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Johannes Müller SJ

Protection for Religious Symbols?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2006/4, p. 217f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


With its caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed the Danish newspaper "Jyllands Posten" triggered an avalanche of reactions that probably nobody has so foreseen. In the Islamic culture area it came to substantial, partly violent protests. The reproduction of the caricatures (in the meantime even on T-shirts) continued to heat up the atmosphere, as a frightening high number of casualties shows. In the western world a most controversy debate about freedom of the press, Enlightenment and the "clash of the cultures" took place in newspaper comments, readers' letters and talk shows.

From all that a most complex mixture developed leading to a substantial insecurity. Add to this commercial interests of profit, anti-Islamic prejudices, religious fanatism, instrumentalization by authoritarian regimes and cultural arrogance on both sides, by which not seldom the view for the deep-seated problems in this conflict field is blocked. The more important it is to consider the long-term aspects and the implications of this controversy.

First is to be stated that most Muslims reject violence as answer to the offence of religious feelings. Thus for example in Indonesia at best some hundred demonstrators became violent during protest actions - they were presented in the main news of western media. But the very much differentiated opinion of many moderate Muslims finds hardly attention. It is without doubt also correct that the Muslim world, Indonesia is no exception, feels still deeply hurt by the way how its holy symbols can be reviled at will. Not few Muslims see therein the continuation of colonial aggressiveness and arrogance of the west.

Such feelings whether one regards them as justified or not, are to be taken seriously in any case, in view of the fact that people live today nearly everywhere in a multi-religious environment harbouring a not small conflict potential. The "internal peace", or better a peaceful and advantageous togetherness requires therefore today more than ever mutual considerateness and tolerance toward foreign ways of life, at least however the renouncement of provocative and hurting expressions. This is a relatively new learning field for countries like Germany. In an increasingly globalized world where messages are spread throughout the world in shortest time, mutual considerateness is also needed toward the outside world. From there art. 26 exp. 1 of the Basic Law wins a new topicality. It forbids actions which endanger the "peaceful living together of the peoples".



One can even ask whether such actions, when they endanger also the life of other people (e.g. of hostages in the Iraq), are not to be made liable to a penalty.

A even more fundamental argument is the right to acknowledgment that is rooted in the dignity of man. For without acknowledgment a human identity is hardly conceivable. It is at least in this sense a human right that one may not insult or hurt (publicly) other persons at will. This applies all the more to deliberate wrong accusations. This should actually be bid already by the sense of decency. But the right to recognition may not be misunderstood individualistically curtailed, because also the individual identity depends much on the respective socio-cultural surroundings, even if one often does no longer want to admit this in the west. This is the reason why human beings feel particularly hurt, when central symbols of their religion, culture, or ethnical identity are brought to contempt. Hence the political philosophy leads already for a long time an intensive debate about the right to the recognition of cultural differences with which it is also about the possible intercultural imparting of universal human rights.

In the western debate such arguments are often rejected with the reference to the freedom of opinion and press. These important rights are undoubted and should not be limited by national censorship. Hence it is also no good policy when governments apologize for the failures of the media. But also their rights are not unlimited, and may not hurt at will other rights, as for instance the right to be recognized. Besides, genuine clearing-up and freedom of opinion are characterised by arguments that can even include sharp critique of religions. But it is a completely different affair to injure religious feelings after the slogan, "Everything is permitted." Add to it: Many, just enlightened Muslims deplore that the liberal practice of the media in the western world is grist to the mills of those who reject democracy and freedom of the press. It is also not understandable for them why the burning of the American star banner or the destruction of a work of art is punished, but the injury of deepest religious feelings remains unpunished. One will have to ask oneself, indeed, whether the constitutional state does still cope with its responsibility in this regard.

In the core not only the freedom of opinion and an enlightened view of life are concerned, but just as much the freedom of religion, and the acknowledgment of other people, and the dealing with fundamental religious symbols. This does not concern Christianity less than Islam and other religions. There is certainly needed a often difficult weighing of goods in the concrete practice. In any case, the western world will have to grapple more seriously with this question in the future - not from religious reasons, but for its own reliability. Otherwise it has rightfully to suffer the reproach of cultural violence and arrogance.


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