Random thoughts on the Mohammed Cartoons

Now you wouldn’t raise a red flag in a bull ring and not expect a violent reaction on the part of the bull. Yes, the seemingly reasonable and calm, Flemming Rose, the arts editor of the Copenhagen Daily, Jyllands-Posten, with the agreement of the newspaper’s editor, Carsten Juste, did just this sort of thing on September 30th of last year by publishing twelve images of the Prophet. Whether or not he was perfectly within his rights to publish what now are referred to as the Mohammed Cartoons is not the point. Although in his defense he couldn’t possibly have known, in view of the consequences still raging today nearly five months later, the result of what he was doing. The images of the Prophet were a red flag, and just as red flags will arouse the bull, so in this case the cartoon images aroused the anger of the Muslims, first in Denmark, then months later in the Middle East and on throughout the entire Muslim world. The current state of the world is, and probably has always been, like a bull ring in that at any moment the bull may be aroused by someone’s ill-considered action and only calmed down after a good amount of blood has been shed. At the present time, “There is,” in the words of Robert Wright writing in the New York Times, ”if not a clash of civilizations, at least a very big gap between the ‘Western world’ and the ‘Muslim world’.” Publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed is no way to bridge this gap, and in hindsight the Danish newspaper editors, and their imitators at other publications in Europe and elsewhere, did a reckless and thoroughly foolhardy thing.

Why did they do it? Why did the editors of a small newspaper in a small country, pretty much out of the line of fire during the wars of the past and the wars of the present, why did they enter the ring in this manner? Well the most common explanation one hears is that we in the West, Danes, Europeans, and Americans, need to show that we are free to publish whatever we want, and that in order to preserve this freedom we have to use it, and not allow our freedom to publish weaken in the slightest through lack of use. Roger Köppel, the editor of the German newspaper, Die Welt, said it most bluntly, “It is the core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire. If we stop using our right to freedom of expression within our legal boundaries then we start to develop an appeasement mentality.” And many others have picked up on that, their mantra being, avoid appeasement at all costs. Tony Blankley writing for the rightist internet publication, Townhall, reminds us that Britain’s decision to appease Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland in October of 1938 did not buy peace but only encouraged further Nazi aggression, because Nazi demands were unlimited and non-negotiable. The implication is that Muslim’s demands on us are similarly unlimited and non-negotiable, and that regardless of the wisdom of the original decision to publish the cartoons there is no backing away now from defending our right to do so, if we would hold on to that right and not allow it to slowly wither and die from disuse. Well, to push the appeasement button in this affair of the Mohammed Cartoons is a red herring, diverting attention from more substantial and interesting topics and issues underneath. Even though we are at war with al-Qaida terrorists and their ilk this talk of appeasement wages the wrong battle at the wrong time. The wrong time because of the on-going Israeli Palestinian conflict and the War in Iraq, to say nothing of the situation along the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The position of the West in all three conflicts has not been helped by the Cartoon War. The wrong battle, too. The right battle would have been, and would still be, to seek to bridge that gap, not open it up even further and thereby make any future bridging even less likely to happen. This is not Munich in 1938. In this affair of the Cartoons there is no Sudetenland of immense strategic importance being lost to our enemies.

Appeasement is just one example of the wrong word being used throughout the crisis. Another is “self-censorship.” Both show the power of words, and in both cases the wrong words, to arouse the passions. We won’t be charged with being appeasers, and we won’t restrict our right to publish whatever we want, especially within the borders of our own liberal democracies. But again, there is no appeasement here. Rather our recognition that the publication of the cartoons was insensitive and inappropriate, as many Western governments have wisely done, is best seen as a kind of affirmative action on our parts. There are many people in the world, billions of them in fact, and especially in those countries where Islam is the dominant religion, who are not even close to seeing the rightness of our rights, and the rightness of our defending these rights. Perhaps we have to help them get to this point, or at least respect and understand our position, but it’s going to take a long time. And if there is ever a chance of their being changed in this manner (for the better?) it will be in response to our making an effort in their behalf. In any case we lose nothing by that effort, for unlike Munich in 1938, there is in the case of the Cartoons no strategically valuable Sudetenland hanging in the balance. The other word, self-censorship, is just as misplaced, just as much of a Red Herring. We are told that Jyllands-Posten “dared to challenge the creeping self-censorhip that was undermining precious freedoms.” However, we haven’t yet seen examples of this loss of precious freedoms through self-censorship. Jasper Gerard in the Sunday Times of London, said “Islam is protected by an invisible blasphemy law that is called fear” the implication being that any self-censorship on our part came from our fear of retaliation. On the contrary, self-censorhip is much more a mark of civilized behavior. We do it all the time if we would live peaceably and happily with our families, with our neighbors, with our fellow countrymen, not to mention with those huge numbers of people living in other lands and immersed in other cultures. In general, self-censorship is simply another term for using the proper restraint in all our dealings with others, but especially when the others are not able to understand our point of view, especially in the instance before us. Muslims most of all adhere to the words and the life of the Prophet, or at least what they have understood of those words and that life. Westerners, Europeans, North Americans et al. adhere to the words of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, and in particular to the First Amendment to the US Constitution that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These different loyalties have created and continue to fuel the gap between the Muslim and Western worlds. All that we do should be aimed in good part at bridging that gap. On the other hand those cartoons, although trivial in themselves, have become the favored vehicle for promoting the destructive passions of the least gifted and least capable and intelligent players on both sides of what may yet turn out to be a war of civilizations. The cartoons should never have been printed. They were a mistake, and in that regard not too different from the Iraq War itself. Both the editors of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper and the proponents of the War wanted to promote the values of the West. They have in fact put these values at even greater risk than ever before.

2 thoughts on “Random thoughts on the Mohammed Cartoons”

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