Saturday, February 11, 2006

Those cartoons - redux

I have so far avoided blogging on the notorious Mohammed cartoons, largely because I haven't been blogging at all for the last week or so. To create some pretence of topicality, I thought I would respond to this uncommonly stupid Guardian column by Jonathan Steele.

It is not often that the left agrees with Tony Blair, let alone George Bush. But the good sense the two leaders have shown in the Danish cartoons affair by siding with leftwing and liberal critics of the offensive drawings' publication is one of the more remarkable aspects of the drama.
Hm. The left agrees with Tony Blair most of the time, actually. He is a Prime Minister leading a centre-left government, whose MP's (who are presumably on the left) regularly vote through his legislation. But the more serious error in Steele's opening sentence is the use of the term "liberal". Liberals believe that free speech is absolute. Being a Liberal Democrat activist, I know quite a lot of liberals. None of them share Blair's view that publishing the cartoons was wrong, in either a legal or a moral sense. (Most of us think that it was stupid or rude, neither of which is grounds for outrage.)

Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, which first printed the unfunny cartoons, says he wanted to break away from Denmark's "self-censorship" in the face of Islam.
No scare quotes needed. The comissioning of the cartoons was provoked by a specific incident of self-censorship - namely that nobody in Denmark was prepared to be named as illustrator of a book about Mohammed because of the risk of violence.

Other European papers that followed suit boasted of courage.

Accurately - we are dealing with people who have burned down embassies in response to these cartoons.

The fact is that on the cartoon issue the great neocon and his ideological advisers were pragmatic and smart enough to see that the drawings were in poor taste, deliberately provocative and grotesquely inaccurate in suggesting that every Muslim is a murderous would-be martyr and, worse still, that the Qur'an advocates suicide bombing.
Neither taste nor theology are appropriate topics for government officials to comment on in their official capacity. Whether or not the Qur'an advocates suicide bombing is a question that is hotly contested both by Muslims and non-Muslims. Steele is entitled to his opinion (although if, as I suspect, he has not read the Qur'an, I don't see why anyone should care what it is) and is free to discuss it in a Guardian column. The British government should not take a position on what is or is not correct Islamic doctrine, and British politicians should not pontificate about the issue (unless they are imams in their spare time).

Bush's reaction shows that Americans have a better understanding of multiculturalism than most Europeans

Yes, quite. And there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. America is a country whose first response to the September 11th attacks was to declare a "crusade".

E pluribus unum - "unity from many" - as their motto puts it.
Actually, the official motto of the United States is "In God We Trust". "Unity in Diversity" is the motto of the European Union. "E Pluribus Unum" referred to the Union of several States, all of which were run by property-owning white Christian males. When the possibility arose that it might be interpreted to include blacks and women, the Americans carefully changed it.

In Britain we are further back. If there is a tolerance spectrum, with resistance to diversity at one end, acceptance of it in the middle and celebration of it at the other end, Britain lies somewhere near the middle.
Which is as it should be. There are good reasons for not celebrating the fact that some people in the UK believe that women and gays are second-class citizens.

(Some evil right-wing Danish official said) "We have gone to war against the multicultural ideology that says that everything is equally valid."

While this blog disapproves of wars against drugs, terror, multicultural ideology, or anything else that is not an army, the Danes have a point. Water is still wet no matter how strongly the Fuq-Whit tribe of Bongo Bongo Land believe that it is dry. Mass murder is bad, and democracy, free markets and the rule of law are good. We should be prepared to say that these views are more valid than the opposite, whatever culture people belong to.

When the demonstrations started and other papers in Europe printed the cartoons in "solidarity" with Jyllands-Posten, they compounded the initial anti-Muslim error by trying to stir up a continental clash of civilisations

Just to think, I thought that being gratuitously controversial was about selling more papers. Apparently it is part of some grand neocon conspiracy to provoke World War III.

But why should a progressive paper in Britain feel "solidarity" with anti-immigrant Danish editors who made a major error of judgment rather than with British Muslims who universally deplored the cartoons?

Because they are both newspaper editors who feel harried by people taking offense at what they publish? I certainly find it hard to believe that a newspaper editor, progressive or not, could feel solidarity with people who support new laws restricting newspaper editors.

(Snip the obligatory couple of paragraphs condemning embassy-burning)

Even the Saudis only reacted after Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime Minister, refused to receive a protest delegation of Danish Islamic leaders and ambassadors from Muslim countries. The Danish government's insensitivity and rudeness were almost as offensive as the cartoons.

Why and earth should the Danish prime minister get into discussions about what a privately-owned newspaper publishes. There is absolutely nothing the Danish prime minister can or should do about rudeness in the papers - that is what having a free press means. If he had met the ambassadors and said "Sorry - it's a free country. Nothing I can do. Please go away" then they would have been just as offended, but the Prime Minister's valuable time would have been wasted.

Several days after the dispute erupted, Bush rang Rasmussen to express support. But he was careful to say he was acting "in light of the violence against Danish and other diplomatic missions", not in solidarity with the phoney free-speech issue.
The free speech issue isn't phoney. If you don't have the right to offend anyone, you don't have free speech. Although given Bush's attitude to speech he finds offensive, I'm not surprised that he got this one wrong.

Muslims are not only an important part of Europe's new diversity. They are diverse among themselves. To suggest that, because almost all of Europe's Muslims felt offended by the cartoons, they all support slogans calling for revenge and beheadings is as inaccurate as it is for people in Muslim countries to claim that every European approved the cartoons' publication. There are liberals, conservatives, modernisers and traditionalists in all communities, just as there are those who know the bounds of good taste and bigots who do not.

Steele is able to state the obvious. Nevertheless, he still manages to mislead. While very few European Muslims support supressing free speech by burning embassies, an awful lot of them do support supressing free speech by passing laws. There is a real and important divide between those who support free speech and those who don't. I stand with Jyllands-Posten on one side of it. Steele, Blair, and the Muslim Council of Britain stand on the other side. With the embassy-burners

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  • At 1:13 pm , Blogger Joe Otten said...

    The idea of Steele or the government taking a position on what is or is not correct Islamic doctrine is even more absurd than you suggest.

    Unless you are actually Muslim yourself, it is incoherent to believe that there is any such thing as correct Islamic doctrine.


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