These cartoons don't defend free speech, they threaten it
By Simon Jenkins (From Times Online of Sunday February 05, 2006)
I think, therefore I am, said the philosopher. Fine. But I think, therefore I speak? No way.
Nobody has an absolute right to freedom. Civilisation is the story of humans sacrificing freedom so as to live together in harmony. We do not need Hobbes to tell us that absolute freedom is for newborn savages. All else is compromise.
Should a right-wing Danish newspaper have carried the derisive images of Muhammad? No. Should other newspapers have repeated them and the BBC teasingly "flashed" them to prove its free-speech virility? No. Should governments apologise for them or ban them from repeating the offence? No, but that is not the issue.
A newspaper is not a monastery, its mind blind to the world and deaf to reaction. Every inch of published print reflects the views of its writers and the judgment of its editors. Every day newspapers decide on the balance of boldness, offence, taste, discretion and recklessness. They must decide who is to be allowed a voice and who not. They are curbed by libel laws, common decency and their own sense of what is acceptable to readers. Speech is free only on a mountain top; all else is editing.
Despite Britons' robust attitude to religion, no newspaper would let a cartoonist depict Jesus Christ dropping cluster bombs, or lampoon the Holocaust. Pictures of bodies are not carried if they are likely to be seen by family members. Privacy and dignity are respected, even if such restraint is usually unknown to readers. Over every page hovers a censor, even if he is graced with the title of editor.
To imply that some great issue of censorship is raised by the Danish cartoons is nonsense. They were offensive and inflammatory. The best policy would have been to apologise and shut up. For Danish journalists to demand "Europe-wide solidarity" in the cause of free speech and to deride those who are offended as "fundamentalists . . . who have a problem with the entire western world" comes close to racial provocation. We do not go about punching people in the face to test their commitment to non-violence. To be a European should not involve initiation by religious insult.
Many people seem surprised that a multicultural crunch should have come over religion rather than race. Most incoming migrants from the Muslim world are in search of work and security. They have accepted racial discrimination and cultural subordination as the price of admission. Most Europeans, however surreptitiously, regard that subordination as reasonable.
What Muslims did not expect was that admission also required them to tolerate the ridicule of their faith and guilt by association with its wildest and most violent followers in the Middle East. Islam is an ancient and dignified religion. Like Christianity its teaching can be variously interpreted and used for bloodthirsty ends, but in itself Islam has purity and simplicity. Part of that purity lies in its abstraction and part of that abstraction is an aversion to icons.
The Danes must have known that a depiction of Allah as human or the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist would outrage Muslims. It is plain dumb to claim such blasphemy as just a joke concordant with the western way of life. Better claim it as intentionally savage, since that was how it was bound to seem. To adapt Shakespeare, what to a Christian "is but a choleric word", to a Muslim is flat blasphemy.
Of all the casualties of globalism, religious sensibility is the most hurtful. I once noticed in Baghdad airport an otherwise respectable Iraqi woman go completely hysterical when an American guard set his sniffer dog, an "unclean" animal, on her copy of the Koran. The soldier swore at her: "Oh for Christ's sake, shut up!" She was baffled that he cited Christ in defence of what he had done.
Likewise, to an American or British soldier, forcibly entering the women's quarters of an Arab house at night is normal peacekeeping. To an Arab it is abhorrent, way beyond any pale. Nor do Muslims understand the West's excusing such actions, as does Tony Blair, by comparing them favourably with those of Saddam Hussein, as if Saddam were the benchmark of international behaviour.
It is clearly hard for westerners to comprehend the dismay these gestures cause Muslims. The question is not whether Muslims should or should not "grow up" or respect freedom of speech. It is whether we truly want to share a world in peace with those who have values and religious beliefs different from our own. The demand by foreign journalists that British newspapers compound their offence shows that moral arrogance is as alive in the editing rooms of northern Europe as in the streets of Falluja. That causing religious offence should be regarded a sign of western machismo is obscene.
The traditional balance between free speech and respect for the feelings of others is evidently becoming harder to sustain. The resulting turbulence can only feed the propaganda of the right to attack or expel immigrants and those of alien culture. And it can only feed the appetite of government to restrain free speech where it really matters, as in criticising itself.
There is little doubt that had the Home Office's original version of its religious hatred bill been enacted, publishing the cartoons would in Britain have been illegal. There was no need to prove intent to cause religious hatred, only "recklessness". Even as amended by parliament the bill might allow a prosecution to portray the cartoons as insulting and abusive and to dismiss the allowed defence that the intention was to attack ideas rather than people.
The same zest for broad-sweep censorship was shown in Charles Clarke's last anti-terrorism bill. Its bid (again curbed by parliament) was to outlaw the "negligent", even if unintended, glorification of terrorism. It wanted to outlaw those whose utterances might have celebrated or glorified a violent change of government, whether or not they meant to do so. Clarke proposed to list "under order" those historical figures he regarded as terrorists and those he decided were "freedom fighters". The latter, he intimated, might include Irish ones. This was historical censorship of truly Stalinist ambition. By such men are we now ruled.
