Friday, November 15, 2013

Why Islamic Extremists Don't Appreciate Satire

The Lebanese Hizballah has a new cause of anger. Not with Israel. Nor with United States. Instead, with a television show.

Last Friday, the popular Lebanese TV station, LBCI, broadcast a sketch that satirized Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The reaction from Hizballah and its allies has been swift. All have demanded an apology and some have issued death threats. Underlying their anger is an unequivocal motif: ‘’Religion and its rituals are a red line.’’

Of course, at a basic level there’s nothing terribly surprising here. After all, asked to conceptualize an Islamic fundamentalist, few of us would offer ‘support for free speech’ as an answer. Still, there’s a deeper story here. Amidst the violent sectarian currents pitting them against each other, Islamist extremists are unified by the fury with which they react to satirical insults.

I think there are three reasons that explain why.

First, satirical insults are ‘ungodly’. In the eyes of Sunni extremists (at least those who incorporate the Salafi vein of Al Qa’ida, Al Shabab, Boko Haram etc.), satirical insults represent a perversion of humanity against God’s divine authority. As the 20th century Egyptian writer (and Salafi favorite), Sayyid Qutb, put it, ‘’There is nothing beyond faith except unbelief, nothing beyond Islam except Jahiliyyah [separation from God], and nothing beyond the truth except falsehood.’’ Qutb continues, ‘’Jahili society because of its Jahili characteristics is not a worthy partner for compromise.’’ In large part, it’s from this totalitarian worldview that the 2006 cartoon protests became so pervasive. For many Sunni fundamentalists, a bomb bearing Prophet Mohammed isn’t simply regarded as an insult, but as a direct challenge to the intrinsic authority of God. In short, the worst form of insult. Similarly, under the Islamic jurisprudence of the Iranian theocrats/the Lebanese Hizballah (Khomeini’s ‘Governance of the Jurist’), satire against a religious leader represents an inferred challenge to God. Their philosophy is an Islamic version of the European ‘divine right of kings’. As a corollary, by mocking Nasrallah, Hizballah supporters regard LBCI as having mocked the very essence of human morality.

Second, satire weakens Islamic extremist authority structures. For organizations that exist on a self-perpetuating myth of ordained authority, satire humanizes that foundation in uncomfortable ways. Let’s be clear; regardless of particular ideology, Islamic extremists take root in a culture of intimidation. Absent their imposition of fear, advancing such inflexible political ideologies would be impossible. As a case in point, Hizballah’s influence in Lebanese political life is sustained by the group’s willingness to pursue politics by ‘other means’. In this sense, by overtly challenging Nasrallah, LBCI has illuminated an unspoken truth: Hizballah isn’t omnipotent. Ultimately, Hizballah’s real anger is not that Nasrallah was insulted, but that the LBCI has pierced his pretense of power. Already facing major problems in the disconnect between their proffered identity and their practical character, Hizballah regards satire as a direct threat.

Nevertheless, satirical insults also offer an opportunity to Islamic extremists. This leads us to point three.

The 'scandal' of a satire provides an opportunity for political mobilization. Whether cartoons or videos; in societies where Islam plays a pivotal social role, painting a localized satire as a broader insult against God offers a political goldmine. In the communal assembly of a protest, a 'scandal' can be manipulated to mobilize a larger agenda. It offers the chance to build a movement that will outlast the 'scandal'. This is especially true in the case of Hizballah. Where Salafi extremists quite literally resort to the machete in face of perceived insult (and invite corresponding retaliation), Nasrallah has traditionally realized that the protest is more powerful than the sword.

            At the core of these three points is a defining truth. For Islamic extremists; whatever attitudes they might hold towards each other, the receiving end of satire is intolerable. This discomfort speaks to the essential nature of these groups.

Where democratic societies find virtue in the pursuit of logic and knowledge, Islamic extremists hold virtue in their recognition of implicit and static truths.

Where we seek diversity of opinion, they subscribe to the authority of the ‘pure’ fewFor us, political satire is at once an expression of freedom and a spark of debate. For them, it is an atrocity that cannot be forgiven. 

If interested, my related writings can be found here.

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