What do
we make of the Muslim leaders quoted in the past few days saying things like “I
believe in freedom of speech, but…”, expressing the view that those naughty
cartoons should not be published because they vilify Islam?

This belief in freedom of speech boils down to: you have a right to
say what you want, as long as I agree with it. And from more radical Muslims
carries the addendum “In Islam, God said, and the messenger
Muhammad said, whoever insults a prophet, he must be punished and executed,” as
Omar Bakri Muhammad told BBC radio.

But how
exactly does burning down embassies and shooting people constitute a
proportional response to a few not particularly good drawings? And what does
God think about this?

If you
believe in God –- omnipotent and beyond human understanding -– how can you,
whether you believe in a Christian God, or in Allah, or a Jewish God, think that
a cartoon can hurt God or can damage the ultimate truths that are the basis of
your religion?

How can
you think anything other than that these scribblings are the irrelevant works of
a small-minded individual (and not particularly entertaining cartoons) and that
God is bigger than these things? Why do you even care? And how can you think
that violent protest is how an all-powerful, loving God wants you to respond to
this?

I’m
very confused. But I am slowly understanding this: the furore in the Muslim world over these cartoons exposes what is
actually a fundamental difference in how we view the world – perhaps an
irreconcilable difference. The concept of rights is one of the foundation stones
of democracy. The idea that the Koran is the word of God is the basis of the
Muslim religion. The two can not easily be brought together.

There
are those within our own ranks, too, who don’t seem to understand that freedom
of expression cannot be limited to instances where we agree with what is being
expressed. Bronwyn Bishop thinks burning the Australian flag can have an effect on what it fundamentally means to be
Australian, or the ideas our country is founded on.

“The
flag is the symbol of our nation, it’s the symbol of all things we stand for.
It’s the symbol under which men and women have fought and died in the past, and
under which men and women are fighting today and it’s time we protected it,”
said Bronnie on the 7.30 Report last night.

But can it really be
that burning a flag – which after all, is only a picture printed on some fabric
– can affect the things that flag stands for?

If those things are
true things, setting a mere symbol alight cannot damage what the picture
represents. Setting a picture on fire can’t reduce the sacrifice of those who
fought for Australia in the past, and it can’t make what they’re fighting for in
the current war any more or less right.

Peter Fray

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