Monday, February 06, 2006

Blasphemy, Freedom of Speech, and the War on Terror

Your mother is a fat, stupid cunt.

I bet you didn't like that, did you? You reacted in a visceral way, no doubt, with a sickening feeling gathering in the pit of your stomach that tells you no one should use ugly words like that, especially not in a public forum like this, and especially not about your mother, whom I don't even know.

Well, fuck yourself, there's a little thing called Freedom of Speech, asshole.

What? You're not buying my defense? You're still upset? You think I shouldn't have said that?


There is a difference, my friends, between Freedom of Speech and Poor Taste. Freedom of Speech is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy, the recognition that ideas deserve protection from censorship. Our founding fathers put a lot of stock in free speech because they escaped from a world where publicly criticizing the government was a crime, where expressing dissent meant risking your life.

And so in this country we have constitutionally protected free speech, which means you have the right to say absolutely anything you want. However, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

As you are probably aware, there are riots and other forms of violence going on right now in Europe and the middle east over the publication in a Danish newspaper of some cartoons featuring images of the Prophet Mohammed. In Islam, depicting the Prophet in any way is an egregious act of blasphemy. This is common knowledge, in the same vein as the ban on pork in Judaism and on beef in Hinduism.

Here in the west, particularly for those of us of Christian European descent, it might be hard for us to imagine how a picture of Mohammed could possibly be offensive; after all, Christian art abounds with images of Christ, the Virgin, the Saints -- even, in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, the face of God Himself. The idea that a mere image could be offensive is, well, foreign to us.

But it is not for us to judge what someone else gets to be outraged over, or for us to gauge the appropriate level of sensitivity. We have got to understand that in Islam, an image of the Prophet is as horrifying as the words I used at the opening of this post.

But there's more. These were not just cartoons in which Mohammed appeared. Here is a description of the illustrations from the blog Sisyphus Shrugged: "Mohammed with a lit bomb in his turban, Mohammed with devil horns sticking out of his turban, and Mohammed informing terrorists that they had to stop blowing things up because Islam has run out of virgins to reward them with in heaven."

In other words, these were images intended to insult.

The Danish Prime Minister and his right-wing apologists here in the U.S. insist this is purely a matter of free speech; the newspaper didn't do anything wrong, it has a right to express its opinons. Imagine the response over at Little Green Footballs if tomorrow The New York Times published a cartoon of Condoleezza Rice dolled up like Aunt Jemima. There's nothing illegal about it, so how could they object?

Because it's offensive, that's why. As Sisyphus wrote so beautifully, "Free speech means that you have the right to express yourself. You even have the right to be protected by law from people you've offended who want to express their offense in illegal ways. It does not mean that if you act like a dumb [rude anglo-saxon noun] you're really a brave warrior for truth and the rights of man or anything but a really, really dumb [rude anglo-saxon noun]."

This is not to say that I find the response from the Muslim world justified or appropriate. Over at GayPatriot, they've been waiting for a liberal to condemn the violence: "Will the Lefty bloggers and Democratic mainstream disavow this type of statement? I doubt it. There is less and less distance between the American Left/Democrats and our enemies abroad."

No, I condemn the violence in the strongest possible terms. And I concur with Republicans who call for Islamic leadership and middle eastern governments to oppose the violence. The good news is, some of them have: Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora condemned the use of violence in the protests. "This has nothing to do with Islam at all," he told Future television. "Destabilizing security and vandalism give a wrong image of Islam. Prophet Mohammad cannot be defended this way."


This is why we're losing the War on Terror.

President Bush has long denied it, but this is a religious war. It does not matter whether the U.S. is really waging this war at the behest of Evangelicals trying to empower the Zionists to usher in the return of Christ, because the man on the street in the middle east believes that's exactly what's going on. In politics, perception is truth.

