Publish or Perish: The Lessons of the Cartoon Jihad
Robert Tracinski is the editor of TIADaily.com and The Intellectual Activist.
The central issue of the "cartoon jihad"—the Muslim riots and death threats against a Danish newspaper that printed 12 cartoons depicting Mohammed—is obvious. The issue is freedom of speech: whether our freedom to think, write, and draw is to be subjugated to the "religious sensitivities" of anyone who threatens us with force.
That is why it is necessary for every newspaper and magazine to re-publish those cartoons, as I will do in the next print issue of The Intellectual Activist. Click here.
This is not merely a symbolic expression of support; it is a practical countermeasure against censorship. Censorship—especially the violent, anarchic type threatened by Muslim fanatics—is effective only when it can isolate a specific victim, making him feel as if he alone bears the brunt of the danger. What intimidates an artist or writer is not simply some Arab fanatic in the street carrying a placard that reads "Behead those who insult Islam." What intimidates him is the feeling that, when the beheaders come after him, he will be on his own, with no allies or defenders—that everyone else will be too cowardly to stick their necks out.
The answer, for publishers, is to tell the Muslim fanatics that they can't single out any one author, or artist, or publication. The answer is to show that we're all united in defying the fanatics.
That's what it means to show "solidarity" by re-publishing the cartoons. The message we need to send is: if you want to kill anyone who publishes those cartoons, or anyone who makes cartoons of Mohammed, then you're going to have to kill us all. If you make war on one independent mind, you're making war on all of us. And we'll fight back.
But the issue of freedom of speech is too clear, and too well settled, in the West, to be worth spending much time debating it. What is far more interesting is the fact that such a debate is occurring, nonetheless.
This is a fact from which the Western world can draw some crucially important conclusions.
The West has long been aware that, while we hold freedom of speech as a centerpiece of our liberty, the Muslim world does not recognize this freedom. Before now, however, our worlds have rarely collided. The Muslims have not usually dared to extend their dictatorial systems to control our own behavior within our own cities. The Salman Rushdie affair—the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 death edict against the "blasphemous" novelist—was an ominous warning, but Americans did not take it seriously.
Now, seventeen years later, the Muslim fanatics are making it clear: you don't have to come to our country, you don't have to be a Muslim. Even in your own countries and under your own laws, you will not be safe from our intimidation.
For the whole Western world, this is an opportunity to learn an important truth about the goal of the Islamists. Their goal is not to achieve any specific political demand or settlement. Their goal is submission: our submission to their will, to their laws, to their dictatorship—our submission, not just to one demand, but to any demand the Muslim mobs care to make.
Europe particularly needs to learn this lesson. The Europeans have deluded themselves into thinking that this is our fight. If only Israel weren't so intransigent, if only the US weren't so belligerent, they told themselves—if only those cowboys didn't insist on stirring up trouble, we could all live in peace with the Muslims. And they have deluded themselves into thinking that they can seek a separate peace, that having the Danish flag on your backpack—as one bewildered young Dane described it—would guarantee that you could go anywhere in the world and be regarded as safe, as innocuous.
Now the Europeans know better. With cries of "Death to Israel" and "Death to American" now being joined by cries of "Death to Denmark", every honest European can now see that they are in this fight, too—and they are closer to the front lines than we are. Threats against American cartoonists, when anyone bothers to make them, are toothless; there is no mob of violent young Muslims in the United States to carry them out. European writers and filmmakers, by contrast, are already being murdered in the streets. The first people to find themselves living under the sword of a would-be Muslim caliphate are Europeans, not Americans.
The lesson here is not just that the Islamist ideology of dictatorship is a threat to Europe. It is also that the dictatorships themselves are a threat. The advocates of cynical European "realpolitik" deluded themselves into thinking that, if they just made the right kind of deals with Saddam Hussein, or with the Iranian regime, or with the Syrian regime, then the dictatorships over there would have no impact on us over here.
But we can now see that the anti-Danish riots did not explode spontaneously: they were instigated by the dictators, by the regimes in Iran and Syria. To their credit, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and now US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been pointing out this connection. The lesson for Europe: if you accommodate and appease the dictators, they won't leave you alone. Having gotten some of what they want, they will come after you and take the rest. Europe ought to have learned that lesson, at terrible cost, in 1939; this ought to refresh their memory.
If we want to know why these lessons have not been learned before now, the cartoon jihad also gives us clues to the answer. Note that those who are supposed to help us learn those lessons—the left-leaning intellectuals and newspaper editors, the people who have traditionally posed as the brave defenders of free speech—have been the first to collapse in abject submission to Muslim sensibilities. The New York Times, for example, dismissed the cartoons as "juvenile" and explained that refusing to publish even a single image of the cartoons "seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols."
Note how the New York Times—like many other left-leaning newspapers—hides behind the evasion that the Danish cartoons are "silly" or "juvenile." On the contrary: the best of the Danish cartoons provided a far more serious, hard-hitting, thought-provoking commentary than has been provided in the pages of these same newspapers. While the mainstream media has drooled that Islam is "a religion of peace"—in the midst of yet another Muslim war—it was left to a Danish cartoonists to suggest that Mohammed himself, and the religion he represents, might be the bomb that has set off all of this violence. (To see these cartoons, go to the simply named website muhammadcartoons.com.
