As is so often the case these days, there seems to be a great divide in discourse on this issue. And the divide is not between various opinions, but between the realities that people take into account as they're forming their opinions and responses.
A parallel situation might be the situation down on the US-Mexico border. In the debate, some seem to persist in the paradigm that all we are talking about here is huddled masses yearning to be free, but the deeper reality is that we're dealing with drug and people-smuggling cartels, increasingly heavily armed. That calls for more than statements about the human right to support one's family.
I've been mulling over these cartoons, and mulling and mulling, and considering the responses.
The primary response from most religious leaders, including Catholics, has been a plea for religious tolerance and the implication that satirizing religious figures and imagery is an abuse of freedom of speech.
This response ignores - either out of stupidity or fear - the reality behind these "protests." As amply demonstrated in all kinds of news sources, this is not a simple case of Muslims, who never represent Mohammad artistically and never engage in a little intra-faith blasphemy themselves, being shocked and dismayed by this surprising imagery.
Not quite. You know what's been written about this over the past two weeks: the cartoons have been printed in outlets in Muslim countries. Many of these same Muslim countries hosts news outlets and pop culture that revel in hate speech - and oppressive policies - against Jews and Christians. Some of the original cartoons that were spread among the Muslim community in Denmark were faked by the Muslims who were spreading them. All of this taking place in a context in Europe and even, to some extent, in North America, in which certain types of Muslims are working hard, above and below ground, to reshape the societies in which they live, not to be tolerant, but to conform to their interpretation of Muslim law. In short:
The cartoon intifada is significant because it is entirely manufactured by Muslim governments, fueled by their radical imams and intended to intimidate non-Muslim nations into making free speech Muslims find offensive illegal. If its goal were achieved, the First Amendment would be written out of the Constitution.
The genesis of it is clear. The cartoons depicting Islam's founder, Mohammed, in the satiric, distasteful and disreputable ways of editorial cartoonists, were published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, having been selected from entries in a contest that was to demonstrate that Islam wasn't protected by political correctness any more than other religions were. There was almost no noticeable reaction to them. But when the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference met in Mecca in December, they decided to manufacture the cartoon intifada.
And yet another view from Peter Beinart at TNRepublic. This is availabe only to subscribers. I'll summarize and clip:
So responding to the thuggishness is easy. Responding to the cartoons themselves is harder. It is hard to condemn them when the barbaric response in parts of the Islamic world so vastly dwarfs the initial offense. And yet, the cartoons should be condemned nonetheless. Of course, the Danish newspaper had the right to publish them. But, in doing so, it revealed a particularly European prejudice, one that the United States must take care not to repeat.
The prejudice is not simply against Islam. Rather, it stems from Europe's--or at least Western Europe's--inability to take religion seriously at all. As my colleague Spencer Ackerman has written ("Religious Protection," December 12, 2005), one reason Muslims find it harder to integrate in Western Europe than in the United States is that, in Western Europe, integration is often presumed to mean secularization. In defending his decision to print the cartoons, the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten declared, "This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society." In defending its decision to reprint them, the French paper France Soir wrote, "No religious dogma can impose its view on a democratic and secular society."
But most Americans--like most Muslims--do not think "modern" and "democratic" equal secular. In France, educational integration means public schools can expel Muslim girls for wearing headscarves. In Denmark, economic integration means employers can fire Muslim women for doing the same. Neither is conceivable in the United States, where the right to be openly religious is considered precious. And, if an American leader criticized "these people for whom religion is their entire life," as the Danish queen recently did, she would be out of a job fast.
Point taken. He goes on to write about the sense he discerns in conservative commentary on this matter over the past weeks that has determined that Islam is essentially hopeless in terms of integration with the West, that the riots themselves prove the cartoon right. He concludes:
Now, in the wake of the cartoon saga, the election of Hamas and the ongoing trauma in Iraq, that universalism is being challenged, and the older, more pessimistic conservatism is resurfacing. And that's a very bad thing. No matter what you think of the religious right's domestic agenda, the United States is much better off with a religious right than with a Christian right or a Judeo-Christian right. When conservative American Christians lose their ability to identify with conservative Muslims--to imagine their faith as in some basic way the same and deserving of the same basic respect--the United States will find itself less able to speak to the Muslim world, and less able to listen to it. It will find itself, in other words, in the place Europe is now. And that's a place no American should want to be.
So, in essence what Beinart is saying is that the riots are the fruit of European secularism and hostility to religion. But what that argument ignores is the coming, but very real conflict between, not just secularism and religious thinking and commitment, but between secular law and Shari'a as intepreted by radical Islamists living in the West.
One final piece, on a slightly different topic, and that's Tim Rutten's excellent LA Times column from last week, in which he calls for honesty in discussing this. Simply that the American press' delicacy on the cartoons is not about concerns about religious offense. The American press is perfectly willing to give other religions offense:
Meanwhile, ironies that would be laughable were the situation not so dire have mounted by the day. For one thing, reporting in this paper, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal has made it clear that what's at work here is not the Muslim street's spontaneous revulsion against sacrilege but a calculated campaign of manipulation by European Islamists and self-interested Middle Eastern governments. If the images first published in Jyllands-Posten last September are so inherently offensive that they cannot be viewed in any context, why did Danish Muslims distribute them across an Islamic world that seldom looks at Copenhagen newspapers? As Bernard-Henri Levy wrote this week, we have here a case of "self-inflicted blasphemy."
Then there's the question of why there was no reaction whatsoever when Al Fagr, one of Egypt's largest newspapers, published these cartoons on its front page Oct. 17 — that's right, four months ago — during Ramadan. Apparently its editor, Adel Hamouda, isn't as sensitive as his American colleagues.
Nothing, however, quite tops the absurdity of two pieces on the situation done this week by the New York Times and CNN. In the former instance, a thoughtful essay by the paper's art critic was illustrated with a 7-year-old reproduction of Chris Ofili's notorious painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. (Apparently, her fans aren't as touchy as Muhammad's.) Thursday, CNN broadcast a story on how common anti-Semitic caricatures are in the Arab press and illustrated it with —you guessed it — one virulently anti-Semitic cartoon after another. As the segment concluded, Wolf Blitzer looked into the camera and piously explained that while CNN had decided as a matter of policy not to broadcast any image of Muhammad, telling the story of anti-Semitism in the Arab press required showing those caricatures.
He didn't even blush.
No, the reason the American media doesn't want to print the cartoons has to do with fear and intimidation. Intimidation from groups like CAIR, as reported to me from an acquaintance who works at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and simple fear, as Rutten reports:
Among those who decline to show the caricatures, only one, the Boston Phoenix, has been forthright enough to admit that its editors made the decision "out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy."
There is something wonderfully clarifying about honesty.
There is. I can't begin to really sort out this issue, but I can hope for more honesty. Religious leaders who comment on this need to take more into account than their concerns about blasphemy in general. They need to admit that the destructive, hateful forces at work in some elements of Islam, and that those forces are no friend of Christianity or Judaism. The old, safe paradigm is collapsing...which is another way of saying - it's not safe any more.