Religious humor has become commonplace in the secular West, but it came with a
More than any people on Earth, the Danes should know the terrible price of
religious humor, for the first great Christian humorist arose from their dour
midst as if by immaculate conception. "Humor is intrinsic to Christianity,"
wrote Soren Kierkegaard, because "truth is hidden in mystery". But Kierkegaard
the humorist was sent to the Danes after the Enlightenment had laid waste to
Christianity, that is, after the
French revolutionary army had conquered traditional Europe. He wielded humor
out of desperation, after Denmark already had started down its long slide
Like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, muses the secular West after the
Danish cartoon catastrophe, "Why can't a Muslim be more like a Jew?" After all,
Arab newspapers daily publish hideous caricatures of Jews, who do not burn down
Arab embassies in response. But the Jews learned to swallow humiliation at a
dreadful cost. When Rome defiled their temple at Jerusalem in AD 66, the Jews
rebelled. Rome crushed them, but they rose again in AD 132, fighting more Roman
legions under Hadrian than had conquered Britain. After most Jews were
dead or exiled, the remnant invented self-deprecating humor. 
Deprecatory cartoons of Jesus would have earned you the dungeon or the stake
during most of Christianity's 2,000-year history. Britain still has not
abolished the Blasphemous Libel Law against mockery of the Church of England,
although the last Englishman punished for blasphemy was a certain William Gott,
who received nine months' imprisonment in 1922 for comparing Jesus to a circus
"To hell with them if they can't take a joke!" artillerymen say after one of
their shells kills their own comrades. Mockery cuts a swath of destruction
through traditional society, which, experience tells us, often dies hard - by
the hand of a Hadrian, or a Napoleon. The Jyllens-Posten cartoon affair is even
worse than it looks. The Mohammed cartoons are tame compared with other topics
that the mainstream media avoid. The cartoon controversy barely qualifies as a
skirmish in a greater war.
With freedom of choice and access to information come doubt. Western scholars
doubt whether Mohammed ever existed  or, if he existed, whether the Koran
was invented two centuries after his death, or indeed whether the Koran even
was written in Arabic. Christianity and Judaism are bloodied - indeed, drained
almost dry - by nearly two centuries of scriptural criticism; Islam's turn
barely has begun.
More revealing than the refusal of the mainstream American media to repost the
Mohammed cartoons is the disappearance of more dangerous material previously
available. Newsweek's "Challenging the Koran" story of July 28, 2003, has
vanished from the magazine's website. The government of Pakistan had banned
that issue, which among other things reported a German philologist's contention
that the Koran was written in Syriac rather than classical Arabic, translating
the "virgins" of Paradise as "raisins". As I observed before, the topic of
Koranic criticism has disappeared from the mainstream media. Since the
suppression of the Newsweek story the Western media have steered clear of the
It is well and good for Western newspapers to republish the Mohammed cartoons
in solidarity with Jyllens-Posten. But not one major news outlet has reported
the most controversial religion story of the year, the debate among the pope
and his advisers about whether and to what extent Islam is capable of reform
When even the pope has to whisper, January 10). Close friends accused
me of endangering the life of Pope Benedict XVI by publishing a report already
available on the Internet. If it is true that the pope cannot speak to the
subject for fear of assassination, then he is a prisoner in the Vatican as much
as was the unfortunate wartime pope Pius XII.
Muslims rage at affronts to their faith because the modern world puts their
faith at risk, precisely as modern Islamists contend.  That is not a Muslim
problem as such, for all faith is challenged as traditional society gives
ground to globalization. But Muslim countries, whose traditional life shows a
literacy rate of only 60%, face a century of religious deracination.
Christianity and Judaism barely have adapted to the modern world; the Islamists
believe with good reason that Islam cannot co-exist with modernism and propose
to shut it out altogether.
Doubt has all but killed Christian and Jewish faith, despite the efforts of the
theologians to tame it. Doubt is indispensable to faith, wrote Pope Benedict in
1967 when he was the young theologian Joseph Ratzinger: "It is the basic
pattern of man's destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his
existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and
certainty." The Gates of Hell, however, have won more rounds than St Peter. As
Cardinal Avery Dulles told Paul Elie of Atlantic Monthly in January:
breakdown of traditional societies and the indifference of modern people to
religious faith have left us with a burden of re-evangelization ... Germany and
the Low Countries give us no reason to be optimistic. Quebec is a desert.
Ireland is very nearly lost to prosperity ... With [American] society's freedom
of choice come our selfishness and competition, which are now being exported
all over the world. We are not immune to the forces of secularization that are
being felt in Europe. Is the Christian residue in America strong enough to
resist them? I worry that it is not.
With stable institutions
and material wealth, the secular West evinces a slow decline. Not so the Muslim
world, where loss of faith implies sudden deracination and ruin. In the space
of a generation, Islam must make an adjustment that Christianity made with
great difficulty over half a millennium. Both for theological and social
reasons, it is unequipped to do so. Muslims might as well fight over a cartoon
now; they have very little to lose.