It's a war of ideas. As we marched into Baghdad proclaiming liberation, the Muslim world saw American oppression. Sincere Bush supporters might see our military endeavors as a virtuous attempt to export democracy to a troubled region of the world, but the Islamists see it as part of the grand, global, eternal struggle between Good and Evil. Because they believe they are fighting for God, they will never give up.


And now we've added this grotesque miscalculation by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, which cynically claims it was making a stand for free speech when in fact it was intentionally baiting the violence which followed.

Until we can somehow convince the average Arab that we are really on their side, that we really want the best for them and their society, that we want to help them escape from oppressive theocracies and move into the modern era for their own benefit and not for America's financial gain, we will continue to lose this war of ideas.

Insulting Mohammed is a step in the wrong direction. A big one.


Matthew said...

I strongly agree with your can/should idea in the second section. Yes, freedom of speech protects this behavior, but that doesn't by any means equate to it being a good idea.

I would like to add a few observations to some of the points you have raised here. In conversations with friends back in the US, it has come to my attention that the video clips that were shown of the recent riot in Beirut left out some key details.

First, there were Muslim religious leaders at the scene loudly denouncing the violence and physically trying to hold back the protestors. This featured rather prominently in the Lebanese press, and I personally found it quite moving and exciting.

Second, it has come to light that nearly 2/3rds of the protestors at the even were actually Syrian. Given the political position Syria is in, it behooves their government to try and stir up as much anti-western sentiment as possible to redirect sentiment away from the current situation.

I offer these points just to add some background, personal observations, since I (un)fortunately have a front-row seat to the other side of this debate, and not to refute your points.

Jere said...

While I agree that the cartoon is in poor taste, neither poor taste nor religious outrage justifies the violence that has erupted. If Muslims were offended by this image, they had many options, including boycotting the newspaper and it's advertisers, writing well-reasoned and thought-out letters to the editor describing their point of view and asking for a retraction, mounting a peaceful protest outside the offices of the newspaper, or reaching out to the Danish people to educate and inform them about Islam and why this image was particularly offensive.

Were ANY of these options chosen? Nope...instead it's violence. And this time, it's violence repaying something offensive, but also non-violent.

If Muslims continue on this road, will we see eruptions of violence in reaction to any slight, however small and however real or imagined? Oh, wait...WE ALREADY DO.

I've never understood why the reaction of Arabs, Muslims, Middle Easterners or whatever to offense is almost always to do harm to someone else. I just don't understand.

Andy said...

There are millions of Muslims, however, who were offended but have not turned to violence. Don't paint with too broad a brush.

Being sensitive and respectful of other cultures is not the same as kow-towing to fanatics and appeasing fundamentalists, nor is it a restriction of free speech. It's the foundation of peace and diplomacy. And yes, I will happily concede that is a two-way street.

Steve Chapman said...

One of my concerns is that the original cartoon was published in September. These riots are occurring because certain European publications decided to republish the cartoon. This does not in anyway make the cartoon right, but where were the protests last year? If this cartoon is really the spark, should the protests not have begun when the cartoon was originally published?

I hope that you would apply the same standard against the controversy with the cartoonist in the U.S. The one who is taking some heat about his cartoon featuring Donald Rumsfeld in a non-flattering light. The guy has a right to draw what he wants but should he? I suppose that is your question.

Andy said...

Why has it taken three years for a majority of Americans to wake up to the boondoggle of the Iraq war? Is there a statute of limitations on outrage?

I have not seen the cartoon of Donald Rumsfeld, so I can't really speak to it other than to say I surmise there's a difference between political commentary, which is often not very polite, and outright sacrilege done intentionally to insult people who are certain to react in a hostile manner.

Matthew said...

I would just like to point out as an aside, that pretty much every riot ends up being counterproductive. This includes the riots we've had in the US. LA, Watts, etc. This isn't a Muslim phenomenon.

Furthermore, the assertion that there are "...eruptions of violence in reaction to any slight..." is simply not born out by the facts. Even a cursory search of a newspaper website in this region, such as Lebanon's Daily Star, will show a robust debate on political matters, without violent reactions.

