Politics & Policy

Daned If You Do…

The real questions to consider in the face of "spontaneous" outrage.

Not everything that is right or legal is necessarily wise.

Perhaps it was not so wise to reproduce, all over the European press, twelve Danish cartoons depicting Islam’s prophet Mohammad in ways that many Muslims say is offensive. But it was certainly within the boundaries of freedom of speech.

European responses to the events surrounding the cartoons’ publication have mainly focused on the above. Was it right? Should there be limits? Should there be editorial self-restraint? Should there be an apology? Who should apologize?

Interestingly, continental Europe has published, Great Britain has not (nor has America). Who understands the Middle East better? The EU or the Anglo-Saxon world? Who does the Arab world hate these days? The evil empire and its lesser imperialist arm? Or the Arab-friendly Europeans with their “more even-handed approach” to the region?

For lo and behold, it is “Death to France” they are chanting now, it is Norwegian flags they are burning (there’s always a flags’ vendor at hand in the Middle East, whenever “spontaneous” rage erupts).

A sudden reversal of fortunes, to say the least.

But in these days of rage, there is little room for Schadenfreude. Besides, I am not so sure that “I told you so” will open European eyes. Again, interestingly, it is the right-of-center press in Europe that is publishing the cartoons, it is the left-of-center press that is decrying their publication. The right says “freedom of speech” and “Western values,” the Left says “multiculturalism.” The politically correct may pause and think twice though, given that their once cherished slogans are increasingly the monopoly of the right and their obsession with multiculturalism is putting them on a dangerous slippery slope where their traveling companions are not merely the pious and the aggrieved, but also the less than lucid Holocaust-denying, Homosexual-hating, Jew-bashing, woman-oppressing Islamists who did not call for merely “respect” this weekend, but also for “beheading all those who insult Islam.” Beware who your friends are, no less than who are your enemies.

It seems to me that the real debate should not have focused so much on the boundaries of free speech as on the wisdom of reproducing those cartoons in other Western publications (though important they are). After all, Western media routinely publish things that are not so wise or sensitive to expose. From intelligence leaks to mockery of foreign nations, passing through derision of religion and religious beliefs (and those who entertain them), there is plenty to choose from. Was anti-Americanism–so rampant in many European media especially in the last four years–always wise? Is the anti-Semitism that occasionally surfaces in commentary on the Middle East something wise?

But should the answer be censorship? Obviously not. Should the aggrieved parties torch embassies and media centers, or threaten to behead any repeat offender? Again, no. In a truly free society, grievances find legitimate ways of expression and sometimes, if their case is sound, of redress.

In the West we do not believe only in freedom of speech, no matter how silly the speech is. We also believe in the power of ideas to expose the silliness of some speech through robust, but civilized debate. Just like Danish cartoonists had the right to draw twelve cartoons depicting and deriding Mohammed, so are those who feel insulted by their content entitled to march on the streets, assemble in front of embassies, write to newspapers, petition, and go on the air voicing their grievance. As long as it is peaceful and within the legal boundaries that separate speech from incitement, decrying the content of any news item is a legitimate exercise of democratic rights. All that is part of the democratic ethos, and as long as the debate remains within these boundaries, we should let it happen, in the perhaps naively optimistic belief that wisdom will eventually emerge from this exchange.

No wisdom will prevail, though, if debate is conducted by violent means. A violent response that aims to intimidate and muzzle the West on anything concerning the sensitivities of one specific community is unacceptable and makes the dispute over the cartoons a sideshow. The only right course of action now, even if one finds those cartoons silly or in bad taste, is to stand by the publisher, the Danish government, the right of other papers to publish, and the general principle of freedom that makes Europe still a free continent and the Arab Middle East still a sea of dictatorships. Recalling ambassadors was disgraceful. Burning embassies was medieval. Boycotting businesses was mafia-like. And not formulating a joint European response (not yet, one hopes)–let alone expressing solidarity to the Danes–was pusillanimous. It is not Denmark, at this point, that owes an apology to Islam. An apology is owed to Denmark, to Europe, and to the freedom that these assaults aim to deny.

Two considerations arise from this state of affairs: One, if we determine that the yardstick for allowable and unallowable speech is someone else’s sensitivity, pretty soon there will be nothing left to talk about. Sensitivity is a subjective trait and the law, with all its shades and penumbras and variations in interpretation, needs a pretty objective, abstract, and general standard. The minute we allow feelings to determine the boundaries of freedom, we will all be slaves.

Second, the reaction that swept across the Muslim world and among Muslims in Europe is symptomatic of a culture that denies democracy and fails to comprehend the mechanisms of a free society. The attacks on the Danish government and state have no precedent and find no justification, given that the target of Muslim wrath is a newspaper, not government policy. To ask for the Danish government to take steps in order to avoid further violence and rescind the sudden boycott on its products means that those who are asking think the free press of Denmark does and will do what the Danish government will tell them to do. That is how the press works in the Arab world. Not in Europe. Not since 1945 at least, and hopefully not anymore. Anyone who thinks government interference with the workings of our societies’ press is bad should be outraged. Instead, most of those who routinely exalt the values of freedom of speech in Europe these days are busy siding with the enemies of freedom in the name of community relations.

Still, there remains an open question. Why all this fury now? When the cartoons appeared, there was hardly any commotion outside Denmark and only a few local disturbances. Yes, we know that the outrage was largely cooked up by a party of traveling clerics who put together a brochure designed to enrage, especially given the addition of three particularly vicious fake pictures, and showed it around the Middle East. Still, the timing is, to say the least, suspect. Could it be that, as David Conway of Civitas suggests, this has little to do with Muhammad the Prophet and much to do with Iran the nuclear power? Iran, after all, has just been refereed to the U.N. Security Council on account of its nuclear program. And guess what: When Iran finds itself in the eye of the storm, which, of all countries, will be chairing the U.N. body? Denmark.

What a strange coincidence, given that not much of this fury looks spontaneous.

Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israel studies at Oxford University.

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