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Gunmen in front of EU offices in Gaza, broiling Europe

Cartoongate
Tolerance Imperative

[When we asked the Norwegian blogger and software programmerBjørn Stærk to write us a piece on cartoongate a few days ago, he replied that he was “trying to be the only Norwegian blogger who doesn’t mention the Muhammad pictures.” We’re grateful that he soon wrote up his perspective anyway: Norway is one of the countries at the heart of the controversy, but Mr. Stærk argues that objective reason based on mutual tolerance — “if you will try to rise above your prejudices, I’ll see what I can do about mine” — is not only within reach; it’s the only solution. CN]

The whole Muhammed cartoon conflict is a mess, another one of those knots we have to carefully untangle before we can understand what is happening. You can't trust the word of the people involved: newspapers and bloggers publishing satirical pictures of Muhammed, Muslims who are insulted or angry to various degrees, and concerned multiculturalists. Most of them are confused. Many Europeans think Muslims are angry for no other reason than that they don't like to see pictures of their Prophet. People in Muslim countries think Europe is going through an orgy of anti-Muslim extremism, with cartooons about Muslim dog sex and pig-faced Muhammeds. European leaders think they have the mandate to apologize for their citizens.

And European Muslims, though not very angry and saying little we're not used to hearing from Christians, have gotten the insane idea that the European public is now in the mood for new laws against blasphemy. So there's confusion everywhere. And it's all just a proxy debate anyway, where what everyone is really concerned about is something other than drawings of Muhammed.

There's an easy way to determine which side someone will land on this conflict: If you believe that an insulting cartoon of Muhammed is not necessarily a statement about Muhammed, but about whatever you want it to be, such as freedom of speech, then you're likely to be positive. If you believe that an insulting cartoon of Muhammed is an insulting statement about Muhammed, (perhaps because you're a Muslim yourself and you see Muhammed as God's final messenger who delivered to humanity the literal Truth about life, the universe and everything; or because you know some Muslims or respect Islam), then you're likely to be negative.

If you believe that Europe is threatened by a growing community of Muslims who don't respect our values, then you'll see this as a brave and important statement, a long-needed "you shall not pass" aimed at puritans, reactionaries, and wannabe-Caliphs. If, on the other hand, you believe most Muslims pose no danger to Europe, and that the real threat is European racism, discrimination and orientalism, then you'll see this as an attempt by Europe's majority culture to harass a religious minority, and an early step in a bad direction.

And if, like me, you get very stubborn when everyone wants you to make an "important" symbolic statement, like wearing a pin or walking in a demonstration, even if it's for a cause you like very much, then you're likely to be skeptical when a million sanctimonious blawghers start reenacting scenes from Spartacus. But if you will try to rise above your prejudices, I'll see what I can do about mine.

Who's "right"? As everyone is fighting different battles, who's right depends on which battle you mean, and how much confusion about reality you're willing to tolerate. Arab Muslims are right to be angry with Jyllands-Posten for posting this picture of Muhammed as a demonic pedophile .. except Jyllands-Posten didn't do that. Native Europeans are right to be angry and concerned when immigrant Muslims burn our flags and call for death to the infidels .. except it's in Arab countries they do that, and their problems are old news. Local Muslims merely feel insulted, not homicidal, (though there are exceptions.)

One step down on the confusion ladder, Europeans are right to stand up for freedom of speech, even if the threat is much smaller than their rhetoric would make you think. There is a current of self-censorship about Islam, a religion that is just as irrational and worthy of mockery and critical scrutiny as Christianity is, and though in the short term the cartoon controversy may have made this self-censorship worse, it is at least now openly spoken of.

European Muslims and multiculturalists are right to fear xenophobia and Islamophobia, xenophobia as a recurring trend in all human societies, sometimes dormant but always ready to reappear, and Islamophobia as a moderately popular sidetrack in the revolt against political correctness. But they are wrong to think that this is why people post these pictures. Very few of the bloggers who post Muhammed pictures are Islamophobes, they insult Muhammed as a statement about freedom of speech, not because they believe Islam is Evil or a terrorist religion. Muslims and multiculturalists need to understand that the anti-Muslim content of this campaign is different from its intended meaning, just as the little Spartacuses need to understand that when you insult Islam, even if you mean it as a symbolic insult, Muslims will be insulted.

"Who's wrong" is easier to answer: Everyone who has threatened anyone with murder or violence, or burned anything, or who genuinely hates the culture of the other side.

As for bravery, it is good that people will stick their necks out for our freedoms, but, though the training may one day be useful, they're not risking much. I'll call that person brave who, when this has all gone quiet, is the first to draw a cartoon of Muhammed with a message they really believe in, and gets a major media to print it. Not in order to make a statement about freedom of speech, not as part of a proxy debate, but simply to illustrate a point they want to make, as unhesitatingly and naturally as they'd draw any other human being.

Many have mentioned Monty Python's Life of Brian, a movie Norwegian film authorities originally banned for its blasphemy. Remember that Life of Brian is not a meta-statement, it's not a "look how we mock your God, what are you going to do about it, eh?". It doesn't even mock Jesus! Life of Brian is a comedy, (Monty Python's best), and it is a comedy above all else. For Monty Python, blasphemy and sacrilege serves comedy, not the other way around. This kind of casual blasphemy is the product of three hundred years of religious criticism. We do not feel the need to make anti-Christian statements for their own sake, (or most of us don't, anyway), we make statements we believe in, and if they happen to offend Christians that's their problem. We must learn to treat Islam the same way.

Whether this whole mess is a step in that direction I have no idea. One positive outcome we can hope for is that Europeans will now support freedom of speech more firmly. The editor of the conservative Christian newspaper Magazinet, the first Norwegian media to publish the Muhammed cartoons, has long spoken warmly of awakening Norway's sleeping blasphemy law. Now he is apparently unsure. A law that protects a true and good religion from satire must necessarily also protect its false and dangerous competitors.

Blogger Hans Rustad regularly mocks free speech "fundamentalists", those in the liberal "elite" who defend the rights of Holocaust deniers and Islamists to speak their minds. But these days he writes of little but the essential democratic right to be offensive, for you "can't have freedom of speech just half the way". No you can't, at least not reliably. When you open the door to the possibility that speech can be banned if only it is dangerous enough, you open that door for everyone. You're forced to argue why this or that statement isn't dangerous, a lost battle.

And perhaps even the multiculturalist left will now feel some dissonance as they hear the arguments they use for censorship of racism repeated from the mouths of social conservatives who want to protect the image of a patriarchal and oppressive superstition.

None of this is a very principled basis for freedom of speech, but then tolerance is often born from the self-serving awareness that the best way to protect your own rights is to protect everyone's.

See comments elicited by the article (and leave your own comments) at its blog link, and see Bjørn Stærk's complete works at Bjørn Stærk's Blog.


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