The Mid-Atlantic Blog

February 19, 2006

Moslem Attitudes & Liberal Democracy

Three things to look at on this topic today, I think.

First, coverage of the march yesterday in London. Peaceful, sure. But let's remember what the peaceful protest is in favour of. From the BBC story...

Ishmaeel Haneef, from the committee, said the demonstrations were continuing because "the provocations have not stopped".
"These things are still being republished across the world," he said, using the example of an Italian minister wearing a T-shirt depicting the cartoons.
He said the way to "get back to being a civilised world" was to "give the copyright [of the cartoons] over to the Muslim community".
However peaceful these demonstrations are, the simple fact is that these people want to remove the cartoons from circulation. Sure, we should be grateful that there was no violence on this march. We should be happy that there is an attempt to use standard political means to achieve the goal they want. But we shouldn't let ourselves be distracted from their end goal, which is making the rest of us behave according to what is being presented as one of the precepts of their religion. That's not what happens in a liberal democracy. I'm glad there are marches not riots. But when it comes down to it even the most peaceful of the protests are for a goal that I deeply oppose.

(And by the way, let's remember that the idea that there is a universally accepted hard-and-fast taboo against depiction of Mohammed in Islam is in fact nonsense. It's just not true. )

This takes us on, then, to this excellent piece in the Washington Post this morning by the chap who started all of this. I'll quote liberally from it, although the whole thing must be read.

First, why did he do it?

The idea wasn't to provoke gratuitously -- and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in

What he means is this...

At the end of September, a Danish standup comedian said in an interview with Jyllands-Posten that he had no problem urinating on the Bible in front of a camera, but he dared not do the same thing with the Koran.
This was the culmination of a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship.

This is followed by a number of examples of self-censorship on the subject of Islam, such as the following...

Last September, a Danish children's writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship.

Next, he covers the context of satire in Denmark, and makes a point which is quite telling about what the cartoons actually say about the attitude towards Moslems in Denmark

We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

He then addresses the story that appeared this week suggesting that he was taking a different attitude towards Christianity or Judaism

On occasion, Jyllands-Posten has refused to print satirical cartoons of Jesus, but not because it applies a double standard. In fact, the same cartoonist who drew the image of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban drew a cartoon with Jesus on the cross having dollar notes in his eyes and another with the star of David attached to a bomb fuse. There were, however, no embassy burnings or death threats when we published those

And then he comes to the heart of it

Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn't intend to. But what does respect mean? 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.

An interesting comparison he draws is with the old Soviet Union

As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. That is what happened to human rights activists and writers such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Boris Pasternak. The regime accused them of anti-Soviet propaganda, just as some Muslims are labeling 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper anti-Islamic.

The lesson from the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants.

And then a hopeful note, on the dialogue in Denmark

Since the Sept. 30 publication of the cartoons, we have had a constructive debate in Denmark and Europe about freedom of expression, freedom of religion and respect for immigrants and people's beliefs. Never before have so many Danish Muslims participated in a public dialogue -- in town hall meetings, letters to editors, opinion columns and debates on radio and TV. We have had no anti-Muslim riots, no Muslims fleeing the country and no Muslims committing violence. The radical imams who misinformed their counterparts in the Middle East about the situation for Muslims in Denmark have been marginalized. They no longer speak for the Muslim community in Denmark because moderate Muslims have had the courage to speak out against them.

In January, Jyllands-Posten ran three full pages of interviews and photos of moderate Muslims saying no to being represented by the imams. They insist that their faith is compatible with a modern secular democracy. A network of moderate Muslims committed to the constitution has been established, and the anti-immigration People's Party called on its members to differentiate between radical and moderate Muslims, i.e. between Muslims propagating sharia law and Muslims accepting the rule of secular law. The Muslim face of Denmark has changed, and it is becoming clear that this is not a debate between "them" and "us," but between those committed to democracy in Denmark and those who are not.

And that's the point, isn't it? This really is a must read piece.

It takes us rather neatly on to the third topic, which is the attitude study in the Telegraph of British Moslems. With equal numbers in favour and against the imposition of sharia law in areas with high Moslem populations there is cause for concern, mitigated slightly by the fact that there is almost no support for the 7/7 bombings. We're right to be somewhat concerned about the former statistic, and we should certainly hold the line more firmly than we have about some of the excesses of "cultural localism", and dealing with local issues through faith community leaders. We shouldn't get over-paranoid, though: there are plenty of young Moslems out there like Saira Khan (a more terrifying sentence may never have been typed, come to think of it...).

So what's my point? Let's be careful we don't let ourselves become distracted by the violence or non-violence of individual protests, and keep the focus on the goals being enunciated. However you choose to behave, if you are advocating that my free speech be restricted because of your religious belief, I'm afraid you're on the other side of the well established rules of liberal democracy. And the reason for that is that we believe that your right to follow your religion, and mine to follow mine, require those free speech rights. End of story.

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