As the riots spread through the Islamic world, the British Foreign Secretary, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations secretary general, various responsible Muslim organizations, many commentators in Europe and the U.S., including some distinguished conservative commentators, are calling for restraint on both sides.
What both sides would those be then? Well, one side has published a handful of cartoons, arguably blasphemous and certainly insulting to the Prophet Mohammed, and the other side has burned embassies, taken hostages, murdered three people suspected of being Christians and/or Danes, shot at Danish soldiers helping children in Iraq, marched through London with banners threatening further bomb attacks on the city, and attacked and beaten people whom they suspected of some vague connection with, well, with Europe or Christianity.
Suppose both sides listen to these calls for restraint. What would happen? I suppose that one side would stop burning embassies and murdering people and the other side would no longer publish cartoons to which the murderers might object. That would mean the murderers had obtained their objective and the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons had been defeated in its campaign against the unofficial Islamist censorship that in recent years has spread across Europe by murder and intimidation.
For, contrary to much “responsible” commentary, Jyllands-Posten, the small regional Danish newspaper that first published the caricatures of Mohammed, did not do so from trivial motives. This was not the kind of avant garde “shock” tactics on show in Piss Christ or in the Sensations exhibition in Brooklyn that included a painting of the Virgin Mary splattered with elephant dung. It was a serious and justified protest against the fact that Danish artists had been frightened out of illustrating a children’s book on Islam and Mohammed.
They feared for their lives–and their fear was reasonable. In Holland only last year the filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by a radical Islamist for his semi-pornographic film criticizing Islam as hostile to women. His collaborator, the Somali-Dutch feminist MP, Ayaab Hirsi Ali, is now under permanent police protection since radical Islamist terrorists have threatened to kill her too. And murderous intimidation of this kind is now not uncommon in Western Europe.
Nor were the Danish cartoons all as crude and pointless as some critics have alleged in their earnest search for reasons to hold “both sides” guilty. One cartoon shows the Prophet with his turban evolving into a bomb. Insulting? Maybe. Blasphemous? Perhaps. Or maybe a perfectly fair comment on the arguments of radical Islamists that their religion justifies the murder of innocent bystanders, on the subsidies that Muslim governments give to suicide bombers, and on the thousands of Muslims baying for blood (and occasionally obtaining it) in response to a caricature.
Three cartoons were, indeed, more harsh and insulting than the rest. But these had not been published originally in Jyllands-Posten. They were added by the radical Islamists who distributed the cartoons around the Muslim world. These men committed the very blasphemies that they now use as an excuse for attacks on Danes and Christians.
Vile though it is, this trickery by radical Islamists at least demonstrates the uselessness of appeasing their demands for censorship. If they are granted, our concessions will merely be the springboard for a further attack on Western liberty. And if we disobligingly refuse to furnish them with a pretext, the Islamists will manufacture one as Hitler used to manufacture border incidents in order to justify his planned aggressions. So we might as well fight in the first ditch rather than the last.
Naturally, not all Muslims are guilty of either terror or sympathy with terror. Some moderate Muslims have spoken out against it at risk to their own lives. Their courage should be recognized and applauded and their safety protected. But others have either timidly gone along with murderous extremism or qualified their condemnation of it with criticism of Western governments, U.S. foreign policy, racism, etc., etc. And it is this large middle ground of “moderate Muslims,” especially Muslim immigrants living in Western Europe and the U.S ., who are either welcomed or feared as potential recruits in an Islamist jihad.
Hence some of those adhering to the “both sides” analysis want to prohibit words and images that these millions might regard either as blasphemous or as insulting to minorities in a multicultural society. They see this as necessary to maintain social peace. (A British minister admitted last week that a proposed new law against religious insults would have banned the Danish cartoons.)
Any Christian who had to endure the poisonous sophistries emitted by the cultural establishment during the Piss Christ and Sensations debate (to justify taxpayer subsidies for blasphemies, no less) will have some sympathy with this argument. But there are powerful practical arguments against such a law.
It would have to prohibit whatever any sizeable religious group considered blasphemous. Given the number of religions in the modern West, that would prohibit a great deal. If it was applied in a sufficiently strict way to satisfy even moderate Muslims, it would intrude very considerably on free speech and artistic expression. So it would be applied in a haphazard and discriminatory fashion–appeasing the more unreasonable believers and ignoring peaceable ones–and it would bring the law into disrepute.
For a foretaste of this, look at the justified criticism of the British police for strictly enforcing vague laws on insulting behavior against harmless individual cranks while failing to prosecute Islamist mobs for what is plainly illegal incitement to murder. Such partial law enforcement would eventually cause more division in society than the widest definition of free speech. Curbing blasphemy is best left to social pressure and good manners. But these need to be shown by “both sides” and they need to leave room for honest vigorous and controversial debate.
The secondary argument that we must all censor ourselves to avoid offending others in a multicultural society is a highly ironic commentary on the liberals’ promise that multiculturalism meant a more lively, colorful, and argumentative society. We are now told that it means holding our tongues on sensitive issues and telling young women not to dress in ways that might provoke a pious Muslim to rape them.
If multiculturalism is incompatible with a free and lively society, as some implicitly now concede, then the sensible response is not to gradually chip away at Western freedom but to ensure that immigration from non-Western cultures proceeds at a rate that is assimilable culturally as well as economically. In other words Muslims coming to Europe or America would automatically adjust to the freedoms of a free society because they would lack the numbers to insist on everyone else changing to suit them–which is currently the Islamist demand.
That demand is, finally, the reason for applauding those French, German, Spanish and other European newspapers that have reproduced the cartoons as a gesture of sympathy with Jyllands-Posten and those politicians, such as France’s Nicholas Sarkozy, who have supported them. Even if the arguments for laws against blasphemy were valid–and they are not trivial–that would count as a secondary consideration alongside the need to resist and indeed defeat blackmail, intimidation and murder.
Those who take refuge in the false equivalence of the “both sides” argument are, in the end, guilty of cowardice. They are seeking excuses to avoid defending their own freedom and civilization against attack. They should seek courage–not “Dutch courage” but Danish courage–by ordering a glass of aquavit with a Carlsberg chaser.
–John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.