February 23, 2006

Don't worry, four days from now I'll blog about port security and in a week, the civil war in Iraq

The AP story on the sentencing of David Irving ends with a bit of whiplash: "Mr. Irving's trial came during a period of intense debate in Europe over freedom of expression, after European newspapers printed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that set off deadly protests worldwide."

I've written before that this is a bad parallel for a couple of reasons. Holocaust denial is inherently racist, whereas cartoons about Muhammad, while they can be Islamophobic (more on that buzzword later), can also be legitimate critiques of religious and social structures (not to mention entirely uncritical of anything). As an aside, Flemming Rose is surely being a tad disingenuous in his recent WaPo OpEd when he insists that he solicited the cartoons for purely high-minded reasons, but he's right about much else, including his gloss on what it means to "respect" religious believers: "When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy." The folks who argue that the cartoons should be forbidden because they offend all Muslims also have to deal with the problem of the 11 Islamic journalists currently facing prosecution for publishing the cartoons — some in order to condemn them. Media outlets that have steadfastly refused to run the cartoons even as elements of a news story (as opposed to as editorial cartoons) should also consider the implications of a moderate Egyptian quoted in the story linked above: "With the Islamization of the society, the list of taboos has been increasing daily. You should not write about religion. You should not write about politics or women. Then what is left?"

As another aside (yes, this is still the aside; be patient), Rose also gave a new spin on the meaning of the turban-bomb cartoon, something about oranges. Is his mytho-ironic interpretation correct, or is the cartoon really saying, as every other media outlet at least implies, that Islam is a violent religion? Washington Post readers are forced to guess, as the paper won't show them the cartoon so they can decide for themselves? (It does no good, philosophically, to say they can find the picture on the Internets. People can find 90% of the news stories and photos in today's Post on other online sources, but the paper doesn't stop publishing 90% of its content on those grounds.) Meanwhile, renegade art critic Edward Rothstein breaks the New York Times taboo of refusing to even describe most of the cartoons (while insisting that the reason it won't publish the images is that it could describe them if it wanted to) in a gleefully non-sequitorial coda to a review of a book about religion and biology. His take is a clear indictment of the Times' All The News That's Halal policy.

Of course, to a certain extent, the recent riots also reflect a struggle for internal power. Rage was deliberately churned up with supplementary drawings reportedly created by some radical Muslim leaders and presented along with the original group of 12. One, crudely offensive even to this infidel's eyes, replaced the political cartoonist's gibes with the preoccupations of a pornographer, showing a dog mounting the Prophet. The militants who created and distributed these cartoons displayed a willingness to violate any principle, to increase their earthly power — a sentiment that some original Iconoclasts must have shared.

What response is possible to such attacks? Many commentators have been surprising deferent, describing the original 12 images, almost apologetically, as insensitive. But look more closely: the subject of many is not really Muhammad himself, but the act of drawing Muhammad and the responses it might inspire. A cartoonist is shown anxiously leaning over his sketch of Muhammad, sweating profusely, looking over his shoulder in fear. In another, two Muslim avengers, their scimitars drawn in fury, are about to seek retribution for an offensive drawing when their superior, looking at it closely, advises them to "relax," it's just a sketch made by a Dane.

Some of these cartoons are not iconoclastic offenses against religious belief at all. Instead, they are about iconoclasm and anticipated confrontations with it. The fear and drawn swords the cartoons portray turn out to be depictions of the very reaction they inspired. They are expressions that is, of anxiety. In the West, Mr. Dennett's iconoclasm is absorbed, but Muslim iconoclasm cannot be.

OK, asides over. I hear you in the third row yelling, "digression!" Back to David Irving. Other commentators are making the direct link between Irving and the toons, saying the juxtoposition feeds Arab peceptions of "double standards." As I've said before, this is another red herring in the sense that the jihadis don't want a single standard, they just want a double standard that works the other way: no to violating the tenets of Islam, yes to offending (at the very least) Jews and Christians. And yet, the West actually ought not to have double standards when it comes to free speech, not because of what anti-Western Arabs think, but because of our own ideals. So if there's a silver lining to this somewhat spurious linkage, perhaps it will be that Europe will decide that its laws banning Holocaust denial have outlived their usefulness and are no longer appropriate in a free society. After all, Irving's ideas aren't discredited because he's going to jail for them, they're discredited because people like Deobrah Lipstadt discredited them. Nor is there any reason to think that his imprisonment will deter future Holocaust deniers. Antisemitism will always be with us, so we might as well not let it override the fundamental principle that people shouldn't go to jail for their beliefs. Update: Lipstadt: "There is a far better way to fight Holocaust denial than to rely on the transitory force of law."

On the other hand, the pessimist in me fears that Europe is falling too in love with its speech codes to back down from this one, and that if anything, we're going to see the double standard "erased" by the application of brand new laws banning Islamophobia. Why do I say Europe loves speech codes? Well, just look at the new British law that forbids glorifying terrorism. Per Tony Blair: "And the important thing is that the type of demonstrations that we saw a couple of weeks ago, where I think there were placards and images [praising the 7/7 bombngs] that people in this country felt were totally offensive, the law will allow us to deal with those people and say, 'Look, we have free speech in this country but don't abuse it.' "

Which is another way of saying, we have free speech, except when we don't. Critics "argued that the concept of glorification was too vague and could catch people commemorating Guy Fawkes or putting up posters of Che Guevara." And that brings me to another fear that probably deserves a post of its own, with a sexy photo of Natalie Portman.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


My opinion is that people should have their say. However, there must be consistency and imprisoning Irving after allowing the cartoons sends a clear messege of prejudice to muslims. I assume the Irving case is possibly fuel for further riots and disdain over the cartoons.

Austria allowed the cartoons but disallowed the holocaust denial. A clear double standard and selective use of "freedom of speech" arguements which is evidently prejudiced in Europe.

I think we agree, although you have to remember the historical context in which Austria originally drafted its laws prohibiting Holocaust denial.

You know, I went poking around for a Guardian piece (I think) where Lipstadt basically made a similar free speech argument. As I result I stumbled across her blog. It is well worth reading.


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