Saturday, September 09, 2017

The cost of appropriating religion

This controversy over the leaflet designed to insult the Taliban but ended up being viewed as insulting to Islam reminds me of this post. A flag is, by design, a representation of the entity (whether a nation or an insurgent group) who flies the flag. By incorporating a verse from the Quran into its flag, the Taliban was trying to lend religious legitimacy on itself. But the flip side of that coin is that when the group does something bad under that banner its opponents will use the image of the flag and its symbols  to criticize the group.

So when the U.S. military made the leaflet showing a dog wrapped in a Taliban flag they certainly intended that dog to represent the Taliban and not Muslims in general. I think a lot of Americans see the controversy in that light. The blame, if any, for the incident is on the Taliban for appropriating the Islamic symbol for itself, not the U.S. military's mistake in printing the leaflet with a different implication than it intended.

But by the same logic, any time someone draws a political cartoon criticizing Israeli policy using a Star of David, or the official seal of Israel (which features a menorah) is not necessarily being antisemitic. The cartoon could be motivated by bigotry or it could be the result of Israel's own decision to use religious symbols as its national symbols.

(Note: I am not claiming that Israel is the moral equivalent to the Taliban. Pointing out one specific parallel does not mean that I am claiming they are the same or similar in any broad fashion.)