More than free speech

The controversy surrounding the publication of cartoons that allegedly offend Muslims shows no sign of abating. While some prefer to laud the “superior” West and the British Empire, others retaliate by publishing anti-Jewish cartoons and a tiny, extremist minority believe violence is the only way to display their contempt. Calmer heads must prevail.

One author, Philip Hensher, believes that the West must stand up to its accusers:

“If anti-democratic forces in the Muslim world can make such effective use of a cartoon in a small European country, they would be much more encouraged by any signs of restriction on our part. Anyone in the Muslim world arguing for freedom of speech, on religious or other matters, has only one place to look to – the west. We ought to take into account the sorts of factions in the Muslim world who would regard legal restrictions on our side as part of a wider victory.”

Such blind faith in “Western” ways should be treated with suspicion, however. Western exceptionalism is an ugly phenomenon. Moreover, the vast majority of the world’s population do not live in Western societies and despite what some in the White House may believe, have no desire to live like them.

Guardian journalist Gary Younge takes a different view:

“But the right to freedom of speech equates to neither an obligation to offend nor a duty to be insensitive. There is no contradiction between supporting someone’s right to do something and condemning them for doing it. If our commitment to free speech is important, our belief in anti-racism should be no less so. These cartoons spoke not to historic sensitivities, but modern ones. Muslims in Europe are now subjected to routine discrimination on suspicion that they are terrorists, and Denmark has some of Europe’s most draconian immigration policies. These cartoons served only to compound such prejudice.

“The right to offend must come with at least one consequent right and one subsequent responsibility. If newspapers have the right to offend then surely their targets have the right to be offended. Moreover, if you are bold enough to knowingly offend a community then you should be bold enough to withstand the consequences, so long as that community expresses displeasure within the law.

“The inflammatory response to their protest reminds me of the quote from Steve Biko, the South African black nationalist: ‘Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked.'”

To suggest – as say some defenders of the cartoon – that this story is a test-case of how Islam can integrate into modern society, is based on a falsehood. Free speech has never been absolute in the West. Younge reminds us that Western societies routinely ban books and films, including American schools restricting Harry Potter.

Muslim-bashers don’t really need an excuse to prove the backwardness, bigotry and bias of Islam, as if any sheik or individual speaks for an entire religion. For them, Islam is an inherently violent religion, almost beyond reproach. After all, we’re constantly told, the West is under threat from militant Islam and publishing these cartoon is a slap in the face of Islamists the world over. Far too many today believe that Islam, by definition, is backwards and needs to be brought into the 21st century. This, usually, from people who have spent virtually no time in the Muslim world or with Muslims. And let’s not forget that many Muslims are embarrassed at the violent response to these cartoons.

Rachard Itani, writing in Counterpunch, reminds readers of Europe’s hypocrisy over the issue:

“In many European countries, there are laws that will land in jail any person who has the chutzpah to deny not only the historicity of the Jewish holocaust, but also the method by which Jews were put to death by the Nazis. In some of these countries, this prohibition goes as far as prosecuting those who would claim or attempt to prove that less than 6 million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. In none of these countries are there similar laws that threaten people with loss of freedom and wealth for denying that large percentages of gypsies, gays, mentally retarded, and other miscellaneous ‘debris of humanity’ were also eliminated by the Jew-slaughtering Nazis.

“Quickly now: what defines a hypocrite? Answer: a person who follows the letter of the law, but not its spirit. The laws against anti-Semitism are just that: laws against anti-Semitism enacted by hypocritical Europeans with blood on their hands from the genocides in their recent and distant past, and much guilt to atone for in their hearts and minds.

“The spirit of the law, which would extend this protection to Muslims as well, if not indeed other religious groups, is nowhere to be found in the Western legal code. You can curse the Prophet of the Muslims at will and with total impunity. However, approach the holocaust at your own risks and perils if you do not include in your discussion the standard, ritualistic incantations about the six million Jewish victims of the European Nazis. There is a word for this in the English language: hypocrisy.”

By all means, let’s condemn the burnings of embassies. But let’s not presume that this cartoon was designed to achieve anything other than provocation. Western societies tolerate, even encourage, such behaviour and this should be encouraged. But the issue is much wider than many are arguing. Robert Fisk rightly urges calm:

“In any event, it’s not about whether the Prophet should be pictured. The Koran does not forbid images of the Prophet even though millions of Muslims do. The problem is that these cartoons portrayed Mohamed as a bin Laden-type image of violence. They portrayed Islam as a violent religion. It is not. Or do we want to make it so?”

At a time when political Islam is rising across the Arab world, and corrupt regimes imposed by the West are being rejected, the US, Israel and its proxies are fearful of the new vanguard. Anti-Semitism is rightly challenged, yet Islamophobia is excused and encouraged. We shouldn’t be surprised that much of the Arab world regards the West as hypocrites.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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