That a modern home secretary should seek such powers illustrates the danger to which a collapse of media self-restraint might lead. Last week there were demands from some (not all) Muslim leaders for governments to "apologise" for the cartoons and somehow forbid their dissemination. It was a demand that Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, commendably rejected. It assumed that governments had in some sense allowed the cartoons and were thus in a position to atone for them. Many governments might be happy to fall into this trap and seek to control deeds for which they may have to apologise. The glib assumption of blame where none exists feeds ministerial folie de grandeur, as with Blair's ludicrous 1997 apology for the Irish potato famine.
In all matters of self-regulation the danger is clear. If important institutions, in this case the press, will not practise self-discipline then governments will practise it for them. Ascribing evil consequences to religious faith is a sure way of causing offence. Banning such offence is an equally sure way for a politician to curry favour with a minority and thus advance the authoritarian tendency. The present Home Office needs no such encouragement.
Offending an opponent has long been a feature of polemics, just as challenging the boundaries of taste has been a feature of art. It is rightly surrounded by legal and ethical palisades. These include the laws of libel and slander and concepts such as fair comment, right of reply and not stirring racial hatred. None of them is absolute. All rely on the exercise of judgment by those in positions of power. All rely on that bulwark of democracy, tolerance of the feelings of others. This was encapsulated by Lord Clark in his defining quality of civilisation: courtesy.
Too many politicians would rather not trust the self-restraint of others and would take the power of restraint onto themselves. Recent British legislation shows that a censor is waiting round every corner. This past week must have sent his hopes soaring because of the idiot antics of a few continental journalists.
The best defence of free speech can only be to curb its excess and respect its courtesy.
The right to laugh at gods
By Tavleen Singh (From The Indian Express of Sunday February 05, 2006)
Last week newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, in a gesture of solidarity with Denmark, reprinted the Danish cartoons that have enraged the Islamic world because one of them depicts the Prophet Mohammad, and any depiction of him is considered blasphemy in Islam.
In Paris, the newspaper France Soir added a cartoon of its own of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods seated on a cloud under a headline saying 'Yes we Have the Right to Caricature God'.
In Europe, from where I write this piece, the controversy made headlines but could have been played down in politically correct Bharatvarsha. So, for those of you who may not have followed the story here is a precis. In September a small Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons in one of which the Prophet Mohammed was shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban.
This caused a furore in the Islamic world and Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria have withdrawn their ambassadors to Denmark. Many Islamic countries demanded an apology from the Danish government, which has pointed out that in a free society a government cannot apologise on behalf of a newspaper or tell it what to print.
As someone often accused of targeting Muslims in this column, I have followed the Danish cartoon controversy with interest. I believe it strikes at the root of the difficulty us infidels face in dealing with Islam and Islamists. Irreverent infidels like me, and there are many of my kind in free societies, believe that religion and the gods must be kept within the realms of literature and even cartoons.
I believe the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was an outrage and the murder of Theo Van Gogh an act of barbarism. The Dutch filmmaker was killed in 2004 because he made a film on violence against women in Islamic societies.
Is it not time we stood up against Islam's repeated attempts to impose its will, values and ideas of blasphemy on the rest of us? Is it not time we demanded that Islam retreat to the private sphere it inhabited before the advent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden? Is it not time that the Islamic world recognised that its ideas of blasphemy are different to ours? We infidels can laugh with and at religions and gods and we must stand up for the right to do so.
Increasingly, because of the rise of Islamic terrorism, we see Muslims perceive themselves as victims of an international conspiracy to malign them and their religion. At the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, two weeks ago, I attended a session on Islam and the World and was surprised that nearly all the panelists expressed a deep sense of grievance.
One gentleman of South Asian origin but living in New York said, "Just look at the way today's terrorists are described in the international media - as Islamic terrorists. This has never happened before, the IRA were never called Christian terrorists." Maybe not, but we do know of Tamil terrorists.
The other grievances expressed were, in my view, equally baseless. One complaint was that the Muslim world was unable to change its image because the Western media did not cooperate in this exercise. Excuse me? The Western media is under no obligation to cooperate but by and large has been so politically correct when it comes to Islam that the riots in the suburbs of Paris were never discussed as ethnic.
Every commentator I read was at pains to point out the social and economic reasons why Muslim youths went on a rampage in which private cars and public property were targeted. After the London bombings every effort was made to assure the general public that this was the work of a handful of madmen and had nothing to do with Islam.
When Western reporters write about ethnic violence in India, Muslims are always portrayed as victims and efforts made to balance radical Islam with Hindu fundamentalism, an annoyingly unfair comparison.
Islam has its Prophet and its book and Muslims have every right to consider them sacred. The Islamic world has the right to ban other religions and their temples from existing on Islamic soil if it so wishes. That is their way. The problem only arises when Islam tries to impose its ideas on those of us who are not Muslim. The concerted attack on the Danish cartoons appropriately resulted in Europe closing ranks behind the Danish newspaper. We must stand up for the right to laugh at the gods, it is a right worth preserving and, besides, this is our way.
Sorry, madam, I beg to differ. Not worshipping any God myself I do believe that I have to respect the religious beliefs of other people, not necessarily because I agree with what they believe in, but simply because I think it is not right to insult what a person considers very dear to his soul. The freedom of a person here must end where the sensitivity of another begins.
I really don't see how, in the name of freedom, one can be allowed to make fun of whatever another person considers to be his God. This is the equivalent of saying "My God is better than your God" and is a sure-fire way to start a war. - PJG