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The "cartoon crisis" has shown that in today's world, when you embrace absolutes you invite conflict

By Muriel Duncan

Intellectually, I could see that it was probably intended to be naughty, funny and clever. We've seen this kind of thing before and will see it again. Comedians get great mileage from mocking their religious neighbours, especially organized religion. It's a sub-section of humour as social commentary: letting the hot air out of the self-righteous, speaking truth to the powerful, slaughtering sacred cows.

But this watch-Jesus-get-hit-by-a-bus video joke didn't feel funny to me. It felt malicious and nasty and ugly.

A week or so later, I heard reports about cartoons published in a Danish newspaper and reprinted elsewhere; in the one, Prophet Mohammed was depicted wearing a bomb-shaped turban.

The early reaction was still not big news in Canada when we heard from United Church member Allan Slater, who had just returned to Baghdad with the Christian Peacemaker Teams (Dispatches, page 10). Several churches in his mixed Muslim and Christian neighbourhood had been bombed. Ripples from Denmark.

In this big village of a world linked by the Internet and television, rumour and falsehood travel quickly while fact and reason move slowly. The divisions that lie between peoples -- religious, political, cultural, economic -- breed misunderstandings that can grow poisonous within days.

Muslims who already saw themselves wronged and marginalized in many areas felt ridiculed and demonized by the cartoons. Too many protests turned violent, hurting their larger cause. Some editors, committed to protecting their freedom of expression against religious restriction, reprinted the cartoons, spreading the fire.

There are those in high places who profit from escalating divisions, from turning faith groups against each other; Christian or Muslim, they use their peaceful gods in their war efforts. Nor was it long before some predictable players got involved. An e-mail sent to The Observer asks Americans to sign a petition to encourage the media "to boldly publish the caricatures in support of freedom of the press and media fairness."

Freedom of speech is an essential part of democracy. Fair comment often offends someone. But our freedom of expression comes with responsibility. Abuse or careless use of that right is a clear threat to it. That's why we have libel and hate laws.

The world is too fragile to tolerate either contempt or violence in the name of religion.

"We have to learn to live together in mutual respect," a group of Winnipeg faith leaders wrote in a recent open letter about "the cartoon crisis."

The very existence of their group, the Committee for Interfaith Understanding, is a hopeful sign. Because they had been talking before this crisis, these Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus already held the empathy and wisdom that was in short supply. It's a place for us all to start.


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