalists as surely as among the Jews at the foot of Mount Sinai / Jabal Musa. Moses smashed the tablets in frustration at this truly original sin. Jesus mocked and derided the pretentions of Pharisaic posturing rooted in this same confusion of symbol with what it represents. It is time for Twenty-First Century Muslims to do the same homework.
Until representatives of the three traditions claiming roots in the Middle East renew their common understanding of the First Commandment, they will remain incapable of reasonably accommodating their differing descriptions of the approach to that common, sacred, and primordial presence they respectively call Christ, Allah, or JWH.
Free speech does play a role in this. It's just not the main issue. As one brave managing editor of Al Jazeera put it recently, "how can any community aspire to the democratic principle of free speech so long as we are forbidden to argue with our fathers?"
Meanwhile, personally, despite the most Canadian of reasonable accomodations, there are two aspects of immigrant practices that I can’t bring myself to consider as human, religious, cultural, or civil ... rights.
They are female genital mutilation and the refusal to show one’s face during legal, 21st century civil transactions that inherently require facial display as the appropriate level of biometric authentication of identity.
Soeur Marie-Hélène de l'Assomption CND wore a veil every day of her life and it didn't interfere one iota with her teaching us to conjugate the verb accommoder in the imperfect subjunctive just minutes before we donned our balaclavas to play outdoor hockey at 24 below.