Much ink and, unfortunately, some blood has already been spilled over the Danish cartoon controversy. Defenders of free expression are lining up opposite defenders of the faith and the situation is devolving into an unpleasant test of whether the pen is, in fact, mightier than the sword.
Stalwarts on both sides would like us to believe that what’s at issue here is nothing less than a clash of civilizations. While there is certainly a cultural clash going on, it has the air of something manufactured about it. Murder and mob violence, it should go without saying, are never appropriate reactions to a slight, whether real or perceived. In a free society, the right to free expression should always supersede the right not to be offended. That said, it is vitally important to look at the context of the cartoon dustup if we have any hope of moving beyond the lines drawn in the sand by fanatics on either side.
Wikipedia has a good overview of the cartoon controversy (the actual cartoons can be seen here). Included in their account is what strikes me as a vital piece of information about the context in which the cartoons were printed:
The drawings, which include a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb on his head, were purportedly meant as satirical illustrations accompanying an article on self-censorship and freedom of speech. Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, commissioned twelve cartoonists to draw them and published the cartoons in response to the difficulty that Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen had finding artists to illustrate his children’s book about Muhammad, because the artists feared violent attacks by extremist Muslims.
They were not, as some have suggested, drawn with the sole purpose of insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The Danish editors should have known—in fact did know—that the drawings would provoke an outcry in the Muslim world. That in and of itself does not mean it was irresponsible for them to print the cartoons and it was certainly not inappropriate of them to broach the subject of intellectual intolerance within Islamic societies. The fact that the cartoons they chose were so sophomoric –some of them patently offensive — doesn’t help, but editorial and artistic ineptitude can not, and should not, be a crime.
Of course, there are many articulate defenders of the freedom of the press, and their right to print things that might offend some people is hardly controversial. It is also important to look at the Muslim response to the cartoons in its proper context, and that side has far fewer defenders in the “Western world.” It is by now common knowledge that pictorial representation of Muhammad and his disciples is haram, or forbidden. It doesn’t matter why, or whether it’s “normal” (there are plenty of aspects of Christianity, such as the Trinity or the communion rite, that baffle non-believers). It is sufficient to know that it is so. This religious stricture, however, is only part of the story. The outrage over the Muhammad cartoons cannot be appropriately discussed without dealing with certain realities of European society.
Europe is notoriously hostile to immigrants, and to none more so than Muslims. Xenophobia and Islamophobia are far stronger forces in Western Europe than they are here in the United States and, in Europe the Muslim populations are generally far larger, and much poorer, than they are in the US. (Of course, the problem of Islamic extremism is also a far bigger problem in Europe on a day-to-day basis, as the Dutch experience has shown.) Taken in this context, many Muslims saw the cartoons not only as a desecration of their prophet, but as a concrete and blatant expression of European hostility toward Muslims in general—a hostility that many Muslims have direct or indirect experience with. The glee with which other European newspapers have reprinted the cartoons to “show solidarity” with the ideal of free expression does little to quell these suspicions.
This is a contentious debate to being with. Add in the religious extremists who are always ready to hijack Islam to further their own bloody ends and you have the recipe for disaster. Again, there is no excuse for violence and mayhem because of cartoons (or any other form of expression, for that matter), no matter how offensive they might be to certain segments of the population. There is also no reason that outrage should not be expressed in the form of angry letters to the editor, protests and boycotts. This is also freedom of speech and it is inalienable.
The sad fact of the matter is that the cartoons, and the European response, appears to pander to the lowest common denominator – both in Muslim societies and in their own. The whole European response to the controversy appears to be designed to prove a point about Islam: that it is incompatible with Western ideals of freedom. Unfortunately for the vast majority of peaceful Muslims, there are all too many Muslim extremists willing to prove just that point. What’s lost in the shuffle is a commitment to civil society that should be at the center of any enlightened nation.
In an article defending free speech in no uncertain terms (and defending the right to mock religion), Christopher Hitchens takes the State Department to task for issuing a statement calling anti-religious images “unacceptable.” How, he wonders, could the home of the First Amendment release such a statement? And how could this administration in particular give credence to people who would hijack Islam for political gain – the very people they are at war with in Iraq?
Of course there are many millions of Muslims who do worry about [having their religion hijacked], and another reason for condemning the idiots at Foggy Bottom is their assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people. There’s an insult to Islam, if you like.
The solution is not to tell press to “watch what they say.” Never. There can never be this kind of capitulation to intolerance. But it is vital to remember that those who speak first and speak loudest, no matter what side they’re on, don’t necessarily speak the public will. One firebomb, sadly, speaks louder than a thousand voices, but it does not speak the truth.
Originally published as The Pen vs. the Sword