Mon Jan 30th, 2006 at 07:16:10 PM EST
The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion.
~ H.L. Mencken
As reported in BobFunk's informative diary entry on the subject, the publication of twelve satirical cartoons has provoked a serious diplomatic crisis between a number of Middle Eastern countries and Denmark. The drawings, which depict the Prophet Muhammed in unflattering ways, were first printed on September 30 last year by the Danish conservative daily Jyllands-Posten. This month they were republished by an obscure Norwegian Christian magazine, something that - combined with a campaign by some Danish Islamic leaders to "internationalize" the issue - prompted a consumer boycott ruining Danish exports to the Middle East.
Denmark has so far declined the demands to apologize for and punish the publication, although PM Anders Vogh Rasmussen today took personal exception to it. Norway has more strongly denounced it, but not apologized, pointing to freedom of speech.
Some perspective below.
To BobFunk's coverage I may add that, besides the diplomatic crisis and the consumer boycott, the muslim world's two main political bodies will ask the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution banning "attacks on religious beliefs." These bodies are, respectively, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The latter represents 57 countries, the former 22.
Meanwhile, in Darfur:
The story is the same across Darfur, Sudan's westernmost region. In 25 days of research there and among refugees on the border with Chad, Human Rights Watch documented 62 attacks on mosques in Dar Masalit, the homeland of one of Darfur's three main African tribes. Several of them were accompanied by murders inside mosques, often during prayer time. Korans, prayer mats and other symbols of Islam were routinely desecrated.
As noted in my recent story, the Sudanese regime continues to sponsor such attacks. Yet to my knowledge, neither of these organizations have made any kind of brouhaha over the matter, let alone sought UN declarations. Indeed, in March the Arab League is to hold its summit in Khartoum, perhaps there to continue its foaming at the mouth over these cartoons.
No comment required, I trust.
But aside from this plainly revolting institutional hypocrisy, there is a deeper sense of double standards at play. True, most European muslims, offending though they might rightly find the cartoons, do not call for curtailing freedom of speech. However, the foremost religious authorities of the (Sunni) muslim world - including the Saudi top cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, and the International Union for Muslim Scholars, chaired by the leading Egyptian Sheikh Yusef al-Qardawi - disagree. They side with the Palestinian Authority's representative in Norway, Yasser Najjar: "Liberty must have its limitations.... One cannot insult our Prophet!"
An al-Jazeera editorial puts the point this way:
The Muslim world has long been accused of lacking freedom, freedom of expression or freedom of speech included. Looking at what the West today calls "Freedom of Speech" we’ll find that the term has become used as a tool to insult, disrespect and degrade religions in an unprecedented way.
"The Islamic religion," claims al-Jazeera, "does not allow offensive remarks by both Muslims and Non-Muslims." Sorry; I beg to differ. Though the Koran does prescribe a measure of respect for followers of the other two Abrahamic religions, it extends no courtesy to, for instance, hindus, let alone atheists such as myself. Furthermore, it makes no bones about what awaits every "infidel" in the hereafter. Here is a non-exhaustive sample (and bear in mind that the Koran is, in mainstream Islam, considered perfect and infallible in every syllable):
The Koran, excerpts
Those who reject faith shall be the companions of the Fire.
Those who deny Our revelation We will burn in fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than We shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge. God is mighty and wise.
As for those who disbelieve and deny Our revelations, they are the heirs of Hell.
...The unbelievers shall stare in amazement, crying: "Woe to us! Of this we have been heedless. We have done wrong." You and your idols shall be the fuel of Hell; therein you shall all go down.
Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. Scalding water shall be poured upon their heads, melting their skins and that which is in their bellies. They shall be lashed with rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they try to escape from Hell, back they shall be dragged, and will be told: "Taste the torment of the Conflagration!"
...The fruit of the Zaqqum tree shall be the unbelievers's fruit. Like dregs of oil, like scalding water, it shall simmer in his belly. A voice will cry: "Seize him and drag him into the depths of Hell. Then pour out scalding water over his head, saying: 'Taste this, illustrious and honourable man! This is the punishment which you have doubted.'"
...On that day they shall be sternly thrown into the fire of Hell, and a voice will say to them: "This is the Fire which you denied.... Burn in its flames. It is the same whether or not you show forbearance. You shall be rewarded according to your deeds."
...That is the Hell which the unbelievers deny. They shall wander between fire and water fiercely seething. Which of your Lord's blessing would you deny?
Ye shall surely taste of the tree Zaqqum. Then will ye fill your insides therwith, and drink boiling water on top of it. Indeed ye shall drink like diseased camels raging with thirst. Such will be their entertainment on the day of Requital!
We shall say: "Lay hold of him and bind him. Burn him in the fie of Hell, then fasten him with a chain seventy cubits long. For he did not believe Allah the tremendous, and urged not on the feeding of the wretched. Today he shall be friendless here; filth shall be his food, the filth which sinners eat."
We have in store for the unbelievers heavy fetters and a blazing fire, choking food and harrowing torment: on the day when the earth shall quiver with all its mountains, and the mountains crumble into heaps of shifting sand.
For the unbelievers We have prepared chains and fetters and a blazing Fire....
Woe on that day to the disbelievers! Begone to the Hell which you deny! Depart into the shadow that will rise high in three columns, giving neither shade nor shelter from the flames, and throwing up sparks as huge as towers, as bright as yellow camels.... Eat and enjoy yourselves awhile. You are wicked men....
I honestly find these fantasies about the posthumous fate of my family, friends, and self exceedingly offensive: infinitely so, in fact. But then, so what? There is not and cannot be a right not to be offended by other people's metaphysical beliefs and their public expression.
And that is not just a matter of principle, though it is a truly fundamental such, pace Tony Blair: if the multicultural society is to be viable in the long haul, it's a pragmatic necessity. We would abandon the principle of free speech at our peril.