Consider what Wilders did to offend Muslims. According to the BBC, he “made a controversial film” that “likened the Koran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” The film was called Fitna, an Arabic term meaning “disagreement” or “division.” The film includes a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his head, as well as Koranic verses juxtaposed alongside images of terrorist attacks. In short, this film was designed to shock, provoke, and insult.
This incident brings forth questions. Why did Wilders have to insult Islam, a religion of 1.3 billion people? What did he hope to gain from releasing this film? Was he not aware that this film would be considered deeply insulting to the Muslim faith?
Too often, many secular Western thinkers assume that when devout Muslims threaten violence after their Prophet or religion is insulted, they are somehow being irrational. But although it is not a logic that everyone will agree with, there is a clear reasoning behind what those Muslims do. If you are a devout Muslim who believes that heaven and hell are real places, it would seem quite rational to live your life trying to honor God, who alone has to power to determine your eternal fate. Even a lifespan of a hundred years—no matter how luxurious—is like a drop in the bucket compared to the eternity that is to follow. In a nutshell, being faithful to God is more important than being politically correct.
If this narrative seems familiar, it should. For centuries, Western Christians too once believed that pleasing God was more important than pleasing men. These Christians were unapologetically devout—they would tolerate no insults against Jesus, the Bible, or the Virgin Mary. They would rather lose their lives than allow anyone to mock the Savior of Mankind. Often, they would even use their political power to enforce a Biblical code of conduct on society—against adultery, idolatry, and a host of other sins.
Today, of course, times have changed in the West, especially in America. Religion no longer holds a sacred place in society, and it has become commonplace to mock religion in general and Christianity in particular. Countless episodes of blasphemy abound. But one particularly jarring incident occurred in 2006, when pop star Madonna made a public performance mocking the crucifixion of Christ, arguably the most important event in Christian history. In response, some concerned Christians wrote letters and email petitions, but millions of milquetoast believers remained silent or indifferent.
But for devout Muslims across the world, letters and email petitions are not enough. In 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, protests and violence broke out in not just the Middle East, but also across Europe, Africa and Asia. Although many of these Muslim protestors were poor and uneducated, they shared a sincere devotion to their religious beliefs—even though their behavior was arguably extreme and excessive.
Although America is generally a secular nation, we do consider some things sacred, one of them being the issue of race. Imagine how most Americans might react if a senator sponsors a bill to replace Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a holiday celebrating the birthday of a Confederate general, say Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson. Most Americans would probably be outraged because we see Dr. King as a hero whose life helped pave the way for racial reconciliation in this country. And if somebody were to write a book publicizing Dr King’s occasional acts of adultery and plagiarism, he or she would likely be treated as a social leper. In this country, Dr. King is seen as a secular saint on the issue of race, and attacking Dr. King’s memory is rightly considered sacrilegious. And just as Americans want the race issue to be handled with sensitivity, many Muslims too want their religion to be handled with sensitivity.
One day, the United States, like Holland today, will have to answer tough questions about the limits of tolerance. Should society treat those who mock other people’s religions as harshly as it treats racists, i.e. as social lepers? Or, should society instead allow a free-for-all situation—consistent with the First Amendment—where everyone can freely mock anyone else on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and everything else?