The anti-Muslim blog world (Little Green Footballs is but one example) is up in arms regarding the response to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in the Arab world. They’re shocked, I say shocked at the level of violence and vehemence aimed at those in the west who published the cartoons and who continue to defend them. According to them, it shows the backwardness of Islam. It shows that the religion and its adherents are not yet capable of living in the enlightened modern world represented by the west.
One of the major arguments these people advance is that Muslims do not understand sacred western values like free speech and freedom of the press. Robert Wright, writing in today’s NY Times (TimesSelect sub required) savages this argument. He notes that western media self-censor all the time in deciding what to say and what to leave out about sensitive stories involving religion, race and many other matters. And he claims that such censorship is not at all a bad thing. In fact, in most instances it is a good thing because it shows a level of civility that is necessary in a multi-ethnic society. It is only when we cease honoring this unwritten pact, when we unbutton our lip and let fly with our baser instincts that we get into trouble.
Caryn Sachs, a commenter on one of my Muhammed posts, took special offense at the Belgian Muslim newspaper which published a cartoon of Adolf Hitler in bed (after having sex with Anne Frank) saying: “Put that in your diary, Anne.” She contended that such cartoons are far more offensive because they seek to demean and debase the Holocaust. In my reply, I agreed with her that such Holocaust cartoons are deeply offensive and a highly insulting response to the anti-Muslim cartoons. However, I argued that each side in this debate was losing track of the feelings of the other. I see no reason Muslims shouldn’t be just as offended by the Muhammed cartoons as Jews would be over the Hitler cartoon.
Wright comments on these general themes here:
…Why not take the model that has worked in America and apply it globally? Namely: Yes, you are legally free to publish just about anything, but if you publish things that gratuitously offend ethnic or religious groups, you will earn the scorn of enlightened people everywhere. With freedom comes responsibility.
Of course, it’s a two-way street. As Westerners try to attune themselves to the sensitivities of Muslims, Muslims need to respect the sensitivities of, for example, Jews. But it’s going to be hard for Westerners to sell Muslims on this symmetrical principle while flagrantly violating it themselves. That Danish newspaper editor, along with his American defenders, is complicating the fight against anti-Semitism.
Some Westerners say there’s no symmetry here — that cartoons about the Holocaust are more offensive than cartoons about Muhammad. And, indeed, to us secularists it may seem clear that joking about the murder of millions of people is worse than mocking a God whose existence is disputed.
BUT one key to the American formula for peaceful coexistence is to avoid such arguments — to let each group decide what it finds most offensive, so long as the implied taboo isn’t too onerous. We ask only that the offended group in turn respect the verdicts of other groups about what they find most offensive. Obviously, anti-Semitic and other hateful cartoons won’t be eliminated overnight. (In the age of the Internet, no form of hate speech will be eliminated, period; the argument is about what appears in mainstream outlets that are granted legitimacy by nations and peoples.)
Say Amen somebody.