I’ve Learned Something Today (1 of 3)

You’re sitting in a bar. You’re drinking. Everyone is drinking. Some guy runs into the barroom and says, loudly, “If I hear anyone sneeze, then I’m going to kill everyone in this room.” He has an automatic rifle. There is a moment of silence, and then someone–someone with a cold, say–sneezes. The man with the gun kills everyone in the room, including you, and including himself.

Would anyone like to argue that the person who sneezed is a murderer? It would be completely absurd to suggest that the person who sneezed–and not the person who did the killing–is responsible for the deaths in question, right? The sneeze didn’t cause the violence.

OK, new scenario. A blogger named Bilal el-Houri, who was raised in a Muslim household but now considers himself an agnostic, is watching last week’s episode of South Park, which is organized around the impossibility of showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad on television. According to CNN,

He said, “My first thoughts on the episode were “haha!”, but then I realized how deep and complicated this issue is.”

El-Houri said he was quickly reminded of tragedies that ensued from other infamous depictions of Prophet Mohammed. In particular he recalls the Muslim outrage in 2005 following publications of Cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. He said he witnessed in Beirut, Lebanon, crowds take to the streets and burn the building housing the Danish embassy.”

“I remember seeing people crashing and burning police cars and ambulances that had nothing to do with Denmark or their cause.” He also recalled how “al Qaeda issued a call to murder Dutch politician Geert Wilders” for his film “Fitna” which was critical of Islam.

Now, people are arguing that Danish cartoonists (for example) are somehow responsible for the violent responses to their work. I think that such equivocations are downright insane, and El-Houri seems to agree:

El-Houri observed that the “South Park” episode highlighted the fear from “barbaric Muslim retaliation” when a Muslim symbol is featured in the media. He said Muslims should focus on convincing others not to show iconic figure out of “respect to Islam” instead.

El-Houri’s advice to Muslims is to “appreciate free speech” and use its tools to debunk the misconceptions that exist around the world about Islam and showcase the peaceful side of their religion instead of reacting to what others publish or broadcast. “The media makes fun of Jesus, The Pope, politicians and so on, all the time, but you don’t see Catholics burning tires outside Comedy Central’s studios.

In other words: No insult, real or imagined, gives any group or individual free reign to commit extralegal violence. There is no moral difference between a violent outburst against blasphemy and a violent outburst against something as arbitrarily chosen as a sneeze. The person who commits the violence is responsible for the violence.

Or to put it another way: Theo van Gogh is dead because a murder murdered him, not because he made a film.

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