Two Kinds of Excess

There’s little to say about l’affaire bear that isn’t already apparent to anyone with the intellect of a toothpick. Even so, I think it deserves more aggressive scrutiny than it’s received thus far. It’s too bad about that writers’ strike: … Read More

By / December 3, 2007

There’s little to say about l’affaire bear that isn’t already apparent to anyone with the intellect of a toothpick. Even so, I think it deserves more aggressive scrutiny than it’s received thus far.

It’s too bad about that writers’ strike: This debacle could have been a virtually inexhaustible vein of comic gold, on the order of an OJ Simpson or a Monica Lewinsky. In a sense, though, it’s good that it hasn’t worked out that way. The Islamic world has a knack, though it may be a calculated knack, for going berserk about insults—like cartoons, ice cream bars, and teddy bears—that are so out-and-out preposterous that Westerners can do little in response but crack jokes. The time for jokes is over. Note that every atheist tract on the bestseller list in the past year or two contains explicit insults to the so-called Prophet. Why isn’t anyone “protesting” Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens with a gigantic machete? I suppose all those words were too much of a brain teaser for the Teddy Bear Martyrs Brigade; I suppose it was much easier to go after this living caricature of kind-heartedness.

That’s what demands our outrage. When Jyllands-Posten published cartoons insulting the Prophet, it meant to do just that. Gillian Gibbons, on the contrary, is guilty only of trying to bring a single Lite-Brite peg of happiness to one of the darkest hellholes on earth. Of course, it doesn’t matter whether one is guilty of any provocation; a provocation can be manufactured easily enough. Bullies have operated in this fashion since the dawn of time, and likewise there have always been victims willing to pay the danegeld. Consider the reaction of some Western Muslims, reported in The Economist:

Many stressed that the treatment of Ms Gibbons was at odds with a Koranic injunction to treat visitors hospitably. “Sudan’s official response to this incident is the exact opposite of the model that Muslims are supposed to emulate,” said Firas Ahmed, deputy editor of Islamica, a glossy magazine. Musharraf Hussain, a well-known imam from the English Midlands, said Ms Gibbons had set out to help Sudanese children with “great enthusiasm and sincerity” and it was embarrassing for British Muslims to see her being punished for making an unintentional cultural mistake.

Perhaps the hardest question that Muslims in the West face from sceptical fellow-citizens is whether they are prepared in any circumstances to defend the harsh penalties, such as lashing and stoning, which the sacred texts of Islam prescribe, in particular for sexual offences, or blaspheming against the faith.

Tariq Ramadan, an influential Muslim philosopher, has called for an indefinite moratorium on capital and corporal punishment, using elaborate theological arguments to support his view that these penalties have resulted in horribly cruel treatment for vulnerable people, including women and the poor. Scholars in the Muslim heartland do not go far enough when they say the necessary conditions for the application of these traditional punishments are “almost never” fulfilled, Mr Ramadan has argued. Some westerners (including France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, in the days when he was interior minister) taunted Mr Ramadan over the use of the word moratorium: did that mean stoning might resume in the future? But to traditional scholars, Mr Ramadan is clearly going too far. The gap he is trying to straddle is already a wide one, and the story of Ms Gibbons suggests that it risks growing even wider.

There is something almost sweetly naive about appealing to various “Koranic injunctions” to try to influence the behavior of radical Muslims. Anyone with the slightest insight into human behavior knows that the desire to punish very often precedes the justification for punishment, and anyone who can get riled up over a stuffed animal is stuck squarely in the “desire to punish” stage.

It’s an appropriate coincidence that the article quoted above refers to the “gap [Ramadan] is trying to straddle,” because several days ago I read this Telegraph piece on the teddy bear fiasco just moments before noticing, in the obituaries section, that Evel Knievel had died. I felt a slight twinge of disgust when I saw a photo captioned: “Evel Knievel: appealed to America’s love of excess.” Fine, but the excess that America loves is a distinctively American variety, dramatic, individualistic, and wild at heart. The urge to jump a canyon just because it’s there is nothing to be ashamed of. As for the heinous urge to behead a harmless schoolmarm—well, the yawning chasm between Us and Them has never looked deeper or wider. I don’t think Evel himself would have attempted it.

(UPDATE: Gillian Gibbons has been “pardoned.” We’re supposed to be grateful for this, I guess?) 

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