Matter and spirit

For hundreds of years, the people of the West – the children of the Enlightenment, in other words – scoffed at the idea that some of the best minds of the Middle Ages were preoccupied with discovering how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. If the intellectuals of that period did indeed wrestle with such an issue, they were probably trying to understand at which precise point spirit may meet the material world. For them, the holy (the angels) were as real as the infinitesimally small bit of matter that constituted the head of a pin. Today we are no longer laughing. We have found an equivalent riddle for our own age: How many demons can be born of the point of a pencil? Who could have predicted that Muslims across the world could rise up in a global protest against Denmark because one of its newspapers published a series of 12 satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad? For Westerners, this is a sudden revelation that the Middle Ages are not that far away and that many people still believe that sacred things exist in real terms; they are paramount and not just part of a system of ideas. We in Greece are a little less surprised at the turn of events. We understand the need for citizens to express themselves freely. Because of our long relationship with neighbors from other civilizations, we also understand the need to respect the sensitivities of others. Furthermore, as part of the Byzantine world, the Greeks lived out their own drama with regard to whether sacred figures should be portrayed in art, in the great, long and bloody Iconoclast controversy which ended with the defeat of the iconoclasts some 1,200 years ago. Also, as descendants of ancient Athens and the first democratic system of government (in which Aristophanes could satirize, without fear, the state’s leaders and his gods) we understand that no law and no state can impose on its citizens what they can think, what they can write, what they can draw. On the other hand, the people who lived on Byzantium’s borders first came into contact with the faithful of the new religion of Islam, resulting in some of them adopting the Islamic (and Judaic) ban on representing the sacred, with devastating consequences for the Christian empire’s tranquility for the next few centuries. And so today, as a border people of the European Union, the Greeks are perhaps in a better position than many other Europeans to understand that one should not treat the religious sensitivities of others superficially. The troubled region in which we live has made us more sensitive than people who do not have serious problems on their borders. (This comes at a heavy price. How often have we not sighed, «We are not Denmark,» when contemplating the huge amounts we must spend on our defense?) Now, very unexpectedly, we see the Danes have become the target of Muslim rage across the world, even though their country has been more welcoming than most for migrants. Perhaps Denmark’s great distance (both geographically and historically) from great masses of Muslims created the illusion in a large number of Danes that the world is more or less the way they see it. As a result, a Danish writer’s difficulty in finding an illustrator who would draw Muhammad for a children’s book on religion inspired an editor at the Jyllands-Posten newspaper to commission cartoons of the prophet for the newspaper last September. A few years ago, nothing more may have come of this. But today many Muslims live in Denmark. They felt insulted by the breaking of the ban on portraying Muhammad, even more so by the fact that some of the cartoons equated the holiest figure in their religion as the representative of the terrorism that plagues our age. But our age has other, unprecedented dynamics as well. The Internet – the most «Western» of creations – and satellite television have brought all the fragments of the world into one restive whole. The outrage of Muslim in Denmark can drive hundreds of thousands of protesters out onto the streets of Tehran, Damascus, Istanbul and countless other cities. Suddenly, a small country in Europe’s north can become the object of hatred for a group of more than a million people because of a publication by one newspaper. (It remains to be seen, of course, how spontaneous the protests are and how much they are born of political considerations. But that is another issue. In any case, such political exploitation can result only from tapping a deep-seated belief.) Whether or not we agree with the editors of the newspapers which reprinted the cartoons, the cartoonists themselves and the principled government of Denmark which supports freedom of speech, the one thing that is certain is that these 12 cartoons shook the world. We have learned that the wit of a satirical cartoonist can move the matter of millions of people. We have also learned that our world has just become considerably smaller and more uncomfortable. It is as if we are standing on pins.