It would be more accurate to say that some Muslims are radicals.

steve chapman said...

I found this Q&A on the BBC website. It allows those of us who are not strong on the details to get caught up.

little-cicero said...

This is a very, very good post!

To your last paragraph wherin you pose the dilemma of the war of ideas, the answer lies in the Palestinian elections. What would work more efficiently in convincing the average Mustafa on the street that democracy is not just for the infidels and traitors than HAMAS being freely elected. That is why I say that the election of HAMAS was the GREATEST VICTORY FOR DEMOCRACY in the history of the middle east. I believe that once they accept this form of government, they will no longer see the need to kill others and themselves in order to make their points clear.

Esther said...

The Danish Prime Minister has been apologizing out the wazoo for the cartoons and he had nothing to do with them. I don't understand why you say he has justified them.

Also, the Koran does not specifically forbid drawing pictures of Mohammed, it's a rule that has come into the religion and remained.

I agree that this is a religious war and has always been one. The only way for us to win it is to understand the radical faith of, well, a suicide bomber for example. They're not just a bunch of crazy people, but they're obviously not rational either. Their faith is probably deeper and stronger than that of many Christians. By ignoring that we run a terrible risk of perhaps winning the war militarily, but having it hang over our heads similarly to the way the Mexican War did (and still would if anybody bothered to study it).

Andy said...

Rasmussen, despite criticisms and calls, repeated he will not meet with the ambassadors of 11 Muslim countries, including Turkey, in Copenhagen. The ambassadors asked for an appointment to open discussions about the cartoons.

The Danish prime minister responded to the criticism of the 22 retired Danish ambassadors expressing their attitude towards the cartoons by giving a statement to a newspaper calling it "freedom of expression".

Esther said...

That article left out the part where he apologized (or maybe you left it out, I don't know, I only know that he expressly apologized for what was done). Yes, the guy called them free speech, that explains why he can't just shut down the newspaper. He apologized before he said anything about free speech. Why should he have to meet with people to discuss the cartoons? Especially people who have threatened to kill his people and bomb his country for something that was not done or condoned by any official government people?

Andy said...

I did some further checking and did discover that in fact PM Rasmussen has apologized.

I don't think he should close the paper, and I don't think there should be any rules or laws about publishing this kind of thing.

I think people have acted badly all the way around. Violence is not an appropriate response, and, as per usual, the people who are dying as a result of the violence are not people who were responsible for the insult or can do anything to make it better. It's horrible, and yes, Muslim leadership needs to do a much better and LOUDER job of condemning activity like this.

Let this just be a lesson to the rest of us, however, that our frequently irreverent approach to religion in our culture ("Cruci-fixin's", anyone?) does NOT translate well at all over to Islam.

Trickish Knave said...

Perhaps the brush is broader than percieved.

Silence also speaks volumes.

So some tacky and offensive cartoons were reprinted from September and now Muslims become outraged? They want to meet with the editor to "discuss" the cartoons? Fuck them.

From Joe Carter's Evangelical Outpost blog:
"Whereas the West was once measured by our highest ideals, we now champion the lowest common denominator. We not only treasure the 'right to blaspheme' but mock and deride the very idea that anything can be considered sacred. Anything, that is, except the sacred right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want in the hopes of offending as many people as possible. While this freedom must be guarded, it should be carried out with a deep reluctance and the odium of 'good men.'

The West is at war with terrorism, not with Islam. But is has become increasingly difficult determining which side of the Islam/Islamicists divide many Muslims are on. Perhaps its simply a matter of moderate Muslim voice being drowned out by the jihadists. If so, then I recommend that they speak louder."

little-cicero said...

Would you agree with this statement Andy?: This is not a religious war, but in politics perception is truth, therefore since THEY believe it to be a religious war, it is in effect just that.

I just want to be clear on your opinion.

Myackie said...

