Psychopaths of Faith vs. The Muse of Irreverence
Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He wrote this for NPQ in 2006.
LAGO, NIGERIA—Who is actually guilty of bringing disrepute to the religion of Islam? The individuals and mobs who invoke the name of their prophet in the commission of crimes that revolt our very humanity? Or the cynic who responds in the only way he knows how, but within the laws of his nation?
We need to address this question in all objectivity: Who are actually bringing the name of their revered icon into the domain of infidels and unbelievers, where he then becomes a subject for open discourse, reference point and scapegoat for the crimes of believers? Only an honest answer can marginalize and disarm the psychopaths of faith, not futile attempts to force any sovereign nation to apply laws that do not conform to its own constitution and usage.
Two years ago, in Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, Muslim fanatics took to the streets to protest the staging of a Miss World beauty contest, claiming that such a display of womanhood was an affront to the teachings of Islam. By the time they were done, dozens of innocents lay dead in the streets, their homes and their workplaces.
The views or tastes of other religionists, secularists and atheists were, of course, irrelevant. Homes and businesses were torched and neighborhoods devastated. To ensure that even commentary was stifled, a female journalist was declared guilty of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad, and an obscure deputy governor of an obscure state called Zamfara leapt on the bandwagon of instant notoriety to declare a death fatwa on her for alleged blasphemy. Her comment, an obvious effort to stem the wave of sanctimoniousness, was simply that the Prophet Muhammad, were he alive, would probably have taken one of the beauty contestants as a wife. For a prophet whose descendants proudly advertise their paternity, several generations removed, a death sentence in return for a compliment of an aesthetic eye surely plumbed the depths of irrationality and homicidal opportunism.
Predictably, I denounced the murderous orgy. To my astonishment, some liberal voices of the Western world, always liberal with the blood of others, and liberal in defense of the aggressor, chose to concentrate on the “impropriety” of importing “Western decadence” to the pristine innocence of Nigeria and polluting her cultural values. It should not have been necessary, but I felt it my duty to educate such opinions about the existence of beauty contests—both of the male and female kind—in several traditional cultures of African societies, some of which feature even competitive courtship dances. The core of the main discourse was nearly lost—the sanctity of human lives over and above the claims of any icons of faith, however universally revered. Through such distractions is impunity born, and the law of the mob and its manipulators tacitly endorsed by the appeasers of the world.
Impunity breeds impunity. The beauty queen massacres in the name of religious sensibilities were not the first bloodletting of that kind in Nigeria, and they could not possibly be the last anywhere that governments employ language that massages the killing egos of religious stormtroopers.
After the designation of a new offense against the person of the Prophet Muhammad in far-off Denmark, we knew here that Nigeria’s turn was only a matter of days; all we had to do was wait and see where the local round of butchery would occur. Sure enough, the expected came to pass.
In a northern corner of the nation, Maiduguri, the zealots went to work. Picking on a Sunday when the sheep were guaranteed to congregate in their pen, they descended on those innocents and commenced their gory task. Again, we awaited official reaction and were not disappointed—the government, plus a number of concerned civic bodies, were counseling “restraint.” In all the official statements, the language of outright revulsion was in short supply—no expression of official will that signaled a rigorous application of the nation’s laws, only calls for “restraint.”
The killings predictably spread. One characteristic of the mimics of violence is that they are never content merely to imitate others; they feel called upon to improve on the originating event. Calls for boycotts of Danish goods and the burning down of embassies in other lands were guaranteed to escalate to butchery within the territory of late arrivals, if only to compensate for their failure to initiate action and qualify for the rewards of afterlife.
Is it all truly a question of religious sensibility? Or are there other factors—political, economic, societal malaise, etc.—at the root of these bouts of organized frenzy? We know the answers to that question within Nigeria, and perhaps it is a question that should be more openly applied to the internal realities of other places of “spontaneous combustion.”
It is certainly a crucial consideration in confronting the other, more immediate question: Who is it that really defiles the name of the Prophet Muhammad? Those who butcher innocents in the name of that Prophet, innocents who have never tasted Danish butter in all their lives, who do not even know of the existence of a nation called Denmark, or some cartoon editor who, for all we know, has never related spiritually to Jesus Christ or Muhammad, to the Buddha or Orisa-nla? Yes, even such a being can be taxed with a lack of social responsibility. As an informed professional, he has a moral obligation to respect the deep-seated values of others, but what he does is done on his own moral culpability, not in the name of Jahweh, Ikenga or the Virgin Mary. So how have the faithful of other religions deserved the ire of those who find offense at what was done to theirs, an offense so deep that only organized massacres would salve?
The Danish government, thank goodness, declined to assume the burden of guilt by succumbing to the call to apologize for the conduct of one of its citizens, an individual who at no time was accused of being its official representative or spokesman, but a free agent in his own cause, however censurable. The proposition that a government should act as monitor for individual choice within a free society is repugnant.
Indeed we must all continue to insist on responsible journalism and inculcate the mores of good neighborliness which extend even beyond national boundaries. Even more determinedly, however, must we reject the attempt of any sectional authority or quasi-state to foist its will on those who do not subscribe to the mandates of its beliefs, cultures and values.
The action of the irreverent cartoonists and their editor need never have become a global issue. At best the offending images would have been seen by the small, minor community of its readers. What the atavists of religion have done is to expand the “territory of insult” into a limitless one. It is they who have brought greater contumely on the image of the Prophet through the now inevitable proliferation of the cartoons. More to the point, they have raised questions about the followers of the Prophet and their understanding of the world’s complexity. Let all such ponder, in all sobriety, on the commentary of yet another cartoon—this time by a French newspaper. That cartoon depicts a brooding, frustrated Prophet Muhammad while the caption reads: “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” If only some of these professed lovers of Muhammad were not also psychopaths of faith!
Reprisal killings have taken place in Onitsha, in southeastern Nigeria, where the return of the corpses of the victims ignited memories of prior massacres. And so it spreads, and spreads, and the nation is left to wonder, not if but where its next eruption may be expected.
The nation, let me make this clear, has not been short on voices of condemnation from national leaders who also are Muslim. What has always been lacking is stern, unambiguous repudiation, language that goes beyond pious platitudes, a call for the isolation of thrill killers and the exposure of known manipulators of mob psychology (mostly calculating politicians).
I, for one, shall believe in the sincerity of these voices—not only in my own nation but globally—when they actually move, not only to condemn, but to initiate consequences for the violators of human sanctity. In other words, it is time that Muslim leaders all over the world pronounced a fatwa against those who kill in the name of their faith and turn every opportunity into a release of the psychopathic urge.
While the mobs rage, the massacres of innocents, even within that same religion of Islam, continue unabated in Darfur. Never, in recent memory, has rape become so routine, almost mandatory, as a cherished weapon of aggression. Ancient societies are wiped out daily in a brutal campaign, openly articulated, to eliminate a racial identity. A refugee problem of gargantuan proportions stares the African continent in the face, a continent already riven apart by multiple civil wars.
Is it in the midst of this rampaging, racist obscenity called Darfur that the world is being invited to shift even its hazy focus, close down shop on vital concerns, wallow in an orgy of remorse, while the United Nations suspends its operations on behalf of traumatized humanity, all on account of some obscure cartoonist possessed by the Muse of Irreverence? Clearly the world is askew, but not in the way some see it.