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07/02/2006

"What next, bearded one?"

Our traditional values have been trampled on and we are offended. A wake-up call. By Sonia Mikich

I feel offended.

Zealots are nailing veils onto the faces of my sisters in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are busy hanging women, homosexuals, adulterers and non-believers.

But human rights, women's rights and the right to liberty are the most exalted in the history of humanity; this is the tradition in which I was raised. Values that make the world better and more peaceful.

I demand that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Indonesia and Egypt apologise to me. Otherwise I am unfortunately forced to threaten, beat up, kidnap or behead their citizens. Because I am somewhat sensitive about my cultural identity.

I feel offended.

Fanatics are blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, marvellous cultural monuments.

But art is an expression of universal beauty and innocence to me. It is a value that makes the world better and more peaceful; this is the tradition in which I was raised.

I demand that Hamas, the spokesman of the French Muslims and the Director of the Al-Azhar-University apologise to me. Otherwise I will never spend a holiday at the Taj Mahal, I will call for a boycott of Palestinian fruit and I will set the embassies of Tunisia, Qatar and Bangladesh on fire.

I expect understanding for this at the very least my feelings are absolute and must be expressed globally.

I feel offended.

Videos show journalists, truck drivers and NGO workers having their throats slit or their heads chopped off. Jews see themselves represented as cannibals and pigs, Western women as decadent sluts. Apolitical engineers have to fear for their lives.

All in the name of God.

I demand that all the editors in chief of newspapers and television broadcasters in the Islamic world apologise to me, because they do nothing to prevent these obscenities.

Many people are concerned that the clash of civilisation is near. Oh please, it has been going on for a while now, not only manifest in the monstrosities mentioned above but part of everyday life. How fragile, how superficial must Muslims' religious values be. How can cartoons in an unknown newspaper in a little European country cause such an upset and allow a handful of organised agitators to be able to drive many thousands onto the streets.

Joking how the prophet Mohammed is running out of virgins because so many suicide bombers are standing at the gates of paradise is dark and mean. And, given the reality of global attacks, lamentably effective (just as a side note). But I did not find it especially funny that the misogynous Taliban availed themselves regularly of prostitutes. Or publicly "executed" video recorders and televisions in order to watch pornos in privacy.

Just a reminder: the earth is not flat. It should go without saying that individuals in a secular democracy have every right to caricature and mock authorities, even religious ones. They should be prepared to meet criticism but not punishment. Freedom of expression has to be understood broadly and there are sufficient laws and rules that can be employed to prevent abuse.

The film "The Life of Brian" annoyed a lot of Christians and provoked letters to editors, calls for boycotts and quarrels within families. But nobody in New Zealand suspected a conspiracy against Christianity, nobody in Malta felt compelled to burn the Union Jack. Nor do political authorities have a natural right to protection. Margaret Thatcher was chopped to bits by British journalists, comedians and screenwriters and then put back together in a ghastly way; it was good for the mental sanity of that era and did not kill anyone.

Everyone had the right to turn it off, look away or toss the newspaper in the bin. Freedom of opinion was the Siamese twin of freedom from fear.

The fact that fundamentalists of all persuasions are completely incapable of self-reflection, self-criticism, and self-irony would not warrant a mention, were it not for their practice of imposing their issues on me and my world. They assume that we will kowtow to them as soon as we recognise who they are: "Look out! Religious feelings! We're leaving the private sphere."

In the self-referential world of God or Allah or Yahweh warriors, feelings are increasingly used as weapons and honoured as the highest authority. Readily summoned, merciless.

In the debate over the cartoons, the prohibition of pictures is being presented as a compulsory principle of belief. To be respected everywhere, even in the state of Denmark.

It gives pause to think that those who claim to be offended are so proficient with the Internet and other modern communication technologies but know little about their own cultural history. In Islam's heydey, pictures were made of the Prophet. Mohammed lightly veiled, for instance, on a horse riding to heaven a wonderful Persian miniature in the Chester-Beatty-Museum in Dublin. (more)

What next, bearded one? Boycott Irish butter?

I do not have to concern myself with the sales figures of Danish yoghurt. I am not easy to blackmail and I am free to find Immanuel Kant's "sapere aude" more conducive to successful communal living than a Fatwa.

I hereby refuse to feel badly for the chronically insulted. I refuse to argue politely why freedom of expression, reason and humour should be respected. I do not want to continue to have to provide creationists scientific proof that the earth has been around for more than 10,000 years. And I am going to stop waiting for them to say on Al Jazeera, "Did you ever hear the one about the Prophet's beard?"

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The article originally appeared in German in die tageszeitung on February 6, 2006.


Sonia Mikich, born 1951 in Oxford, is a television and print journalist. She hosts WDR's political magazine "Monitor."

Translation: nb.
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