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Totem And Task

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Totem Poles and Our Task

[Translation of Tótem y tarea by Javier Marías ( Javier Marias ) published in El País semanal on 05-Feb-2006.]

It is to be hoped that by the time these lines are published, the so-called cartoon crisis will have at last ended and the deaths provoked by this absurd cause will no longer be occurring. But at the time of writing there have been another dozen Libyans killed while protesting furiously against those published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. It is quite common that when things carry on for a while, one loses sight of their origins because there are always imbeciles in the two opposing trenches to stir up the flames: in the western trench, the imbecile's award goes to Calderoli, a minister in Berlusconi's government, who announced that he was going to wear shirts with the cartoons printed on them. It is a pity that they didn't dissuade him or sack him: not only because we might have had one imbecile less (we need to reduce the huge number that we currently have), but also because we might have had the pleasure to see him made into a post card (I suppose that like an unpleasant Italian he would have worn sleeveless shirts).

One often has the feeling that the more trivial and unimportant is the reason for a conflict, the more probable it is for it to degenerate into something serious. The more artificial or fictitious the reasons, the worse it can become. Without leaving Spain, we have had forty years of ETA terrorism for imaginary motives. A little while ago I saw on the television that a certain Kandido assassinated the person who saved him in an accident when Kandido was a defenseless baby and has now set up a glazier's shop beneath the flat of his rescuer's and victim's widow. In order to explain his actions (because he was not justifying himself or showing any regret) he could only think of vagaries and trivialities, the most imaginative of which was, “He belonged to a repressive regime” - whatever Kandido understands by regime, or “What I cannot allow is that he crushes my people”. If you remember that these people are none other than the Basques, you can see that he has no idea what a really crushed people look like; in any case, a crushed people is not a people with a government, a parliament which has had its own elections for the last thirty years, and a people who have enjoyed a very high standard of living and not few privileges for a long time.

The conflict over the caricatures, like almost any other of a religious nature or pretext, is childish and  trivial and should be a work of fiction. It is obvious (to all except to the followers of the religions themselves owing to a mistaken idea that has its origin centuries ago) that to talk about blasphemy and sacrilege doesn't have any sense if the person who commits these acts does not belong to the offended faith. In the same way that you can never accuse an Englishman who harms Spain or Germany or France of being a traitor, or a Spaniard who conspires against England or Venezuela or Russia, so you can't accuse the Danish cartoonist, who has never taken Allah as his God or Muhammad as his prophet, of blasphemy. Equally, the Muslim who mocks the Christian Cross should not be judged to be sacrilegious, because this symbol has never been associated for him with anything sacred that can be undermined or offended. In all religions, or at least in the monotheistic ones, there is an error right from the start, or maybe it is not an error but a deliberate totalitarian tendency. Any faith is justified in demanding a strong belief in its dogmas and obedience to its laws and rules from its voluntary followers. But only from its followers, and only to the volunteers. In the case of Catholicism, for example, only from adults who have chosen freely to be confirmed, not those that were baptised without their knowledge. It is only these responsible followers who should be obliged to obey the doctrines, venerate the symbols and follow the teachings of the Church. And only these should be considered capable of blasphemy and sacrilege by denying the sacred character of those things they consider to be sacred. For those that don't hold the faith, an effigy of the Virgin or of Christ crucified is no different than a Sioux totem pole for a Catholic.

The problem originated from the fact that traditionally, the religions have tried, or required, to make the whole world belong to them. This viewpoint, for better or worse, was the cause of the holy wars, persecutions, intolerances and evangelisms. It has cost a lot of argument and a lot of western blood to convince our Churches (well, only partially convince because at heart they are still not in agreement) that their “one true faith” should only be that only for the believers and not for the whole of humanity. The strange thing is that it is now up to us, westerners, to go and explain this and try to convince the millions of fanatical and totalitarian Muslims. And still worse and harder to convince the thousands of ayatollahs, imams and ulems who are not going to help us in our massive challenge: they will take offense at this task.


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