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Free Expression and Denmark's Cartoongate
Is Lampooning the Prophet Fair Game?

The event got virtually no coverage in the United States last month. But from the sounds of it, the Islamic Summit Conference gathering the lawmakers and intellectuals of 57 Muslim nations in Mecca on Dec. 7 and 8 had the makings of a breakthrough for Islam and East-West relations. “The Summit,” its final declaration stated, “reaffirmed that Islam is a religion of moderation which rejects bigotry, extremism and fanaticism, and underlined in this connection the importance of combating deviant ideology using all available means, besides developing educational curricula that firmly establish the values of understanding, tolerance, dialogue and multilateralism in accordance with the tenets of Islam.”

Encouraging. But the same declaration went on to stress “the responsibility of all governments to ensure full respect of all religions and religious symbols and the inapplicability of using the freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religions.” The emphasis is mine. It reflects a profound contradiction at the heart of Islam: Liberty and tolerance are all well and good, but on whose terms, and through whose means? According to the 57 nations of the Islamic Summit Conference, the terms are strict and the means still repressive, if necessary. The West is playing along.

Here’s the story. Back in September the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons by various artists lampooning Islam and the prophet Muhammad. In Islam, the mere depiction of the prophet is considered blasphemous. Imagine the anger cartoonish depictions would provoke. The cartoons are on the whole cheaply funny, Islamophobic and in terrifically bad taste, though one showing Muhammad at the gates of heaven telling a string of suicide bombers “Stop, stop! We ran out of virgins!” and another showing a cartoonist fearfully drawing a picture of the prophet speak truths bigger than their offense. Good or bad, the quality of the cartoons is beside the point. Free expression is by definition unlimited. It lives and dies by its public reception, and alternately by its conviction and truths. Just because a work is universally rejected at first doesn’t deny its value. Public morals are notoriously slow-witted. The work could be ahead of its time. Socrates was condemned to death, Galileo was convicted of heresy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” was banned from the United States, all in the name of higher morals. In every case, the condemning judges proved to be the fools.

That’s not to suggest that the Muhammad cartoons have redeeming values we’ll discover in a century. Sometimes a stinking cigar is just a stinking cigar. But it’s not up to government to intervene. It’s up to public opinion to respond by means freely available to it: Don’t buy the offending newspaper, don’t buy the offending book, don’t visit the offending exhibit or watch the offending movie, and so on. There may be Danes bigoted enough to appreciate this sort of thing. That’d be nothing new in Copenhagen. It’d be nothing new in Paris, London, Dubai or Daytona Beach, either, and especially not in the Arab and Muslim world, where prejudice — against Jews, homosexuals, “the West” — is often state-sponsored.

Yet the outrage in the cartoons’ case is not primarily the cartoons, or even the demands of the Islamic conference, Libya’s and Saudi Arabia’s recall of ambassadors from Copenhagen, or the boycott of Danish goods in the Arab world. It’s Europe’s response. Instead of legitimately criticizing the cartoons but speaking up for free expression, the 46-nation Council of Europe — set up expressly as a “human rights watchdog” — condemned the Danish government for not taking action against the newspaper that published the cartoons (A Danish court rightfully dismissed a case against the newspaper). Just after Christmas, the European Union joined the condemnations. Good thing Salman Rushdie isn’t planning a sequel to “The Satanic Verses.” The bounty on his head might not have come from a Teheran ayatollah this time, but from Europe’s neo-secular patsies.

The cartoon controversy in Europe may seem distant, or exclusively European. It’s anything but. The First Amendment in the United States risks becoming as vulnerable as the Fourth (the once that once ensured against an American police state, but no longer). In a National Review piece called “A Just Censorship,” here’s what the former judge Robert Bork wrote the same month as the Islamic conference in Mecca: “ Liberty in America can be enhanced by reinstating, legislatively, restraints upon the direction of your culture and morality.” Far out? Certainly. But Samuel Alito would have been considered as far out as the Kuiper Belt in the constellation of American law a few years ago. Look at him now — poised to rewrite the law of the land, and with Bork’s (and Bush’s) affinities for command-and-control conservatism in morality’s name. And who in the land of the First Amendment has spoken up in defense of Danes’ right to free expression?

The most offensive cartoon in this whole story isn’t about the prophet. It’s the West’s sneaky lampooning of the freedoms for which it once stood. It’d be wonderful if Europe and the United States were charter members of the Islamic Summit Conference, but not so submissively.

The controversial cartoons:



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