Evolution of religious bigotry

The cowardice and intolerance of slapping a Darwin fish on your car bumper.

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I just watched "Fitna," a 17-minute film by Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party, which takes a hard-line stance against Muslim immigration.

Released on the Internet on Thursday, "Fitna" juxtaposes verses from the Koran with images and speeches from the world of jihad. Heads cut off, bodies blown apart, gays executed, toddlers taught to denounce Jews as "apes and pigs," imams calling for global domination, protesters holding up signs reading "God Bless Hitler" and "Freedom go to Hell" -- these are just some of the powerful images from "Fitna," an Arabic word that means "ordeal."

Predictably, various Muslim governments have condemned the film. Half the Jordanian parliament voted to sever ties with the Netherlands. Egypt's grand imam threatened "severe" consequences if the Dutch government didn't ban the film.

Meanwhile, European and U.N. leaders are going through the usual motions of theatrical hand-wringing, heaping all of their anger on Wilders for sowing "hatred."

Me? I keep thinking about Jesus fish.

During a 1991 visit to Istanbul, a buddy and I found ourselves in a small restaurant drinking, dancing and singing with a bunch of middle-class Turkish businessmen, mostly shop owners. It was a hilariously joyful evening, even though they spoke nearly no English and we spoke considerably less Turkish.

At the end of the night, after imbibing unquantifiable quantities of raki, an ouzo-like Turkish liquor, one of the men came up to me and gave me a worn-out business card. On the back, he'd scribbled an image. It was little more than a curlicue, but he seemed intent on showing it to me (and nobody else). It was, I realized, a Jesus fish.

It was an eye-opening moment for me, though obviously trivial compared with the experiences of others. Here in this cosmopolitan and self-styled European city, this fellow felt the need to surreptitiously clue me in that he was a Christian just like me (or so he thought).

Traditionally, the fish pictogram conjures the miracle of the loaves and fishes as well as the Greek word IXOYE, which not only means fish but serves as an acronym, in Greek, for "Jesus Christ the Son of God [Is] Savior." Christians persecuted by the Romans used to draw the Jesus fish in the dirt with a stick or a finger as a way to tip off fellow Christians that they weren't alone.

In America, the easiest place to find this ancient symbol is on the back of cars. Recently, however, it seems as if Jesus fish have become outnumbered by Darwin fish. No doubt you've seen these too. The fish symbol is "updated" with little feet coming off the bottom, and "IXOYE" or "Jesus" is replaced with either "Darwin" or "Evolve."

I find Darwin fish offensive. First, there's the smugness. The undeniable message: Those Jesus fish people are less evolved, less sophisticated than we Darwin fishers.

The hypocrisy is even more glaring. Darwin fish are often stuck next to bumper stickers promoting tolerance or admonishing random motorists that "hate is not a family value." But the whole point of the Darwin fish is intolerance; similar mockery of a cherished symbol would rightly be condemned as bigoted if aimed at blacks or women or, yes, Muslims.

As Christopher Caldwell once observed in the Weekly Standard, Darwin fish flout the agreed-on etiquette of identity politics. "Namely: It's acceptable to assert identity and abhorrent to attack it. A plaque with 'Shalom' written inside a Star of David would hardly attract notice; a plaque with 'Usury' written inside the same symbol would be an outrage."

But the most annoying aspect of the Darwin fish is the false bravado it represents. It's a courageous pose without consequence. Like so much other Christian-baiting in American popular culture, sporting your Darwin fish is a way to speak truth to power on the cheap.

Whatever the faults of "Fitna," it ain't no Darwin fish.

Geert Wilders' film could very, very easily get him killed. (He's already guarded around the clock.) It essentially picks up the work of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered in 2004 by a jihadi for criticizing Islam.

"Fitna" is certainly provocative, yet it has good reason to provoke. A cancer of violence, bigotry and cruelty is metastasizing within the Islamic world.

It's fine for Muslim moderates to say they aren't part of the cancer; and that some have, in response to the film, is a positive sign. But more often, diagnosing or even observing this cancer -- in film, book or cartoon -- is dubbed "intolerant" while calls for violence, censorship and even murder are treated as understandable, if regrettable, expressions of well-deserved anger.

It's not that secular progressives support Muslim religious fanatics, but they reserve their passion and scorn for religious Christians who are neither fanatical nor inclined to use violence.

The Darwin fish ostensibly symbolizes the superiority of progressive-minded science over backward-looking faith. I think this is a false juxtaposition, but I would have a lot more respect for the folks who believe it if they aimed their brave contempt for religion at those who might behead them for it.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com
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