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Pussy Riot and a strange convergence

August 22, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Pussy Riot members Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a glass cage at a courtroom in Moscow.
Pussy Riot members Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda… (Mikhail Metzel / Associated…)

One of my hobbies is collecting what I call strange convergences, unexpected overlaps between seemingly antithetical political philosophies.

For example, when it comes to gender identity and the proper role of women, Christian conservatives arguably have more in common with the Muslims they so distrust than they do with feminists and secular liberals. That's not to say that they endorse honor killings, forced marriages, full-body veils or criminal sanctions for homosexuality. But there are undeniable points of connection. (Recently, Robert George, a prominent Catholic intellectual, teamed up with a Muslim thinker, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, in an appeal to hotels not to provide access to pornographic TV.)

Likewise, American conservatives complain about "Islamofascism" as manifested, for instance, by death threats against cartoonists who depict the prophet Muhammad. But would they be as sanguine about uninhibited free speech if it was Jesus or the Virgin Mary being lampooned? Recall Rudy Giuliani’s attack on the Brooklyn Museum for exhibiting a Madonna fashioned in part from elephant dung?

The latest strange convergence involves Pussy Riot, the feminist punk band that performed a "punk prayer" in a Moscow cathedral in which they beseeched Mary to "banish [Russian President Vladimir] Putin." One might think that conservatives in this country would join the U.S. State Department in denouncing the two-year prison sentences imposed on three Pussy Riot members. Not necessarily.

In an article in the conservative American Spectator titled "Blasphemy Chic," Tom Bethell wrote: "I don't know what the Muscovites' opinion of Putin is today but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that a majority supports him. Clearly the Russian leadership and the Russian Orthodox Church are moving closer together and they won't be entertaining the 'separation of Church and state' any time soon. Or, one hopes, an understanding of 'freedom of expression' that turns out to more closely resemble profanity and desecration.’’

Taking the obligatory dig at Islam, Bethell observed: "You can be sure the punks wouldn't have dared to try any such 'stunt' in a mosque."

But the logic of his position is that such a demonstration would also be beyond the pale. Reverence for houses of worship isn't a peculiarly Christian concept, any more than traditional notions of gender roles are. There is a social conservatism that transcends differences of politics and theology, uniting Catholics and Muslims and conservatives and former KGB operatives. Strange but true.

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