Throughout the world, literacy erodes traditional society, and the collapse of
traditional society leads to declining population growth rates. But in the
Muslim world these trends hit like a shock wave. Both the traditional life of
Muslims as well as Muslim theology have been frozen in time, such that Muslims
are repeating in compressed time trends long at work in the West. The result is
Most members of religious groups adhere to their beliefs because they were born
into a faith and learned no other way to live. Traditional society admits of no
heresy or atheism because religion governs the socialization of individuals.
Once a traditional people has the opportunity to choose its beliefs, however,
most often is a sudden fall-off in religious practice. We observe a close
statistical relationship between literacy and the percentage of non-religious
people in a population in the cross-section of countries.
Once the literacy rate reaches 90%, the percentage of non-religious jumps into
two digits. That is as true for Muslim countries as well as for non-Muslim
countries. Because the Muslim literacy rate is so far below the average,
though, few Muslim countries have a high proportion of non-religious people.
we discern a clear link among literacy, secularism, and birth rates; the high
birth rates of traditional society fall sharply with greater literacy and
weaker religious belief. In the non-Muslim world (Exhibit 2), literacy alone
explains 46% of variation in population growth.
In the Muslim world, however, the link between rising literacy and falling
population growth is much more pronounced. In the Muslim world (Exhibit 3),
variation in literacy explains nearly 60% of the variation in population
growth, not a surprising result considering that the Muslim world begins with
extremely high population growth and extremely low literacy rates.
Of all the large Muslim countries, Iran is most at risk, with a literacy rate
of 71% and a population growth rate of 1.3%, projected to decline to zero
within a generation. I have elaborated elsewhere on the devastating
implications of a large population of dependent aged for a poor country (Demographics
and Iran's imperial design, September 13, 2005). These considerations
prompted me to predict early on that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad no
more would shrink from confrontation with the West than did Adolf Hitler. But
the rest of the Muslim world faces the same pressures.
The global relationship among literacy rates, secularization and population
growth makes clear that the fragility of Muslim traditional society is not a
Muslim problem as such. But the Muslim world is far more vulnerable than the
numbers suggest, for two reasons. The first reason is chronological, and the
second is theological.
It is not a good thing to come late to the table of globalization. China and
its neighbors have emerged from the maelstrom of revolution and the violent
loss of tens of millions of lives to become actors on the world economic stage.
Of China's 1.3 billion people, 400 million are integrated into the world
division of labor, and millions more are becoming urbanized, literate and
productive by the year. India remains behind China but has good prospects for
success. Against these formidable competitors, few countries in Western Asia,
Africa or Latin America can hope to prevail. In a world that has little need of
subsistence farmers and even less need of university graduates with degrees in
Islamic philosophy, most of the Muslim world can expect small mercy from the
The theological problem I have discussed in other locations, most recently in
reporting the pope's seminar at Castelgandolfo. Christianity and Judaism have
adapted to doubt, the bacillus of modern thought, by inviting doubt to serve as
the handmaiden of faith. No better formulation of this can be found than in
Benedict XVI's classic Introduction to Christianity. The object of
revelation, the believer, becomes a participant in revelation, in dialogue with
the Revealer. This great innovation has not prevented the death of traditional,
autonomic Christian belief, but it has left an enduring core of Christian faith
in the West well inoculated against skepticism. As the pope explained, the
eternal, unchanging character of the Koran that the Archangel Gabriel dictated
verbatim to Mohammed admits of no doubt. Muslim belief is not dialogue, but
submission. It is as defenseless before the bacillus of skepticism as the
American aboriginals were before the smallpox virus.
That is why Muslims cannot respond to Western jibes at the person of their
Prophet except as they did to the Jyllens-Posten cartoons. I do not sympathize
with scoffers but, like Benedict, I see doubt as an adversary to be won over,
rather than as an enemy to be extirpated. I would not have drawn nor published
these cartoons, but when the lines are drawn, I stand with Western freedom
against traditional authority. I write these lines over a Carlsberg and shall
drink no other lager until the boycott of Danish product ends.
1. On February 2 fell the 150th death anniversary of the greatest of Jewish
humorists, the poet Heinrich Heine. Heine knew that Jewish humor was a salve,
not a cure, for humiliation. In a poem called "To Edom", using the rabbis'
ancient derogatory term for the Christian world, Heine remonstrated that
Christians and Jews "tolerate each other fraternally. I tolerate your rages,
and you tolerate my breathing." He also wrote (as translated by Aaron Kramer):
"And the tears flow on forever
Southward in silent ranks
They flow to the Jordan river
And overrun the banks."
2. See for example Crossroads to Islam, by Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren
(Prometheus Books: New York 2003).