At least that is the implied claim of the Pakistani-born Muslim I took a picture of above (as he was passing out free copies of the Quran). The picture was taken this weekend during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA. I dialogued with the man a bit and asked him whether Matt Parker and Trey Stone, depicting Mohammad in a bear suit for an episode of South Park on Comedy Central, had done something that should be punished with death. His response:
I am not Allah’s punishing angel. But making an image of the Prophet could bring an earthquake to a city.
I actually thought that this response was progress. I was bracing for him to say that it was incumbant on all Muslims to kill anyone who makes depictions of Mohammad. But he didn’t say that. He left vengeance to God. And he talked to me about Noah, and how Noah had endured mockery and derisive laughter without retaliation. And when I replied to this gentleman, he listened. He had, at least on this spring weekend in LA, fully accepted—and even embraced with good humor—the risks of being a passionate religious believer living in a plural and rhetorically rambunctious democracy.
Of course, I think that his belief that earthquakes might sometimes be caused by God as punishment for sinful or blasphemous actions is ridiculous, and I told him so. And I also think it is ironic that his pre-Enlightenment idea was expressed to me at the geographic heart of one of California’s great universities, just outside its main library, and in the 21st century.
But that’s where we’re at: this is our moment in history. The Enlightenment, after three centuries, is still vying with contemporary versions of reconstituted medievalism for the hearts and minds of people.
And yet, we were talking: a secular liberal and a Muslim fundamentalist. I know, it sounds like the beginning of a joke. But there was something serious—and not just absurd—in our attempt at dialogue, for it occurred to me that his responses to my questions were of the kind that you might give when looking for a way to be faithful to your all-encompassing beliefs even as you accept coexistence with nonbelievers. In other words, this man was finding in his religious tradition stories and memes to offer me that gave him the space to hold his ground nonviolently. Notice them:
- God sometimes punishes with natural disasters (so Muslims are not obligated to do God’s work for him)
- Vengeance is with God (and, therefore, not with man)
- Noah worked on his boat with nonviolent equanimity in the face of laughter and mockery; it was God who delivered judgment
These memes are the same ones that keep American fundamentalist Christians in a relatively peaceful, if uneasy, coexistence with the secular world as well. In other words, in a plural democracy fundamentalist Muslims are every bit as capable of finding nonviolent stories to tell one another, and so practice nonviolence, as any other group dedicated to holy book literalism. In fact, I talked to another Muslim at the UCLA festival, asking him the same question about Matt Stone and Trey Parker that I asked the Pakistani-born Muslim. He responded by telling me the following story from his tradition, which I paraphrase from memory here:
Mohammad used to go by the house of a woman who threw her trash and offal at him every time that he passed by. But rather than retaliate, Mohammad endured the abuse. One day, however, he passed by the woman’s house without any harassment coming his way whatsoever, and he wondered what was wrong. Inquiring within the house, he learned that she was ill, and so visited her, exchanging kindness for abuse.
It’s a nice story (and it may even be true). But the key is this: the Muslim tradition has stories that Muslims believe and tell to one another—and are willing to tell to nonbelievers—that discourage retaliation. And they are the kinds of stories that you tell when you really are intent on foregrounding coexistence, toleration, and nonviolence. They are the religious equivalent of counting to ten when angry—the stories you tell yourself when the outside world is not going your way, or is provoking you. May the future of Islam in the 21st century belong, not to the violent jihadists, but to the people that I spoke with over the weekend, for they clearly sought to combine their all-encompassing collective human vision with the trust that God is ultimately responsible for bringing it into existence. They bore the word; God the sword. Like fundamentalist Christians enmeshed in apocalyptic longing for God to set the world right by force—even as they live their lives nonviolently—so I saw in these Islamic enthusiasts an equivalent psychological dynamic.
But maybe I’m being naive. Perhaps violent jihadists have so shifted my inner Overton window that when someone says that cartoons and earthquakes might be linked I breathe a sigh of relief: how sane and calm that man is! May the global future of his faith belong to him: his response might have been so much worse!
The reality—and I acknowledge this—is that the appearance of ridiculous beliefs among a group of people too often functions as the absurdist prelude to anarchic and fanatic actions. As Voltaire so wisely put it:
Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
And so I confess to looking optimistically at a cup that is really not even half-full. But the Pakistani-born Muslim’s reply to my question about depicting Mohammad is something that is somewhat in the right direction, and you’ll forgive me for taking what I can get. I bet Matt Stone and Trey Parker would be more than happy to see all Muslims content to stop there.