Silences That Speak Volumes

Why is the academic community silent about the current Islamic cartoon uproar?

It could have been the embassies burning, or the pledges of decapitation for offending cartoonists, or the priest shot dead while praying in his church in Turkey.

Whether it was a singularly disturbing violent act or the coalescing of many vile reactions, I have been gripped by the ongoing Danish cartoon jihad, and my sentiments have settled with that rare union of outrage and scholarly interest.

From these Muslims at the beginning of the 21st century, the history student within detected a certain resonance with the pre-modern Church and the way it dealt with dissidents.

I’d like to be satiated by an intellectual discourse over the cartoon jihad, to have people who know more than I do brought together on a stage to discuss and debate the issue.

Yet, a look at the posterboards last week was enough to dampen that hope.

Advertised were the following: a three-week study group on “the Military in American Democracy,” an Elaine Scarry speech in the “Age of Terror” series, a Harvard Law School panel called “Detention, Rendition, and Torture: Waging America’s Global War on Terrorism outside the Rule of Law,” and (what would Harvard be without) the recurring Noam Chomsky oration on terrorism.

There was also a flyer advertising the impending visit of a Maoist political economist which implored, “If you feel angry with the way the world is, you need to hear Raymond Lotta.” I am angry with the way the world is—specifically with how a rather sizable religious tradition doesn’t seem even to comprehend the notion of free expression—but somehow I don’t think that’s what the poster is referring to.

All these events, altogether typical and expected in a Harvard context, bespeak an ironic myopia with America. Ironic, because the more important and less understood object of study is not American extremism but Islamic extremism, and because we live in a post-colonial age when independence has supposedly brought free agency to historical actors around the world. Yet, you wouldn’t know that from your usual Harvard posterboard, which echoes the wonks of the academic left in attributing rioting, extremism, and very nearly all beliefs and political actions of Muslims to American (or, in this instance, Danish) behavior.

This meaning behind the silence at Harvard has been given voice by politicians around the world, as they explained away the response to those cartoons.

Leading the pack, there was the Bush administration, whose State Department accused the Danish newspaper that printed the cartoons of inciting violence. And then the Vatican, which declared that “the right to offend the religious feelings of the faithful” was not included in the right to free expression.

And on a much smaller level of magnitude, but forthrightly summing up this sentiment, was The Crimson cartoonist who saw “two equally ridiculous reactions to an offensive cartoon,” with two drawings underneath—one of a mass of people engaged in an ambiguous act of violence, and one of a stick figure shrugging, saying, “It’s just free speech.”

Of course, blasphemy does not exist in a bubble in which only Muslims are subjected to offense. The West dishes it out more frequently to its own Christian heritage. Remember “Piss Christ”—the art project where a crucifix was submerged in a jar of urine—or the picture of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung? Americans wrote letters to their congressmen expressing outrage that these artists got National Endowment for the Arts grants or space in public museums, but no talk of beheading, no riots, not even a desecration of the artwork itself.

And there are, of course, countless many blasphemies that pass nearly without comment—like a depiction of Mary masturbating for a Harvard course’s final project, which was then posted online—when the comparable imagery in the Muslim world would have elicited quite the tizzy fit.

There is something amiss in the decidedly pre-modern Muslim world, and it’s being overlooked by Harvard. Despite our international pretensions, we remain wholly obsessed with America, the beautiful scapegoat.

A focus on America does make sense. How America conducts the war on terror is indeed an important issue that itself should not be trivialized. We in the West hold ourselves to high standards, and we expect less from the Islamic Middle East—even though saying so would be impolitic. Expecting no more from America than we expect from our enemies compromises the moral authority we possess over a medieval Islamism.

That America has long been the guarantor of freedom, and that the Islamic Middle East has long not been this, has led to an absence of the frank seminars, teach-ins, and study groups that characterize discussions of other timely issues at Harvard.

And don’t expect these honest discussions to come from Harvard’s new Islamic Studies program, funded by a $20 million grant from a Saudi prince whose kinsman recalled the kingdom’s ambassador to Denmark over those dozen cartoons and whose government, we are now learning, hosted a conference where a worldwide, violent response to the cartoons was contrived.

For the time being, I await those glossy Institute of Politics posters which ask, “Why is a whole faith exploding over Danish cartoons?”

Travis R. Kavulla ’06-’07 is a history concentrator affiliated with Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.