Let's Keep Our Heads

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, February 26, 2006

To: Abbas Maleki,

editor, the Hamshahri Daily, Tehran

As truth-seeking journalists at two great newspapers, you and I can perhaps work together to defuse the global unpleasantness that has followed the publication of Danish cartoons depicting The Prophet. By engaging in a public dialogue to learn more about each other's cultures, we can help eliminate the sort of hurtful stereotypes that this regrettable event has inflamed. Cultural generalities, after all, are born of ignorance. For example, the only time many Middle Eastern Muslims get to see and hear Westerners is in grainy videos of people whimpering and begging for their lives. This is a perfect example of destructive, inaccurate stereotypes. Under ordinary circumstances, we Westerners seldom whimper and beg, except in the presence of our wives.

See? We are making headway already. The healing process has begun!

I suspect this conciliatory letter from me is coming as a surprise, because it was your newspaper that elected to respond to the controversy by publishing funny Holocaust-denial cartoons. But, see, right there is another area of agreement -- we Westerners love humor, too! I took the initiative with this letter because it seemed unlikely that you would approach me first. As I see it, if the mountain won't come to Muhammad . . .

Hahaha. That was a joke. Please do not decapitate me.

Hahaha. That was another joke. I know you will not decapitate me. You are an important, dignified man. You will order others to decapitate me.

Hahaha. That was a joke, too. But please don't, anyway. Thank you.

The fact is, once people get to know one another, they discover we are all more alike than we are different. Take the whole cartoon controversy: Here in America, we also have art critics, and they also can be highly opinionated and headstrong. Just yesterday, my newspaper's art critic disapproved of a Cezanne still life, so he burned down the French Embassy.


Okay, let's get on with this business of healing, Abbas.

It would be fatuous to pretend that great cultural differences do not exist between our two peoples or, at least, between our population and the more extreme elements of your population, who seem to be in control just now. But rather than dwell on our differences, perhaps we can focus more on our similarities. For example, it is true that, unlike in your country, in my country women are regarded as equal to men, have equal rights, may dress as they wish, are not required to serve as footstools, etc. But I prefer to look at it this way: Both our great nations grow alfalfa.

At the center of our misunderstanding over the cartoons, of course, is a cultural difference concerning the notion of "free speech." Westerners place enormous value on free speech, which in our case means saying pretty much whatever we want without fear of censorship or retaliation. This includes serious criticism of our own government. And, in a sense, this is no different from your country. For example, I am allowed to write that I think the president of the United States is a moron. And so can you!

I feel we are getting somewhere here, don't you?

I also can write that I, personally, do not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. See, I just wrote it, and I still have a job and a head! I sense that here is where our two great nations diverge. Here is the real sticking point in our mutual understanding. You guys seem to feel that devotion to your religion trumps the right to free speech, that thinking is okay only if it is the sort of thought approved by your clerics.

I am far too culturally sensitive a guy to tell you that you are wrong about this. This is, after all, a philosophical difference of opinion. Maybe devotion to dogma is more important than critical thought. Maybe defense to the death of one's religion is a nobler cause than intellectual ferment. I did some research on this subject (we in the West can do that), and I came up with a very wise quote that might interest you: "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr."

I'm guessing you know who said that.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.

Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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