Friday, February 03, 2006

Humor is the fabric of friendship

A great Dutch cultural historian, Johan Huizinga, of the first half of the 20th Century once wrote a sizeable essay titled ‘Homo Ludens’ – the playful man. He wrote it in the decade of hate, in the years of the rise of NAZI absolutism when everything people called ugly was to be eradicated. The last thing Hitler and his cronies would think of was making fun of themselves, let alone of all their horrid dogma’s.

Humor, the ability to laugh at one’s own weaknesses, yes – even one’s own ugliness – defines every society. Don’t expect you can attain stability, in any group of people, whatever its cause, if there is no laughter to accompany it.

I was strongly thinking about Huizinga’s thesis when I read of the emerging outrage among Muslims caused by Danish and French cartoons ridiculing the prophet Mohammed.

I haven’t seen the cartoons. I do not know their intention or what characteristic of the Muslim world they wanted to depict. Generally, I hold cartoonist in high esteem. I can’t believe they were insulting by our own standards. And yes, I do think that even God can be subject of a cartoon. But I also think a good cartoon – rather than being insulting – should be intelligent. The best cartoons demonstrate a truth that otherwise we don’t see. And it gives us an additional insight, it opens our eyes, it makes us understand difficult issues, conflicts, or contradictions, a little better.

Our ability to be critical about ourselves and to accept that we are not the representatives of any absolute truth, is key to the cultures of the western world – and we also consider this a fundamental prerequisite of our freedom, including freedom of the press. Perhaps we do not always realize it, and perhaps at times we still harbor prejudices against people of other cultures, but at least we have been educated with this understanding of ourselves.

Cartoons, intelligent ridicule, are essential in our culture. They may provoke, but they should not be designed for the mere purpose of insult.

Muslim absolutism is an object par excellence for provocation. If Muslims wish to live along side people in the Western world, this is the price they will have to pay in order to gain our friendship and in order to gain our love for their strengths and weaknesses.

Without the ability to make jokes about one another, it is impossible to think of stable multiculturalism (or whatever label we attach to it) any time in the future.

So I agree with those who will not heed to the outrage that recent cartoons have caused. Muslim absolutism is unacceptable. And in this respect I care less about the outrage in other countries than about potential conflicts in our own countries, where Muslims and Christians live alongside one another. Official response in Europe, e.g. from the British Foreign Affairs minister Jack Straw, has so far been too restrictive. It suggests that we should be more prudent when it concerns the sensitivities of the Muslim world. I disagree. He got it all wrong. This is not a free ride. Muslims want to be part of our world. Fine. But if need be, I would be the first to take on a Crusade to defend humor, including humor directed at the habits of the Muslims and their religious icons. Not because I wish to ridicule them, but because I profoundly wish to be their friend.


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