The Mountain Comes to Muhammad

The Danish cartoon controversy is a breath of fresh air for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

If freedom of expression isn't dangerous, it isn't worth defending. One of the pernicious elements of big free-speech conflicts—and the controversy over 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten has in the past few days blown up into a conflict of vast proportions—is an argument usually made by free speechers themselves: that there's no harm (and thus presumably no reasonable grounds for offense) in a simple picture or movie or book.

Have these people never heard of Das Kapital? Of the Bible or the Quran? A book can cause plenty of harm. So can a cartoon. It's precisely the volatility of free speech that has made artists themselves among the most hysterical alarmists on the topic of forbidden language.

Free expression advocates have made an effort to frame the Jyllands-Posten cartoons as a responsible attempt to broaden the conversation on religious freedom, when in fact (as several of the cartoonists themselves acknowledged) the stunt is unambiguously provocative, juvenile, offensive, and irresponsible. That's why it needs to be defended.

And the last few days have suggested an interesting development for advocates of free expression: We're winning.

This may not be immediately obvious. As of this writing, gunmen in Gaza are checking hotel rooms for Danish nationals; a newspaper editor in Jordan has been fired for defending the cartoons and the president of Afghanistan has denounced them; demonstrators outside the French embassy in the U.K. are agitating to "Behead those who insult Islam;" flags of European countries are being burned around the world; and Christian and Jewish leaders are, not unpredictably, joining their Muslim counterparts in denouncing the cartoons. This afternoon, buttinskis at the U.S. State Department issued a craven condemnation of an affair that is none of their business.

But a closer look at those "Anger growing over cartoons" headlines reveals something more encouraging than just another story of the perpetually hurt feelings of Muslim community leaders. The actions of inflamed Muslims have been producing consistent reactions from their targets. The Jyllands-Posten cartoons have been reprinted by newspapers in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Hungary and Jordan, and on countless blogs. The longer the protests continue the more widely the cartoons get distributed. The issue will almost certainly lead to a revisiting of the lamentable laws against "hate speech" in Europe, and with any luck to a debate on whether these laws are more likely to destroy public harmony than encourage it. Muslim activists are finding out why getting into a negative-publicity fight is as inadvisable as wrestling with a pig: You get dirty and the pig enjoys it.

A sign that the worldwide protest is at least a tactical error surfaced in this interesting passage from the weekly Al Ahram:

"Muslims might have miscalculated the manner in which they handled the crisis," noted prominent Islamic scholar Abdel-Sabour Shahine, who suggested that instead of pursuing a boycott of Danish products, the Islamic world should have shown more tolerance, by focusing on promoting dialogue with the west, and educating them more about Islam. "The Qur'an ordains Muslims to engage in peaceful dialogue and use a more logical approach with those of different creeds." The prophet himself, Shahine argued, was constantly subject to offence during the first years of his prophecy in Mecca, and his reactions were so tolerant that those who initially opposed him ended up becoming Muslim.

"After all," said Shahine, "we'd rather have the Danes apologizing out of conviction, rather than because they feel threatened."

The situation this week is almost the opposite of the case of Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses, not least because we don't (so far) have the most prominent Islamic leader in the world issuing a death threat and ordering a hit on a man who wrote a book nobody read. Anybody who can recall the atmosphere in 1989—when religious rage seemed unstoppable and there was always some crank or contrarian around to point out that Rushdie really brought the trouble on himself—will notice the difference. European opinion polls and the mood of the media today indicate a different attitude, more confident and determined, more ready to admit the obvious point that civilized people don't go to the gun over an insulting picture. About the only similarity to 1989 is that government officials in the United States and Europe remain lukewarm in their support for free speech.

This is not an exhortation for "Euro-weenies" to stand up to the enemy within. The cartoon controversy can not be removed from its context of European dysfunction in dealing with its Muslim populations. It's not particularly noble or admirable for the folks at Jyllands-Posten to set out to provoke their own country's second class citizens. And the protestors are right to question why free expression has to take a back seat when it's a question of girls wearing hijabs in public schools but becomes precious on the matter of publishing insulting cartoons.

But the important thing is that the issue is out in the open, and neither side is standing down.

Like all the most absurd controversies, the Jyllands-Posten issue has taken a while to blow up. The paper commissioned a group of cartoonists in mid-September to draw pictures of the first Muslim's face and published the whole collection at the end of that month. (Islam prohibits depiction of the prophet, and as the late filmmaker Moustapha Akkad found out, even a false rumor of prophet imagery in a reverential pro-Islam film can incite violence.) The controversy simmered for months, with a group of Danish imams and ambassadors from majority Muslim countries pressuring the Danish government, without success, to censure the paper. When Reason first mentioned the story in November, there was barely any coverage of it online. That has obviously changed in the past few days.

But the Islamic explosion over the cartoons has been interesting. While you can't call the reaction good, it has been less bad than we might have expected, ranging from the legitimate (open criticism, demonstrations, boycotts of the offending newspapers) to the outrageous (violence, rioting, murder attempts), to something that resides between these two poles. A boycott of Danish products is unfortunate because it carries the assumption that the government of Denmark should be actively suppressing Jyllands-Posten and its works. The same goes for embassy closures, diplomatic sanctions, and so on, as well as the mendacious efforts by a group of Danish imams to incite locals during a tour of the Middle East. But all these actions are more or less within the bounds of acceptable discourse. Hizbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah's grotesque invocation of the Rushdie case stands out not just for its outrageousness but because this kind of talk has been rare among prominent Islamic leaders.

That's all to the good. I'm going to go out on a very short limb here and say it's the Muslim community, not the West, that needs to learn a thing or two from this experience. There have been objections that this controversy undermines our own efforts to enlist potentially friendly Muslims in the struggle against tyranny. This is no doubt the motivation of the U.S. State Department in its decision to side with the rioters. But this view is not only unprincipled (free speech is to be defended even if it inconveniences the war on terror); it condescends to the perceived close-mindedness of Muslims and misreads the nature of the tyrannies in question. There isn't a single dictatorship in the Muslim world that isn't solicitous of the religious beliefs of its own population, that doesn't dish out harsh punishments for offenses against Islamic, and sometimes even Christian and Jewish, religious sensibilities. Religious respect, in other words, becomes another form of oppression. If that's the kind of respect freedom-minded Muslims can expect from the West, they're better off getting insulted.

The Jyllands-Posten controversy is disturbing, but ultimately it is a step in the right direction for both Muslims and secularists. In an ideal, or at least a slightly better, world, nobody would be drawing goofy pictures of Muhammad because there wouldn't be any pressing need to provoke Muslims. We don't live in that world, so the best thing we can do is let controversy rage. It's the only way to clear the air.

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