Daniel has been holding down the domestic front for a while, so I’m going to try and focus on foreign affairs, especially that area near and dear to my heart, the Middle East. I hope to have a piece up about the Hamas elections soon, but before that I wanted to make a few remarks about the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have been causing so much controversy of late.
A bit of background: Towards the end of 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten (they have an English-language service here) ran a series of twelve cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, one of which depicted him wearing a turban, which was drawn as a bomb with a lit fuse. The cartoons accompanied an article about self-censorship, written after an author, Kare Bluitgen, was unable to find an illustrator for a children’s book he was writing about the life of Muhammad and the Qur’an. Prospective illustrators repeatedly turned down the project, citing fears of offending Muslim sensibilities and inviting violent reprisals a là Van Gogh (more on that later).
It was accompanied by this text, written by the Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor (from a translation by Wikipedia):
“The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always equally attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is less important in this context. [...] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him. [...]"
Protests were lodged almost immediately. Ambassadors were withdrawn, rallies held, etc. In response to the response, several leading European newspapers republished the images, in an act of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. The papers, including Die Welt and Soir France, argued that they were taking a principled stand for free speech in re-running the caricatures.
Because of these actions, and despite the firing of the chief editor of the France Soir, the outraged response has continued to grow, with a boycott of Danish goods by Muslim groups, an armed raid on EU offices in Gaza (in which, thankfully, no one was hurt), and death-threats made against illustrators and publishers.
All of which has provoked a great deal of opinion and analysis in the blogosphere, to which I will contribute the following two cents:
First of all, I think my reaction to the whole business is based on a very careful distinction between legal actions and morally responsible actions. One of the absolute best parts of the American way of government, in my opinion, is its protection of free speech. You should be able to say and publish what you like (excepting, of course, threats or libel) without legal repercussions. There should be no Ministry of Culture censoring books and the press for content. If you want to write a racist screed, satirize politicians and religions in the most vulgar manner possible, or write an epic novel delimiting all the reasons I suck, by all means, let no arm of the government stop you.
But if you do let out with a racist screed, for example, don’t think that this entitles you not to be met with anything but the loudest and most clearly articulated of fuck-you’s from everyone within earshot. Being racist does not make you brave. It does not make you principled. It makes you morally irresponsible.
And please don’t whine about your free speech rights being under attack when other people exercise their right to free expression by calling bullshit on you. There is no such thing as a no-tag-back rule in Free Speech. If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.
Hence, while I think that it was perfectly legal for Jyllands-Posten and others to publish their cartoons, I maintain that it was a pretty reprehensible action, and I support all the legal forms of protest that have been going on in response to it, from marches to boycotts.
In order to understand why I think the publication of the cartoons was morally irresponsible, I think you have to put their publication in the wider context of the troubled relations between European Muslims and their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, this is precisely what a lot of American bloggers and pundits have failed to do.
However, as I'm about to leave work, this post will have to come to an end half-way through its argument. Up next: Why Piss Christ isn't something to get worked up about, The Van Gogh Murder, Muhammad in the Supreme Court Building, and why I hate intolerance and the Dutch.