Yay for pluralism


Most of the vexation over The Rhinoceros Times’s publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons seems to have died away, but in a world where the United States remains militarily engaged in the Middle East and global trade and immigration continue apace, the electric fence our competing weekly touched will likely stay hot.

Tensions between the norms of secular western societies and those of religiously centered Middle Eastern cultures are, of course, not unique to Greensboro. We read with interest in the March 16 New York Times about the uproar created by an educational film produced by the Dutch government to familiarize prospective immigrants about the country’s relaxed social codes. The two-hour-long DVD is included in a package of study materials for the country’s entrance exam.

‘“People do not make a fuss about nudity,’” the narrator explains, as the camera focuses on an attractive woman sunbathing topless. Another segment reportedly emphasizes that gays have the same rights as heterosexuals, including marriage, and provides a demonstration visual of two men kissing in a meadow.

In other words: Buyer, beware.

Some Muslim groups in the Netherlands have complained that the film is a provocation designed to stem the flow of immigration from majority Muslim countries like Morocco and Turkey. And while kissing in public or baring one’s breasts is not exactly the same as defaming the Prophet Muhammad, the same issue of conflicting expectations seems to be at play.

Free speech, a long cherished value in the United States, is practically entwined with the principle of separation of religion and government. It’s right there in the first two clauses of the First Amendment: ‘“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’” Those two take precedence over even the right to protest the government.

In ‘“A conversation with Greensboro Muslims,’” published by the News & Record on March 12, QuarTek President and CEO Reyad Sawafta is quoted as saying, ‘“Freedom of speech is a nice and wonderful thing, but it should not be at the expense of feelings and dignities.’”

Well yes, ‘“feelings and dignities’” do get trampled by the press sometimes. Just ask Mayor Holliday and members of the City Council.

Of course, Christians in the United States can’t say they’ve always been more thick-skinned than the more recent Muslim arrivals. And the Christian God has been subjected to some pretty provocative artistic treatment.

Recall ‘“Piss Christ,’” the National Endowment for the Arts-funded work by Andre Serrano that shows a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

Our esteemed retired senator, Jesse Helms, went on the Senate floor in 1989 to denounce it.

‘“He was taunting the American people,’” Helms said. ‘“He was seeking to create indignation’…. Do not dishonor our Lord. I resent it and I think the majority of the American people do.’”

It’s hard to gauge what effect ‘“Piss Christ’” has had on American spiritual and civic values 16 years later. What seems clear is that one’s sense of sexual morality and religious piety should not be swayed by the expressions of others. A strong faith can withstand such slights.