It seems that "the Mohammed caricatures" is the only topic of conversation considered worthwhile these days. Suddenly everyone is engaging everyone in debates about "culture" and "understanding". It reminds me of previous frustrations: trying to understand the cultural differances in my high school class.
We were a mix of Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, atheists and agnostics, and we had a lot of deep discussions in Philosophy class, but these discussions were often broken up by the comment: "This is what my religion says, so this is what I believe, and I don’t want to discuss it." Maybe not word-for-word, but something to the same effect.
Somehow this statement seemed to win every argument. After all, it’s impossible to argue with someone who doesn’t want to argue. But even if I didn’t want to argue, even if I just wanted them to elaborate on their point of view, the conversation was over.
I would try to get my Hindu friend to explain to me why it wasn’t ok for her to wear a tank top and a skirt outside her house when it was ok for me to do so, or why a Muslim guy in my class couldn’t visit me at my house, even though he saw me at school every day – and the answer was: "It’s culture. It’s religion. You just have to understand it." In other words: you better just accept it.
And then I started to wonder if my classmates didn’t understand it either. I had found that trying to explain something I had learned in school to my little sister was the ultimate test of whether I had understood it or not. If my classmates couldn’t explain their points of view to me, maybe it was because they accepted rather than understood their own beliefs.
It was a disturbing thought, and one I would never say to their faces, but it’s coming back to me now: I won’t accept that something is untouchable just because it is religious or cultural. I want complete explanations from anyone who claims that I "just have to understand" or "couldn’t possibly understand". If something is undiscussable, I suspect that it wouldn’t bear the test of discussion – that it would be too easy to prove it wrong. People say that religion isn’t logical, that it’s not supposed to be, and I say fine, but any practical rule that you can’t explain logically is not a good rule.
In my search for understanding, I watched a documentary on Hamas last week. There were interviews with members of Hamas, teenagers who wanted to be members, a psychologist who gave reasonable explanations for why Hamas attracts so many followers and several experts of politics, religion and culture. I felt that I was beginning to get it. Until I found myself looking at the face of a mother saying: "I am very proud of my sons. The eldest died, but not before he nominated the youngest for an important suicide mission. There were several nominees, and my eldest son chose his younger brother. He did this because he loved him." Then I realized that I might demand explanations from my friends about how they followed religious rules in their daily lives, but I would never understand this – and I didn’t want to.