Just Say No To Muhammad's Hit Men

What we've learned from the intoonfada


Three weeks, or maybe five months, into the global intoonfada, it seems as though every conceivable opinion, prejudice and half-baked observation has attached itself to the unlikely controversy over a dozen cartoons in a Danish newspaper. We've seen numberless rallying cries against the "Islamofascists," weird free-speech desertions by professional cartoonists, simpering doubletalk from U.S. government officials, fairly overt censorship by at least one European state, and a war on all things Danish (including, inevitably, Danish).

The politics of immigration in Denmark and of the paper Jyllands-Posten have been examined at length. Anti-American riots that took place in Afghanistan because newspapers in France reprinted illustrations from Denmark led directly to an Iranian paper's call for international illustrators to draw cartoons about the Holocaust—and the disturbing thing is that this chain of events doesn't even seem bizarre. (Meanwhile, the world's most famous Holocaust denier even managed to butt into the narrative for a moment.) American newspaper editors have explained their decision to suppress cartoons that almost nobody has seen not with the understandable admission that they're afraid of being killed but with the absurd claim that the pictures have no news value; and when one editor at a college paper decided to test that bogus consensus, he was fired. Various thought experiments, equally plausible and often mutually exclusive, have made sense of the global explosion: that the intoonfada was stoked by the Baath party; that it was inflamed by the Saudis; that it's a clash of civilizations; that it's not. Contempt for western liberalism has united a postmodernist professor and a reactionary pope in barely disguised admiration for arsonists and murderers. And in what must certainly take the booby prize for inaccurate predictions, we have my own hope that what turned out to be an extremely brief period of solidarity indicated a sea change in western support for free expression.

But all these opinions shrink to insignificance compared to the judgment of Mohammed Yousaf Qureshi, the Pakistani cleric who last week made an offer of $1 million to anybody who kills the cartoonists responsible for the drawings. It's unlikely Qureshi can get the financing for this worthy goal; it's probable that he has not seen the cartoons that have enraged him; it's almost certain that he isn't even aware that the pictures were drawn by 12 artists, not just one; it's beyond dispute that he's got the ugliest beard on Allah's green earth. And it's all too easy to confuse this Qureshi, identified as the prayer leader at Peshawar's Mohabat Khan mosque, with Haj Yaqoob Qureshi, the minister from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh who is offering $11.5 million for the cartoonists' heads. But with his cash offer, Qureshi cleared up vast fields of navel-gazing and bloviation. If you're undecided on what the cartoon issue is really about, Qureshi has given the answer: It's about people who believe you should commit murder over a difference of opinion. Everything else is just idle chatter.

The violent nature of the intoonfada had of course been established already; more than 50 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising. But until Qureshi stepped into the breach it was possible to chalk this violence up to mob madness or jittery police and soldiers. That was a condescension. It took a man of Qureshi's vision to demonstrate what an ideological fight this really is.

When we compare the clear dichotomy between cartooning and homicide, related questions about the hypocrisy of European hate speech laws or the conviction of David Irving or the impenetrable principles of political correctness in Canada barely even register. The conflict is not, as Professor Stanley Fish argues, between true believers and effete relativists. With Danish cartoonists risking their lives for a principle and Saudi journalists fighting for their right to free expression, it's exactly the opposite : For a truly relativist position you need to look to Iran, which condemns anti-cartoonist violence at the same time that it is renewing the death sentence against Salman Rushdie. To the degree that clash-of-civilizations language applies, it's the West, not the Islamic world, that is sure of itself in this fight.

This does not mean that all supporters of western-style liberalism are in agreement. With a tiny handful of exceptions, American newspapers have sped up their mad dash to irrelevance by declining to show the most newsworthy images of the past six months. Western leaders have treated the issue merely as a question of dueling cultural stances, with Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, for example, declaring that the uprising is not "a problem of freedom of expression, but rather a question of sensitivity and respect toward different visions of life." But while editors and politicians see no big difference between a vision of life and a vision of death, between the opinions of cartoonists and the opinions of hit men and bloodthirsty holy rollers, Qureshi knows better.

One of the most useful aspects of the cartoon controversy is the clarity it has given to liberal ideals. It's become abundantly clear since the beginning of the month that separation of church and state, free expression, and making demands on the government are not disparate concepts randomly yoked together in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. They are mutually dependent and essential rights.

Nor are these rights simply offshoots or happy byproducts of a functioning democracy. They are prior to a functioning democracy. That is a hard teaching, and as Secretary of State Rice demonstrated with her idiotic expression of surprise at the results of the recent Palestinian election, even many high-flying Americans don't fully grasp it.

But maybe some people who are too glibly referred to as being on the other side of the civilizational divide are starting to get it. Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten culture editor who first published the cartoons, raised this tantalizing suggestion the other day, in an essay on his decision:

In January, Jyllands-Posten ran three full pages of interviews and photos of moderate Muslims saying no to being represented by the imams. They insist that their faith is compatible with a modern secular democracy. A network of moderate Muslims committed to the constitution has been established, and the anti-immigration People's Party called on its members to differentiate between radical and moderate Muslims, i.e. between Muslims propagating sharia law and Muslims accepting the rule of secular law. The Muslim face of Denmark has changed, and it is becoming clear that this is not a debate between "them" and "us," but between those committed to democracy in Denmark and those who are not.

This is the sort of debate that Jyllands-Posten had hoped to generate when it chose to test the limits of self-censorship by calling on cartoonists to challenge a Muslim taboo. Did we achieve our purpose? Yes and no. Some of the spirited defenses of our freedom of expression have been inspiring. But tragic demonstrations throughout the Middle East and Asia were not what we anticipated, much less desired. Moreover, the newspaper has received 104 registered threats, 10 people have been arrested, cartoonists have been forced into hiding because of threats against their lives and Jyllands-Posten's headquarters have been evacuated several times due to bomb threats. This is hardly a climate for easing self-censorship.

An obscure Pakistani cleric has done us the favor of showing that these death threats and attacks are the products of a coherent philosophy, not just the results of mob rage or hot tempers. It's up to supporters of the open society to reply in kind, to affirm that we have a different and better philosophy, one that is worth defending, supporting, and most of all putting into practice.