Buying into myth of cultural insensitivity as a sin gives licence for offence
The Australian, 25 February 2012
It is tempting to look upon hot-headed Muslim protesters in faraway lands as a breed apart from us civilised, latte-sipping Westerners.
With their long beards and shouty voices, and their penchant for burning anything that upsets them, these impassioned individuals seem alien and peculiar to us, too willing to get worked up.
Yet the present bizarre Koran-burning controversy in Afghanistan has shot down in flames this comforting but misleading idea that “they” are dramatically different from “us”.
Because what the furore over some holy books accidentally burned by NATO confirms is that, in truth, these alleged “weird beards” are in thrall to the same PC culture of complaint that has Western society in its grip.
Radical Muslims in dusty backwaters may express their angst about being offended by storming a building or burning the American flag, whereas we prefer to pursue court cases or write angry letters to officialdom whenever someone dents our delicate sensibilities.
But the great uniter of the East and West today, the thing that binds Muslim extremist and Western liberal, is a profound belief that to be offended is the worst thing, and that whoever dares to cause offence must be made to pay.
The Koran controversy kicked off on Monday, when two NATO personnel allegedly incinerated some copies of the Koran in a landfill site near Bagram airbase.
However, this was no Nazi-style public burning of “evil” books, as some Afghan protesters now seem to believe.
Rather, the NATO personnel were simply disposing of old documents and waste products and apparently were unaware that there were copies of the Koran among the rubbish.
They were spotted by Afghan labourers, who attacked them and snuck some of the damaged Korans out of the airbase and used them to stir up public resentment. There followed increasingly fiery protests, in which at least seven people have died.
Profuse apologies from NATO officials have not been enough to quell the fury.
NATO commanding general John R. Allen offered to the “noble people of Afghanistan” his “sincere apologies for any offence this may have caused”, while the White House reiterated its “great respect for the religious practices of the Afghan people”.
NATO even promised that, within the next 10 days, every one of its soldiers in Afghanistan would be intensively trained in “the proper handling of religious materials” (which would be an extraordinary undertaking; surely NATO troops have more important things to do than learn how to handle Korans?).
Yet still the protests continued.
Ironically, these pretty craven apologies from NATO and the Obama administration for an innocent mistake made by two NATO personnel are likely only to have inflamed the protests.
Because, as is the case over here, in our ever more touchy and sensitive societies, when you tiptoe around a certain group of people, when you buy into the idea that offending cultural sensibilities is the greatest sin of our age, you actually give people a licence to feel offended.
When you apologise for causing offence and promise never, ever to do it again, you give succour to the idea that offensiveness is a unique and terrible evil, and you flatter the ostentatious offence-taking of groups who wish to be protected by a moral force-field from public debate or ridicule.
In effectively reorienting its Afghan mission around improving the PC credentials and Islamic empathy of its troops, NATO is unwittingly giving a green light to easily offended agitators, boosting their belief that offensiveness is evil and must be quashed. NATO has made itself a hostage to fortune, giving Afghan radicals a licence to go mental at the next whiff of any slight, whether intentional or accidental, against Islam.
The similarities between radical Islamic offence-taking and Western liberal offence-taking are striking.
Yes, they may prefer to get together a torch-wielding mob to track down the causers of offence, whereas we prefer to create a Twittermob from the comfort of our bedrooms and make 140-character expressions of rage against anyone who offends women/gays/ethnic minorities/environmentalists et cetera.
But both over there and over here, more and more people now seem to have their offence antennae switched permanently to “High” and actually go trawling for instances of offence that they can get worked up about.
In the increasingly internationalised cult of PC, it seems one gains public traction and even respect through the act of feeling offended, through a very public and preening display of one’s hurt feelings and the demand for some kind of ointment from officialdom, normally in the form of compensation or censure of the offenders.
Indeed, there has been some very striking crossover between Western PC and Islamic radicalism in recent years. Some of the most violent episodes of Muslim fury at Western slights against Islam have been stirred up by liberals over here rather than by imams over there.
Consider the Danish cartoon controversy of the mid-2000s, when the publication of Mohammed-mocking pictures caused widespread protest and death and destruction in the Muslim world.
It was actually a delegation of “concerned citizens” from Denmark to the Middle East that brought those apparently evil cartoons to the attention of Islamist leaders or radicals.
Westerners imported that titanic offensiveness scandal into Muslim lands.
Or consider al-Qa’ida spokesman Ayman al-Zawahiri’s attempt in 2007 to stir up violent protest against Britain’s decision to offer a knighthood to novelist Salman Rushdie.
In describing the honouring of Rushdie as “an insult to Islam”, al-Zawahiri was merely echoing PC Western commentators who had already fretted about the timing of the Rushdie award and the possibility that it might “upset Muslim communities”.
Indeed, al-Qa’ida itself, with its constant complaints about the cultural thoughtlessness of everyone from Pope Benedict XVI and Danish cartoonists to the Queen, can be seen as the bloody, violent wing of political correctness.
As Faisal Devji points out in his book Landscapes of the Jihad, it is striking that al-Qa’ida always talks in terms of the humiliation and degradation of Muslims by the allegedly crusading West.
These are “intensely personal feelings, not elements in realpolitik”, says Devji, showing that al-Qa’ida is not really interested in “the politics of needs, interests and ideas” but rather in “the world of moral sentiments”.
That is the world we in the West increasingly inhabit too - the world of moral sentiments, where how people feel, their sense of self-esteem, takes precedence over everything else, including the right of other people to speak freely and be offensive.
How grimly ironic that this culture now inflames the passions of those who consider themselves enemies of the West - those who have complemented the modern culture of complaint with what we may call the “terrorism of complaint”.
Read more of my articles for The Australian and other publications here.