Yesterday's shoot out in Texas between Pam Geller's posse and two Daesh wannabes left me scratching my head trying to find the good guys (maybe the cop who got shot trying to stop the Daesh loonies). As a friend of mine on Facebook pointed out, the local Dallas Muslim population wanted to ignore the exhibition of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad sponsored by Pam Geller's group. Instead, two Daesh wannabes showed up and fired shots that hit and injured a Dallas policeman and gave Pam Geller and her followers attention that they would never have gotten, and a terrorism martyrdom claim that they did not deserve.
Then also, the growing controversy over PEN's decision to award a Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo also got me thinking. I still can't decide over that one. A number of authors, including the President of PEN, object to the award and are boycotting the ceremony. They see Charlie Hebdo's parodies of Muhammad as attacking not just violent extremists, but an entire religion and culture (what Pam Geller and her followers do without apology), especially the religion and culture of a marginalized and disadvantaged part of the population of France and Europe as a whole. They accuse Charlie Hebdo and their admirers of a kind of Western imperialist attitude that permits the powerful to mock the powerless.
Salman Rushdie defended the award and attacked the boycotters, at first with very unfortunate and intemperate language, but later with a little more thought. Rushdie points out that the perpetrators of Islamist violence, far from being uprooted and impoverished refugees in Europe, are extremely well funded and well organized, that most of them are from very privileged backgrounds, and that the vast majority of their victims are other Muslims. Rushdie accuses the PEN boycotters of failing to stand up for fellow artists and of caving to threats and intimidation.
And yet it could still be objected that what Charlie Hebdo did, and Pam Geller does, is to unfairly vilify an entire religion and culture. Charlie Hebdo was largely contemptuous of all religion, and Pam Geller focuses her hatred particularly on Islam without any sectarian distinctions. Sufis, Shiites, Sunnis, Salafis, Rumi and Osama are all the same in her eyes.
How do you decide when you think both sides are right?
It isn't right to vilify an entire religion and culture for the actions of a violent fringe. It's definitely never right to dump on the marginalized and powerless.
And yet, violence and intimidation to silence artists and writers are never permissible no matter who is doing the intimidating and threatening.
I have my own recent personal experiences with these issues. The fundamentalists who attacked my Passion of Christ series always demanded that I do another series about a gay Muhammad. That presumed a couple of things that I reject out of hand. First, it assumes that identifying any person living or dead, holy or not, as gay is an insult and a libel. I was especially surprised at that accusation coming from other gay men (not from any lesbians that I can recall). I wanted to say to those gay men, "But YOU are gay! Do you feel slighted and insulted to be identified as such? Are you ashamed of what you are?" Second, that demand that I paint a gay Muhammad presumed that I did that whole 24 panel project over 4 years just to insult the fundamentalists and to mock their conception of Christ. That assumption reveals how self-absorbed and insular that crowd can be. If I was simply out to poke my finger in their eye, I wouldn't have spent so much time and effort on those panels. Pissing off fundamentalists is about as much sport as dynamiting fish. Those brittle sensibilities are too easily bruised to be worth that kind of effort.
I was after something much more ambitious over 10 years ago when I painted that series. I wanted to restore to the Gospel narratives something of their original force, to take them out of the anodyne realm of conventional piety and show them to be the radical messages that they are. As a gay man, I wanted to reclaim those narratives for my self and my own despite the best efforts of some to block my access to them. If I got a few people to rethink their views and maybe show some gay person that a choice between their faith and their sexual identity is a false choice, then I think I did my job.
The very last thing I was out to do was to mock the Christian faith. Quite the contrary, I hoped to give it some fresh life.