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Steinberg: Stupidity echoes through mockery of Muhammad

A Pakistani Muslim demonstrator brandishes stick near burning police vehicles during protest against an anti-Islam film Karachi September 21 2012.

TOPSHOTS A Pakistani Muslim demonstrator brandishes a stick near burning police vehicles during a protest against an anti-Islam film in Karachi on September 21, 2012. At least nine people died in Pakistan during violent protests on Friday condemning a US-made film insulting Islam, officials said. AFP PHOTO / ASIF HASSANASIF HASSAN/AFP/GettyImages

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Updated: October 25, 2012 6:06AM

Arthur C. Clark thought we’d have colonies on the moon by now. Mars too. The science fiction writer, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” made the common mistake of confusing what could be done with what would or should be done.

Turns out, the moon is far away, Mars even farther, both are expensive to get to, and there’s no pressing reason to go to the trouble of living there.

This line of thinking came to mind looking at the lingering insult-to-Muhammad controversy roiling the Muslim world, costing lives and raising issues of free speech. An amateur video on YouTube sparked riots across the Middle East and South Asia, including one that led to the death of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. In round two of the farce, a French satiric weekly published cartoons mocking Islam’s messenger, and the cycle starts anew, with the new president of Egypt and other Muslim leaders calling upon the U.N. to criminalize mockery of Islam.

Dumb, all around. Sure, you have the right to ridicule Muhammad; but is it a good idea? The controversy is like an international game of Clueless Hot Potato, with the insult being tossed from one fanatic to the next, all with high motives.

What is it about OPR — Other Peoples’ Religions — that makes humanity pitch the intelligence it spent 50,000 years cultivating? Start with the video, “Innocence of Muslims” — and you should take a look; I lasted about three minutes before I had to stop watching this poorly made trash. As Socrates said, if a criticism is valid, you can improve from it, and if it isn’t, you can ignore it.

This kind of sophisticated calculation, needless to say, is lost in some quarters of the world, where gangs of bored imbeciles can be called on to pour into the street and howl and burn and riot on command. This is not something any one sect or creed has an exclusive patent on though, it must be said, certain countries do exhibit a particular flair for it.

Stupidity echoes, however, so the French weekly prints its own crude caricatures, to assert their right to free speech, which is something like stepping in front of a speeding truck because you have a walk signal.

Why isn’t that bravery? Is this not something we should all do? The world’s media, boldly uniting to mock Muhammad in one enormous hoot of derision, an act of defiance and independence. They can’t kill us all. That would sure welcome Muslim traditionalists to the modern world. Wouldn’t it?

In a word: no. Sure, we could do it, at great cost, just as we could settle that colony on the moon. But neither is a good idea.

Here’s why: One essence of racism is a failure to understand scale. You inflate the qualities of one individual or a small group into the qualities of the entire group — the family across the street plays loud music; therefore, Mexicans make bad neighbors. Or you invest one person with the supposed flaws of his group — Guido is Italian, therefore he must be a mobster, because Italians are mobsters. Neither position is defendable, and there’s no reason to allow yourself to be provoked into adopting either, even if it feels good. The idea at work here — some Muslims riot, in some places, therefore Islam is an inherently violent religion and blanket attacks upon it are in order — is obviously untrue, yet I’ve heard it many times. There are a billion Muslims. If it were an inherently violent faith, we’d need those moon colonies.

Plus, to try to punish Islam for this is hypocrisy. We don’t do that with ourselves. No matter how many home-grown psychos shoot up theaters, we never hang our heads because Americans are violent — we don’t apologize for actions of our fellow citizens.

This is not about faith, it’s about zealotry. I see it a kind of partnership, a symbiosis. Some gang of stone-age sadists commits a violent act, which is gratefully seized upon by non-Muslim extremists as representative of what Islam truly is. Or the other way — some crude parody goes up on YouTube that nobody notices until a mullah makes it into a big deal. Either way, the two groups are not enemies — they’re fellow fanatics, helping each other, goading each other on to be more extreme in their world views of hatred and resentment.

Meanwhile, some faiths in American look on, licking their lips with what I call “Terror Envy.” They think: “Unfair! How come we can’t firebomb the next production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar?’ Why can’t we get away with violence, too?”

The short answer is, you did. Islam was founded in 610 A.D., making it about 1400 years old. When Christianity was 1400 years old it was about to kick off the Spanish Inquisition. Parts of the Muslim world are still a few centuries behind us, and reflect the same rigid pride and sense of inviolability that Christians had down to an art. Some still do — I’m not sure if they want to stop Islamic fundamentalism or emulate it. But nobody is going to be mocked into the modern age. Some want to try or — and this may be a crazy thought — we could hold on to our values of tolerance, even though not everybody shares them, yet. How can we hope that zealots will learn from us if we’re too busy learning from them?

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