So a priest, an imam and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What’s this? A joke?”
Yes, and it’s funny, so accustomed are we to religious humor and wit that pokes fun at humanity and the powerful who govern it.
Though humor is in the eye of the beholder, its historic purpose is to induce us to Think Again. Truth-telling with laughter pushes conformist societies’ boundaries, whether by medieval court jesters, cartoonists, humorists such as Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin impersonating Hitler in “The Great Dictator,” comedy troupes such as Monty Python or sitcom actors such as Archie Bunker.
Today, enlightened Westerners living in human history’s freest society know that free speech doesn’t end where offense begins (except on college campuses, alas), no matter how insensitive or provocative. Even lowbrow, cringe-inducing satire is stomached, such as “The Interview,” Sony’s controversial North Korea spoof. It’s a trivial price to pay for liberty’s luxuries.
What’s blasphemous to some is social commentary to others, such as the “South Park” creators’ Tony Award-winning lampoon “The Book of Mormon,” or religious icon-desecrating art such as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (a crucifix submerged in urine) or Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung-smeared “Holy Virgin Mary.”
Though justifiably offended, Mormons and Christians turned their collective cheeks, recognizing that while each is free to practice a chosen faith, others are free to critique it. Freedom to mock is the flip side of religious liberty.
So indispensable to a healthy, innovative and prosperous society are free expression and individual rights that America’s founders implanted these bedrock principles in our cultural DNA and the Constitution’s First Amendment, making it government’s duty to protect freedom of speech, press and religion.
Only a few centuries old, these human-rights-assuring ideals have produced civil societies where differences are settled in the marketplace of ideas — not by thought police — rendering obsolete 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ depiction of man’s life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Yet it’s back to Hobbes’ world we go if the ever-growing radical Islam movement achieves its aim — more important than taking innocent life is taking our way of life, as it has demonstrated since 9/11.
In a constant state of war with nonbelievers, militants invoke Islamic law to justify waves of barbarity against those, including Muslim majorities, who don’t submit to their fanatical creed. Even in the West, disaffected and unassimilated Muslims living in Balkanized “no-go zones” — often where sharia law supersedes domestic laws — are lured, radicalized and trained to terrorize.
We’ve witnessed the Islamic State’s mass beheadings, including journalists and aid workers; the Pakistani Taliban’s shooting of 132 schoolchildren; and Boko Haram’s raping, forced conversion and enslavement of Nigerian girls.
Crescendoing last week, the Paris massacres — 12 at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine famous for publishing Muhammad cartoons, and four Jewish hostages at a kosher market — by “Allahu Akbar”-hollering jihadists overshadowed al-Qaida’s other attack in Yemen, killing 37, and Boko Haram’s deadliest massacre yet of Nigerian women, children and elderly.
Writing in USA Today, British-born Muslim cleric Anjem Choudaryin defended the repressive sharia creed being practiced worldwide, arguing that “Islam doesn’t mean peace” but rather “submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression.” Choudaryin’s threat is clear: Forfeit your liberty, or face “the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad.”
Eager to reclaim Islam from radicals such as Choudaryin, who’ve made “the entire Islamic world … a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently addressed Muslim clerics and scholars, imploring them to “revolutionize our religion.”
Concerned that “the Islamic nation is being torn apart and destroyed,” al-Sisi argued that “texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.” Underscoring tolerance in the Arab world’s most populous Muslim nation, he became Egypt’s first president to attend a Coptic-Christian Mass.
Similarly courageous, Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, Netherlands, championed assimilation as a means to sustain the civil societies to which “well-meaning Muslim” immigrants like him are drawn.
“If you can’t stomach freedom (or) humorists who created a newspaper,” he proclaimed, “pack your bags and leave!”
Aboutaleb’s unapologetic defense of freedom reveals the truth about radical Islam: Without any rational political objectives, it can’t prevail in a post-Hobbesian world that protects liberty and individual rights.
Free expression — not self-censorship or accommodation — is not only morally superior; it’s the water that will extinguish the Wicked Witches of Islam, enabling the Muslim world to embrace the freedom and modernity its innocents and we Westerners crave. It also will safeguard our free society, generating more of the cultural riches we cherish — books, films, plays, art exhibitions and satirical cartoons.
Think Again: Imagine a priest, an imam and a rabbi attending an irreverent Broadway show together — and it’s not a joke!
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more of her commentary, see www.ThinkAgainUSA.com.