Looking at the cartoons, one has to admit that they're pretty tame when compared with some of the horrific propaganda that comes out of arab countries. Thus, I tend to believe the story I read that said that the muslim Imams actually fabricated much worse cartoons (depicting mohammed as a pig, etc.) in addition to the published ones, in order to incite the masses.

In EVERY moslem country, freedom of the press and free speech are alien concepts. All media is controlled by the government (usually a dictatorship). Thus, moslems have no problem believing that the government of Denmark is responsible for the cartoons. Syria, being a police-state, would have no problem controlling rioters...they simply choose not to, as ???? pointed out.

Islam must be a weak religion, indeed, if it could be so threatened by a mere cartoon. Where were these protests when moslems behead journalists? when women are murdered in "honor killings"? when arabs smashed airplanes into buildings? The only thing I'm thinking, instead of being sympathetic to moslems, is that they are barbarians.

I hope I live to see the day when they protest something truly unjust, instead of celebrating it.

Anonymous said...

I exercise my right to free speech

The Teachings of Julius Streicher (1885-1946)

1. Jews concentrate in certain occupations such as doctors, lawyers, money-lenders, merchants, entertainers, etc. Thus they gain a disproportionate share of the wealth. They control the large monopoly department stores thus putting the independent Gentiles out of business.
2. Jews pay low wages often forcing poor workers into crime and some women into part-time prostitution.
3. Jews are not true creators of wealth. They avoid physical labor and are rarely farmers, masons, factory workers, etc. Their religion teaches that it is shameful.
4. Jews hate Jesus Christ but have turned His birthday int a source of great profits. As Rabbi Jacob Wise said: "It is better to have Christmas than smallpox. Besides, if the crucified one had a brother born in the summertime it would have given us two such profitable holidays."
5. Jews exploit sex for financial gain through their control of the theater and publications.
6. Jews are parasites who secretly gain wealth by exploiting the unwary host people.
7. Jews gain power by first pleading for "tolerance and brotherhood." They coddle political leaders of a nation by making themselves useful - ingratiating themselves until they become the power behind the throne.
8. Jews give to charities in order to gain respectability.
9. Even if a Jew undergoes Christian Baptism he remains a Jew because they are a race.
10. Jews concentrate themselves in the large cities where they promote socialism and decadence.

Kard said...

You know... I am angry. Yes, very much so. I'm a muslim too. I'm angry at all this stupidity about going around vandalising, burning things down, issuing fatwa decrees that orders to kill. This isn't the first of such violent demonstrations and in fact, there are too many in the past.

Yes, I definately agree that there ARE other ways to tackle this issue other than atrocious violent demonstrations like those.

I'm sorry to say that if the Arabs (and other muslims) think that by showing their anger through violent protests is going to make anyone believe that Islam is not a war-like, barbaric religion, then they are absolutely doing everything as what the cartoons depicts.

On the other hand, if you want to know, there are no such violent protests going on in Singapore from the muslims. I suppose there has been dismay but those are expressed in writing to the government by the relevent muslim bodies.

Trickish Knave, it is difficult for countries like us to make a big difference and as loud as we can be, it's going to take more than just 1 country to make that difference (and you know how small Singapore is). I don't know what the surrounding region's responses are like but it is clear what the situation is like in Indonesia.

Kard said...

I don't know if I should post this but I guess I will. I have my reasons to why the reluctance to post and if you guys do want to know the reason, I will be more than glad to say it but I fear saying it publically.

There are, by large, muslims who follow strictly by the book and it is in my common knowledge that when we ask questions about the koran, why this and that, or about God, we are told (as kids) not to question because it is wrong (how delusional is that). And I do know of religious teachers who do encourage students to find out, learn and understand about other religions, came under fire from parents and from the school management. And this is coming from a more liberal country like my own.

I went to religious school too (for a period of time) but very often, my enthusiasm for finding out more and deeper is quelled, by being told that that is sinful or wrong or "you will go to hell for such things". So everything I learnt was on my own. However, I am not all that knowledgable and I still stand corrected on a lot of things.

