My father wrote me an email after Muslims opposed to the caricature of Mohammad began to threaten and enact violence. He asked for a blog on the topic, and he added, in part:
They can Burn effigies of our leaders and president, effigies of Christians, burn our flag, chop off heads of innocent civilians, kidnap journalists...shall I go on? All of this is the name of Mohammed, but we have a cartoon and it sparks riots, boycotts and violence all over the world. The Danish Government is to be congratulated for not offering and condolences or apologies on behalf of freedom of the press.
In today's news, the BBC reports that an Iranian paper is seeking cartoon submissions about the Holocaust.
"Does the West's freedom of expression extend to... an event such as the Holocaust or is this freedom of expression only for the desecration of the sanctities of divine religions?" the best-selling paper said in its announcement.
It also asks for cartoons covering "America and Israel's crimes and plundering".
Iran's conservative rulers are supportive of so-called Holocaust revisionist historians, who argue that the systematic slaughter of Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II has been exaggerated for political ends.
I applaud them. This is an appropriate response. And I can say for my own part: the freedom of expression extends to all expression. I don't care if you're preaching your religion, promoting your political point of view, pandering to the ignorant by linking immigration to a poor economy to promote racist attitudes, or discussing your opinion of a great movie. Speech is speech. If you're not directly threatening someone, or inciting an immediate danger by yelling Fire in a crowded theater, then your speech is okay.
Not everyone agrees with me. For example, in the Age newspaper, they wrote:
THE newspapers that opted not to publish the cartoons offensive to Muslims that triggered riots in the Middle East should also have avoided publishing material that deeply offended Christians, says Treasurer Peter Costello.
"And Christians didn't have a riot, you know, they voiced their protest and just as the newspapers have the right of free speech to publish these things, so you have the right of free speech to condemn it." [Said Treasurer Peter Costello]
I disagree. Out of the blue, I'd largely agree. That is, I don't necessarily see the purpose of just spuriously offending a bunch of Christians. But this week, in the context of the Mohammad cartoon and the response and discussion, clearly offending Christians isn't a terrible idea, because it serves the interest of placing them in the shoes of the Muslims who were offended by the Mohammad cartoon.
Notice, however, the Christians did not have a riot, and this is key. I can't find the reference right now, although I suspect it may have been in the majority opinion in Cohen v California, but one of my favorite quotes can be paraphrased as: "The best cure for bad speech is more speech."
As I see it we have two choices: we can either get used to being offended, we can isolate ourselves from each other, so each society is perfect in its homogeneity, or we can homogenize the world. The last will be a bloody and futile endeavor, and the second simply isn't any more realistic than deciding we should all give up electricity. So our last choice is to simply learn to live with one another. Every time we grasp at the illusion of success with the other two choices, we will cause problems. In that sense, at least, I can only hope we are all offended once in a while, and we get used to it.
It's clear to me that many Muslims are ignorant - either intentionally or unintentionally - of how our press system operates. Since my impression is that a number of these religious states have state-run media arms, this isn't a surprise. To many of them, something in a UK newspaper is a declaration by the UK government. But we know better. Not to say the government doesn't have a shamefully large influence over our press at times, but certainly it is safe to say that our newspapers do not simply print what they are told to print, and avoid what they are told to avoid.
Clearly the direct message straight from the government of Iran that the holocaust is a fraud is no less offensive to jews than these cartoons are to Muslims. I expect jews to react with some sense of outrage to such claims, as I expect Muslims to react with some sense of outrage to these cartoons. But outrage in these cases must be channelled into peaceful protest, discourse, and more speech.
From this PBS interview:
STEPHAN RICHTER: That's a good point, but moderate Muslims also need to take the battle into their own societies, into the structures, into Saudi Arabia and so on. And that's what's missing because you have plenty of Middle Eastern Muslim papers that are full of viciously anti-Semitic cartoons every day, and this is the law of two standards, and that doesn't work because we really need to apply all standards that you advocated also into those societies, and then we can make it work.
AHMED YOUNIS: And I think the majority of Muslims would agree with that. And our track record is clear, whether it is the Taliban with Buddhist temples or attacks against Christian communities in Muslim countries, we're very consistent, religious freedom is for everyone, not just for ourselves.
This will likely become one of the great debates facing society in the future. From whence do we derive our morals? Of course, it is easy to say, "religious freedom is for everyone", but why are women not permitted to show their face in public in some predominantly Muslim countries? Is such modesty not religious in origin?
Until recently, I might have believed Ahmed Younis. Perhaps I still do. Certainly, electing Hamas to power in Palestine is a frightening indicator that the extremists may outnumber the moderate or secular Muslims. But on that note, I must look to my own country, because I am equally afraid the extreme religious right may outnumber moderate or secular Americans.
And so I think everyone should ask: from whence come moral standards? Because if your answer is religion, your morals are guaranteed to be incompatible with someone else's. I think there are self-evident and universal principles that can evolve with thought into a moral system. Secular philosophy can lead to morality. We do not need a book - whether it is the Bible or the Koran - to tell us how to be moral.
Scott Adams was relatively deft with this dilemna in God's Debris. We have little or no empirical evidence to help us select between religions. Choose your book - the Bible, the Koran, a bunch of Watchtower society pamphlets or the Book of Mormon, among others. Why one and not the other? Do Christians not think Muslims are a bit crazy for their fervor? Do you not think Muslims believe Christians to be misguided at best for theirs?
I think the BBC story on escalating tension is worth a read.
"We're seeing ourselves characterised as an intolerant people or as enemies of Islam as a religion. That picture is false. Extremists and radicals who seek a clash of cultures and religions are spreading it," Mr Rasmussen said.
There is no doubt in my mind that whatever the opinion of a majority of Muslims, there is certainly everything to gain and nothing to lose for extremists to incite violence and protest among their fellows. The greater the rancor, the easier it is to fost further violence, and that is what they thrive upon.
Did you know the cartoons were originally published September 30, 2005? Even the Norweigan reprint is almost a month old now. Clearly, there are forces at work here other than natural outrage, because natural outrage would have happened sooner.
We need to be keenly aware of the demogogues who operate by preying on religious fervor domestically, just as much. To look to the Bible a moment, we must be sure there is no plank in our own eye before removing the spec of sawdust from our neighbor's eye. I've written many times - and will continue to - about the influence of the religious right on our politics and the dangers of both liberal and conservative positions on issues. One thing remains obvious to me, however: Bush is the most dangerous President to be elected in my lifetime, and perhaps ever. He has little or no respect for the Constitution, little or no respect for civil rights, and is willing to trod all over both to promote either a pro-Christian-right agenda or a pro-totalitarian agenda. He's done little or nothing to actually protect us from terrorism, since it is clear that invading other countries and fomenting resentment is not going to protect us from terrorism half as much as would strengthening our border security, creating a truth-driven intelligence community, and hardening our infrastructure to make terrorist attacks on key targets more difficult. Instead, 9/11 has been used as a red herring to incessantly expand government size and power. And the religious right is a key voting bloc that Bush would be unelectable without. So we walk into the fire as a nation.
I hope everyone, Christian, Muslim, and everyone else keeps talking about this issue and other issues. I hope we try to evaluate things based on all the information we can find. I hope we stop spinning and start paying attention and thinking. The cartoons, in a sense, are admirable. They've sparked a response that has led to an important discussion about how we all get along in a world where our beliefs will sometimes offend one another. We either need to learn to get along - and that means sometimes knowing we will be offended - or we may as well start fighting now.