Karl Sharro writes: As a satirist who focuses on the Middle East, I’ve bumped up against my share of boundaries. Two years ago, for example, I struggled with how to satirize the tendency of some Western observers to distort conflicts in the Middle East by attributing those conflicts to “ancient rivalries” rather than, say, contemporary political struggles. Ultimately, I decided that the best approach would be to push that logic to its absurd conclusion by writing a “tribal” guide to the region, which relied on familiar stereotypes about Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, and others. I hoped readers would understand that these caricatures were meant not to be crude and bigoted, but rather to show how disconnected the ancient-rivalries thesis is from reality. And readers did understand—for the most part. This ability to test the boundaries of good taste, and even to be offensive, is essential to effective satire. But it’s now under threat.
Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris and the cold-blooded murder of 12 people, a familiar refrain rang out in some quarters. The assault on the satirical magazine, so the argument went, represented a collision of cultures: a Western one that champions freedom of speech and an Islamic one that does not tolerate offenses to its religious symbols. But one of the real storylines here isn’t some clash of civilizations; it’s the steady erosion of freedom of expression and the rise of the right to be offended—in the West as well as other parts of the world.
The culture-clash interpretation of the horror in Paris transcends political divides in the West. On the right, some claim that Muslims’ beliefs are incompatible with modernity and Western values. On the left, some construe the attack as a retaliation for severe offenses, essentially suggesting that Muslims are incapable of responding rationally to such offenses and that it is therefore best not to provoke them. The latter explanation is dressed up in the language of social justice and marginalization, but is, at its core, a patronizing view of ordinary Muslims and their capacity to advocate for their rights without resorting to nihilistic violence. This outlook also promotes the idea that Muslims and other people of Middle Eastern origin are defined primarily by their religion, which in turn devalues and demeans the attempts of Arab and Middle Eastern secularists to define themselves through varying interpretations of religion or even by challenging religion and its role in public life. By seeking to present religion as a form of cultural identity that should be protected from offense and critique, Western liberals are consequently undermining the very struggles against the authority of inherited institutions through which much of the Western world’s social and political progress was achieved. [Continue reading…]