Thu Feb 2nd, 2006 at 04:55:23 PM EST
Cross-posted from my blog. Promoted to the front page by Jérôme.
As discussed in this previous story, there is global outcry over the publication in a Danish and a Norwegian newspaper of satirical cartoons on the Prophet Muhammed Mustafa. Everybody who's anybody in the Islamic world, from Chechen rebel leader Sjamil Basajev via the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to the Indonesian foreign ministry, is jumping on the bandwagon. Even the offically secular Syria has recalled its ambassador from Copenhagen.
Anti-Danish demonstration in Hebron.
On Tuesday, seventeen Arab interior ministers demanded
that Danish authorities punish those who drew the cartoons, as well as ensure it doesn't happen again. The limits of their jurisdictions seem to have eluded these dignitaries. Have they perchance bought into US wingnut blather about "Eurabia"?
And isn't it faintly incongruous to have countries like Saudi Arabia, where owning a Bible can relieve you of your head, bidding to school Scandinavia in "being respectful of other religions"?
Now, here's an idea that needs to be voiced more often: too much pious lip-service is paid to the supposed obligation to respect the beliefs of others. From the canonical liberal viewpoint, there is no such thing. Instead, there is a duty to respect the right of others to believe what they damn well please and to observe those beliefs unless demonstrably harmful to others. With H.L. Mencken, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."
No doubt, westerners easily fail to realize how offensive to muslim sensibilities is any caricature — let alone a mean-spirited such — of the Prophet. In Sunni tradition he is not to be depicted at all, to avoid idolatry; in no strand of the religion can he be insulted, either in words or imagery. True, we non-muslims have no religious reason to honor these strictures. But we have a secular reason to do so: the virtue of plain old-fashioned civility.
Then again, a virtue does not a duty make. I have no duty to withhold my dim view of the other fellow's family, especially not in my own home. If he insists otherwise, I may be tempted to speak my mind just to make the point that I'm entitled to it. If he backs up his demands with threats of violence, the temptation will grow.
Which, by rough analogy, is how this saga began half a year ago. In light of the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, and an assault on a History professor in Copenhagen, the author of an illustrated children's book on the life of Muhammed couldn't find an illustrator willing to work under his or her own name. The Danish quality daily Jyllands-Posten got wind of this and, to provoke debate about potential erosion of the freedom of expression, commissioned drawings of Muhammed from a number of cartoonists, printing the ones it received on September 30.
On October 19, ambassadors from eleven predominantly muslim countries requested a meeting with the Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen, seeking an official condemnation of the incident. The cocky Fogh Rasmussen refused to meet with them, confident — mistakenly, as it turned out — that the principle of freedom of the press was "crystal clear." Subsequently a delegation of Danish Islamic leaders toured the Middle East, telling the tale to all who would listen. Many would.
Finally, on January 10, a small evangelical journal in Norway fanned the flames by reproducing the material for reasons ostensibly similar to Jyllands-Posten's. Upon this the uproar has swept the Islamic world like wildfire, following denunciations by its foremost religious authorities such as Saudi top cleric Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh and the leading Egyptian scholar Sheikh Yusef al-Qardawi.
Anti-Danish demonstration in Yemen.
It has lately turned violent. Employees of a Danish dairy company were beaten up in Riyadh; Scandinavian aid workers have been chased out of Gaza; bomb threats are being phoned in against Danish embassies and Jyllands-posten; terrorist websites call for strikes against Denmark and Norway.
In defiance of such intimidation tactics, newspapers across Europe have now published the cartoons. Among them is the France Soir, whose Egyptian owner promptly fired the editor and apologized to muslims everywhere. The soon-to-be-jobless editor declared on the front page of the February 1 edition: "Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God."
That headline returns us to the core of the matter: the distinction between the commendable and the permissible. Insulting the other fellow's family to his face may not be the former; it does fall within the wider scope of the latter. And, when the principle of free expression is challenged, speech acts may become commendable that would otherwise be merely permissible.
In that spirit, below are the by now notorious cartoons — which, as it happens, strike me as neither profound nor funny. If this ticks off higher powers, they know where to find me.
Anyone else will have to blame himself for scrolling down.
Warning: Potentially offensive images below!