But the prize for most abject surrender to Muslim dictatorship has to go to the leftist academics. The first to decry the Bush administration as a creeping "fascist" dictatorship, they are, perversely, the first to fawn in admiration before the world's actual fascists. If you think that's an exaggeration, read an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times by Stanley Fish, a famous "Postmodernist" university professor and defender of "political correctness." Fish writes:
"Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism's museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give—ask for deference rather than mere respect—it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country….
"[T]he editors who have run the cartoons do not believe that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished. They do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision; they do it gratuitously, almost accidentally. Concerned only to stand up for an abstract principle—free speech—they seize on whatever content happens to come their way and use it as an example of what the principle should be protecting. The fact that for others the content may be life itself is beside their point.
"This is itself a morality—the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors."
For years, the left has told us that the foundation of freedom is subjectivism; if you are never certain that you are right, you will never be certain enough to "impose" your views on others. But will you be certain enough to defend your mind against those who want to impose their beliefs on you? If Fish is any indication, the answer is "no." Note how he bows with almost superstitious awe before the fanaticism of the Muslim mobs, while describing the old-fashioned liberals' defense of free speech as hypocritical, superficial, "condescending."
And now the "hate crimes" laws pioneered by the left in the name of political correctness, are being invoked by Muslims to suppress publication of the Mohammed cartoons by a Canadian newspaper. The intellectuals of the left, having built a reputation as defenders of free speech by striking a pose of defiance against innocuous threats at home, have now become the leading advocates for self-imposed submission to the Muslim hordes abroad.
Interestingly, intellectuals on the right have now become the loudest, most strident voices in defense of free speech, for which they deserve our admiration. Blogger Michelle Malkin has waged a particularly effective crusade on this issue. And she is not the only one; I linked to many good articles on the topic in last week's editions of TIA Daily.
But the right has its own contradictions, it own source of sympathy with the enemy. For years, conservative intellectuals have been demanding greater "sensitivity" to "religious sensibilities"—at least, to the religious sensibilities of Christians—and calling for a great role for religion in the "public square." The have waged a long crusade to allow religion to serve as the basis for laws against abortion and homosexuality, and for the subordination of science to religion, demanding that this be a "nation under God" rather than a "nation under Darwin."
And so we have seen a few prominent conservatives falter badly in the cartoon jihad. Prominent neoconservative scion John Podhoretz wrote a column in last Friday's New York Post that sounds an awful lot like Stanley Fish's column quoted above:
"For many people, the way to grant Muslims the recognition they crave is to patronize them—to give them nice little nods and winks and talk about what a nice religion they have. That kind of recognition is unsatisfying and condescending. The impulse behind the original publication of the cartoons in Denmark last September was to cut through the condescension. They were literally provocative—designed to provoke discussion about how to deal with the phenomenon that Carsten Juste, the editor of the newspaper that published them, called the 'self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world.'
"Well, as Juste and his staff have learned to their sorrow, while some of that self-censorship may be the result of cowardly political correctness, some of it is clearly due to simple prudence. Juste and his underlings have been in grave physical danger for months, ever since the cartoons were published. And it would not be too much to say that they and the world would have been better off if they had exercised a little more self-protective caution in the first place."
Meanwhile, Hugh Hewitt—a much more dedicated religious conservative—practically squirms with discomfort at the idea of someone criticizing religion. He echoes the idea that the Danish editors were "irresponsible" for printing the cartoons because they could have predicted that it would "provoke" a violent reaction—but he adds a more pro-American gloss to it. He says that the cartoons were irresponsible because the enemy will use them as propaganda to incite riots and try to gain support among Muslims.
"In a wired world, there aren't any inconsequential actions, and everything is grist for the propagandists among the jihadists. That doesn't mean censorship, or even self-censorship. Only a bit of reflection before rushing off to start new battles which divert attention from those already underway. There is a chasm of difference between serious commentary on the Islamic challenge facing Europe and the West…and crude, sweeping anti-Muslim propaganda. It isn't necessary to defend the latter in order to uphold and praise the former."
(See more more of Hewitt's commentary on this issue.)
The weakness of the conservatives is that they think the essence of the West is our religion, our "Judeo-Christian tradition"—rather than our Enlightenment legacy of individual rights and unfettered reason. Conservatives try to evade the clash between religious authority and freedom of thought by claiming that religion provides the moral basis for liberty. But the clash cannot be avoided, and conservatives are forced to choose where they will draw the line: where respect for religious prohibitions, in their view, takes precedence over respect for the individual mind. On this issue—involving a religion alien to American traditions—most conservatives have had no problem drawing the line in favor of freedom. But will they draw a different line when their own religious dogmas are challenged?
This is the final lesson of the cartoon jihad. The real issue at stake is not just censorship versus freedom, but something much deeper: the need to recognize the real essence of the West. The distinctive power and vibrancy of our culture, the source of our liberty, our happiness, and our unprecedented prosperity, is our Enlightenment tradition of regard for the unfettered reasoning mind, left free to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
And this controversy has given our minds plenty of evidence to follow, and plenty of fearless conclusions to draw.
Source: TIA Daily -- February 13, 2006
[This article is available for reprinting free of charge, both in print publications and on websites. For the permission to reprint, write to editor@TIADaily.com.]
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