The Islamic protests that occurred this past month over an offensive anti-Islamic film titled The Innocence of Muslims stand among a myriad of recent global uprisings targeting anyone suspected of being a religious offender. Similarly, in recent months, a 14 year old Christian Pakistani girl who was falsely accused of burning the Quaran was met with a mob confrontation, and continues to undergo charges for blasphemy; while in Bangladesh, Muslims burned down 10 Buddhist temples after a Facebook photo of a burning Quaran was attributed to a local Buddhist boy. The senselessness of these acts leading to the deaths of a diplomat and the ostracism of religious minorities are justifications enough to condemn the situation in the Middle East, but doing so would only undermine the larger and more dangerous issue at hand: religious barbarism.
Barbarian has previously been used to describe societies that are disorganized, primitive, or otherwise uncivil (you can think of Nordic barbarians); and while our concept modern religious sects would seem to illicit nothing in common with that description, the term seems to fit the actions by extremists in recent years. These religious barbarians have been relatively simpleminded when identifying true offenders, and have been quick to act on emotional impulse by wreaking mob-like violent behavior on anyone remotely suspected of blasphemy. Regardless if the facts say otherwise, they attack first and ask questions later.
For decades, we have seen extremists impulsively act upon the mere utterance of blasphemy to their religion and commit heinous crimes in the name of avenging their sacred idols. Many of the identities associated with modern global terrorism are seemingly spawned from twisted religious interpretations, while those with more peaceful resolves are content with sympathizing with religious figures executing retributive justice against blasphemous individuals. But if the efforts of legendary civil rights activists have taught us anything, it’s that violence stemming from intolerance doesn’t resolve anything. In fact, it only breeds further violence. How can those promoting cultural and religious tolerance claim any credibility when blasphemy in itself is not tolerated and reciprocated with violent behavior? The notion is disturbingly hypocritical, if not backwards. The victim claiming religious intolerance doesn’t get to use violence as a means of making others more tolerant towards their faith; if anything, this would be no different than a victim of physical abuse actively physically abusing others as a passive-aggressive signal that he or she shouldn’t be trifled with.
Perhaps the problem is not one of blasphemy or intolerance itself, but one of anti-sentiment. For example, many critics of the Islamic religion might easily claim that Islamism is the foundation for anti-US sentiment, simply because our ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice are so contrary to Islamic doctrine that they almost appear incompatible. While this remains debatable, it is increasingly clear that ignorance should never breed intolerance and that is precisely what is unfolding on the international stage. The efforts of these barbarians have been associated with the religious sect-at-large because the justifications for their actions are in some way misconstrued from the doctrine that governs their faith. But, this is not to say that these extremists are solely at fault. If we are to follow the precedence of the civil rights movements, we must recognize that even intolerance can become institutionalized and that some intolerance is inherent within a faith itself. The historical example of the Catholic church and its persecution of intellectuals that contributed to scientific advancement is probably the best textbook example acknowledging that intolerance existed within Catholicism. Nowadays, such a persecution would be unheard of, suggesting the possibility that to be ignorant is to be intolerant, but to be intolerant is merely to be misguided.
The problem with faith is that it has the potential to prey upon our weakest human faculty, emotion, and motivate us to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t do if we weren’t acting passionately. Consider what you hold sacred, and picture what you would do if that sanctity was violated. If your reaction would be a violent one, or if you are taught to punish, or sympathize with those that would punish, others that disrespect your culture or your faith, then your response would be no better than the many historical examples of violent barbarians. There is a certain selfishness in religious fanaticism that involves suppressing others just to see your point of view, because that notion assumes there is a right point of view to begin with. Sure, churches, synagogues and mosques may all have good intentions, but those intentions that preach consequences for a differing view are nothing to be proud of.
In more conservative municipalities, both American and Middle Eastern, or where theocracies dictate social norms, one should never equate a societal opinion about religious sanctity with the opinion shared by the rest of the world. Why? Because no one outside that society will share the same opinion, and it is naive to assume otherwise. Even disrespectful speech is worthy of utterance by virtue of the fact that it is an opinion in itself. If for every time a film was made to portray an idol poorly was met with an attack on another embassy, the world would be a perpetuating cycle of violence — and as it stands, that is exactly how the status quo appears today. Without other points of view to contradict us, we would just be gods in our own kingdoms — and, frankly, there’s no point in that if anyone can be self proclaimed once they’re dead.