Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Voltaire vs. Muhammad

In this morning's WSJ (article not available online) is an article about another round in the European culture war over respect for Islam. A municipal cultural center in the town of Saint-genes-Philly sponsored a reading of vulture's play "Fanaticism, or mammoth the Prophet", a 1741 work in which Voltaire portrayed the prophet as a power-hungry tyrant bent on using religious pretense to increase his political dominions. Catholic clerics of the time weren't fooled, and saw the play as a thinly veiled attack on religion in general and the Church in particular. The ploy's original run in Paris was cancelled after only three performances, primarily due to protests from the clergy.

The mind behind this one-performance revival was herb Loichemol, a French director who believes that Fanaticism has an important message about the importance of secularism. He originally tried to revive the play in 1994 for Voltaire's 300th birthday, but finally met with success this year in Saint-Genis-Pouilly as part of a culture festival. Despite requests that he cancel the show to 'preserve peace' the towns socialist mayor supported the show and called in riot police to deal with protests. Sure enough, on the night of the reading, several dozen protestors set fire to a car and several trash cans before being dispersed by police.

The article closes:

Now that tempers have calmed, Mayor Bertrand says he is proud his town took a stand by refusing to cave in under pressure to call off the reading. Free speech is modern Europe's "foundation stone," he says. "For a long time we have not confirmed our convictions, so lots of people think they can contest them."

He does have one regret: He found the play, five acts in archaic verse, "deeply boring."
Now, I'm all for Europe getting back in touch with its Western Culture identity, but I have to think Voltaire is not quite the ticket they need. I suppose one's assessment of his ultimate value depends very much on one's opinion of the French version of the 'Enlightenment', which I would personally tend to consider an abysmal failure.

It seems to me ironic that secularists are now eager to score points against Islam by producing Fanaticism, when Voltaire himself was known to say that he considered Islam less corrupt and dishonest than Christianity. (Certainly not something to reassure one's faith in Voltaire's taste or knowledge.)

Once again, as with the cartoon controversy, it seems to me this flap puts Christians in a awkward middle ground. On the one hand, we cannot accept a de facto dhimmitude, changing the cultural and political norms of the West to fit Islamic expectations, for by doing so we would in effect be asserting that Islam is right on certain issues and Western Culture is wrong. And yet, many of those stirring up these controversies are not standing up for what we, as Catholics, see as Western Culture. They are standing up for the secular humanism of which Voltaire is one of the patron saints -- a set of cultural, religious and moral beliefs which we clearly belief not merely to be wrong, but to be responsible for the implosion of European life and culture which created the vacuum which Islam is now trying to fill.

No comments: