The Cartoon Controversy

13 Feb

A few days ago, I was right there with those defending the cartoons and denouncing extremists. Not all of the Jyllands-Postens’s cartoons were offensive; in fact, some of them were anything but. The reaction by European Muslims demonstrated a fundamental lack of respect for Western liberal ideas (which form the structure of the societies they live in). Moreover, the whole brouhaha was instigated by Islamic religious leaders and Middle Eastern governments looking to demagogue the issue and stir up anti-Western sentiment. We’re not going to do away with free speech because some people want to set fire to buildings when they feel offended.

But let’s be honest with ourselves: It’s not enough to be right.

A lot of the reactions on the Left and Right were really just reactions to the perceived flaws and prejudices of the other side. Liberals were mad that conservatives condemned violent Muslim reaction first instead of asking for understanding and condemning the offensive cartoons, which they saw as intentionally provocative and the source of the conflict. Conservatives were upset that liberals condemned the cartoons first, which they saw as the legitimate exercise of free speech; the real source of the conflict was Muslim rejection of Western liberalism. The Left was reacting to the far-Right: the xenophobes, the Islamophobes, not to mention it was another opportunity to attack US foreign policy. The Right was reacting to the far-Left: the moral equivocators who condemn insensitive cartoons but not violence; those that fail to see the threat posed by militant fundamentalist Islam; and those that use the controversy as just another excuse to rail against US foreign policy. It’s like assuming everyone on the Left subscribes to the Noam Chomsky view of the world while everyone on the Right subscribes to the Sean Hannity view.

What happened to the pragmatists?

I have little doubt that the editor of the Jyllands-Posten was well intentioned and he had a legitimate point to make in publishing the cartoons. If you read the editorial that accompanies the cartoons I think it bears out this conclusion. The problem is that Europe, unlike the United States, has a problem with Muslim immigrants and making Muslims feel their religion is respected. Muslims see Europeans defending free speech of the religiously blasphemous variety, but not the freedom of speech of the simply religious variety, say, as when France bans the wearing of heard scarves.

Far-right political parties are also using the controversy to drum up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. European Muslims, rightly or wrongly, see themselves as marginalized and their religion not afforded the same respect as Christianity or Judaism. In the context of Europe, as Fareed Zakaria has put it, “[t]he cartoons were offensive and needlessly provocative.” It matters that the Muslim reaction was irrational and overblown; illiberalism and violence should always be stridently condemned. What also matters, however, and perhaps matters most, is why Europe (and the West) has a perception problem with Muslims and how to get them to support Western liberal values.

All else is dueling idealism; well intentioned, by ultimately besides the point if it only leads to more talk. The multiculturalists are going to have to wake up and see that respect for culture does not mean respect for illiberalism, and come up with a real response to the violence and demagoguery. And the libertarians out there are going to have to find a way to convince Muslims that the West has a stake in their rights and freedoms, not just those of the cultural majority.

Not surprisingly, it is Fareed Zakaria who focuses our attention on what is important in this debate. We need to accept the fact that these illiberal Muslim forces are seen as legitimate reactions against perceived Western injustice. But, as Zakaria warns:

…to accept these forces is not to celebrate them. It is important that religious intolerance and anti-modern attitudes not be treated as cultural variations that must be respected. Whether it is Hindu intolerance in India, anti-Semitism in Europe or Muslim bigotry in Saudi Arabia, the modern world rightly condemns them all as violating universal values. Recent months have only highlighted that promoting democracy and promoting liberty in the Middle East are separate projects. Both have their place. But the latter–promoting the forces of political, economic and social liberty–is the more difficult and more important task. And unless we succeed at it, we will achieve a series of nasty democratic outcomes, as we are beginning to in so many of these places.

We’re right to condemn the illiberal Muslim attitude and its violent reaction. We’re wrong to think that enough.


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