No laughing matter

Secular liberals have every right to be upset. A dozen cartoons were enough to do what a good number of beheadings and suicide bombings failed to accomplish – make the Muslim masses take to the streets. The drawings of Muhammad published six months ago in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, one of them showing the prophet in a bomb-shaped turban, have prompted the torching of European embassies, death calls and deadly riots. The problem, it seems, lies not with the acts of Islamic extremists, but their depiction. It’s not reality that angers these people, but its representation. Surprisingly, the response from the West has been muted. The State Department condemned the drawings while Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary, called their publication «insensitive» and «unnecessary.» None of the US and British newspapers reprinted the cartoons. But if American and British reluctance was a sign of fear of reprisals or an effort to avoid pouring more oil on the flames raging after the invasion of Iraq, it’s hard to explain the apologetic posturing elsewhere in the West. President Jacques Chirac of France – the proud home of liberté – warned the country’s media against printing the caricatures, saying that this would amount to a «manifest provocation.» If that was all that Western politicians could mumble, it should come as little surprise that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a country with a poor human rights record, got away with saying that «there should be a limit to press freedom.» Freedom of speech, including the right to mock religion, has been hard won but, more importantly, it’s a constitutive element of liberal democracies. Many newspapers in Europe reprinted the cartoons just to demonstrate their freedom to do so. Sure, we should not go around offending others just because we have the right to do so. But freedom of expression cannot stop where one is offended – what constitutes an offense is too controversial a boundary. At the end of the day, satire is meant to offend and provoke. Occasional offense is the price we pay for the freedom of speech and it is by all means preferable to self-censorship and silence. Quite rightly, Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s interior minister, said he preferred «an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship.» True to form, much of the liberal left came up with the same old guilt-talk, denouncing Europe’s purported cultural arrogance as a hangover from colonial brutality. A commentary by Martin Jacques in The Guardian slammed the «old attitudes of superiority and disdain – dressed up in terms of free speech, progress or whatever.» «If European societies want to live in some kind of domestic peace and harmony [with their minorities],» it warned, «then they must [show] respect for their values.» Sure. But it depends on the values. In a recent London march, Muslim extremists carried banners demanding the beheading of those who insult Islam. Is incitement to murder a value to respect? And what about Western sensitivities? Shouldn’t they be defended as well? As Christians will be the first to tell you, secular Europeans criticize, even lampoon, religious faith all the time. And Denmark, remember, is part of secular Europe. True, Europeans have not always been very keen on the growing minorities in their midst. But these minorities too have often failed to accept the norms of their hosts. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch director of «Submission,» a film about the domestic abuse of Muslim women, was shot and stabbed on an Amsterdam street by an Islamic extremist. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch-Somali deputy who wrote and conceived the movie, has been under police protection ever since. In a recent interview with The Guardian, she said it was not religious respect which dictated Britain’s muted response but fear. «You’re scared,» she told the paper. «It’s a shame.» Liberals should not let defense of their values become the property of the right. Some commentators have cited the recent conviction of British historian David Irving as an example of Europe’s purported double standards on the freedom of expression. But Holocaust denial is a crime in many countries while the newspapers that printed the Muhammad cartoons did not break any national laws. Even if it would perhaps be better to expose the Irvings of this world to ridicule rather than giving them martyr status by sending them to prison, the comparison still does not hold. Mocking or denying a systematic campaign to exterminate a race is quite different to sketching an historical or religious figure. Critics of double standards should rather take a look at the Arab newspapers which routinely publish articles vilifying the Christians and the Jews. We live in a world where the rules and values of some people seem abhorrent to others. Liberal democracies have tried to accommodate this fact by drawing a distinction between a private sphere where people are free to practice their religious faith, and a public one where metaphysical beliefs are to be worn lightly. The massive migration of Muslim populations into the West has put the division under great strain, reflected in previously unheard-of demands such as freedom to wear the headscarf in public places and women-only swimming pools. When metaphysics enter the public sphere the outcome is tension and confusion. Many liberals like to think that when confronted with people who do not share their world view, they can simply sit down and discuss their differences – not realizing that this presupposes that the other side actually shares their liberal standpoint. «The belief in the therapeutic and redemptive force of dialogue depends on the assumption… that, after all, no idea is worth fighting over to the death and that we can always reach a position of accommodation if only we will sit down and talk it out,» wrote Stanley Fish in the International Herald Tribune. «But a firm adherent of a comprehensive religion doesn’t want dialogue about his beliefs; he wants those beliefs to prevail.» Ask Salman Rushdie. The West has made mistakes but that does not mean that it cannot stand by its hard-won achievements. For millions of people around the globe, liberalism stands as a beacon of hope against oppression and religious dogmatism. The power of liberalism to forge solidarity may be diminished by the fact that its most important virtues such as tolerance, pluralism and human rights are by nature defensive ones. But, as the experience of Nazism and communism showed, a potent threat will always push liberalism to rally its fighting forces. When Muslims march through London calling for murder, there is certainly cause for sadness and alert. [email protected] com.