I know I am a muslim speaking against other muslims and it is difficult when muslims like myself are not able to find others who think alike and those who do think like myself, often are quiet, or refuse to voice their opinion because they are afraid of being subjected to be treated as "murtad" or simply decided to embrace another faith.

As an additional note readers, I am saying this from a personal perspective and experiences that are mine. I do not know the views of others or of their experiences. So please do not quote that the majority of muslims are like what I have described above. It may be true, it may not be true. Consensus can only be reached with a large data source, not from one person.

Andy said...

TK: I can't argue with that! If moderate Christians in America can organize to help combat the extremist Christianist political agenda, it would seem logical that a similar movement is the best way to move forward against radical Islam.

LC: Short answer yes, long answer, almost. I don't think the White House really thinks of this as a religious war, but politically their base consists of millions of people who honestly believe it is America's Biblical destiny to protect Israel in order to bring about its destruction and the Second Coming; hence, Pat Robertson's recent comments about Ariel Sharon's stroke. He's one of many who view the peace process as delaying Jesus' return. I think there are equal if not greater numbers of conservatives, though, who really believe that we can just get democracy going there and that Bush is altruistic at heart. But yes, as I said, perception is truth in politics. The Islamists are certainly fighting a religious war -- does it take two to tango in this instance? I think not.

Anonymous: thank you for illustrating my point, that just because you can say something doesn't mean you should or that your opinions have any validity whatsoever. I must go shower now.

Kard: Thank you!

Kard said...

With references to the BBC News post and your former post Andy, the Shi'a, the sect from which I come from, is a mere 20% of the 100% of the muslim population. 20% scattered around the world. This, yes this, 20% has a voice. A voice that is drowned by the bigger majority of the population. But if we do speak up, who is going to back up the 20% when the world itself has seen how radical and "hypersensitive" the other percentage can be.

With reference to the BBC posts too, pictures, drawings and illustrations of God and the Prophet Muhammad, Shia Islamic tradition is far less strict on this ban. This, I dare say, is true. While we do not go about drawing and such, we are often a little more receptive to such things because we are perhaps, a little more reasonable.

While I am maybe fairly disturbed about the drawings, I have seen for myself mockery and ridiculous "cartoonish" depictions of Christianity as well. One of which includes the quite well known brand of toys where Jesus is bloodied and carrying a machine gun. That toy is not available here in my country of course. I'm fairly disturbed by that too.

About your response to TK, I will not argue with that too. I too see it in that light. At the same time, I too feel that there needs to be re-education, the people and the religion. Not just that but an instillation of values and respect for other religions.

It's a big irony that when Muhammad as mentioned in the Koran, has not resorted to violence and in fact, avoids it, their followers in decades and centuries to come would now resort to such a measure. He had left values for which muslims should follow but it seems that over time, these values are interpreted into an "iron hand" law. It's sad that what he has intended to teach and educated did not pass down to the future generations properly.

Andy said...

Well, I can't speak to whether the Shiites or the Sunnis are more or less moderate than the other; I suspect that would be oversimplifying it, in any case. I can remember from years back, even when I was quite young, seeing an "analysis" on the news about the hostage situation in Iran in 1980 that explained Iran was Shiite and that the Shiites were hostile to us, unlike our friends the Sunnis, like Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq. Ah, the good old days, right?

This would be a little bit like going back to the Christian Reformation ni Europe and trying to accuse the Catholics of being crueler and more violent than the breakaway Protestants, when there was plenty of criminality on both sides.

Ultimately I think it comes down to selective reading of holy texts, which pretty much everyone is guilty of. (Guilty is not exactly the right word, but everyone tends to give different weight to different passages.)

Plus, sacred texts are somewhat notoriously contradictory and confusing. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles," but then He also says, ""Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."

How does one reconcile that? I myself am not completely sure.

I have not read very much of the Koran, but I imagine it contains similarly confusing contradictions.

Anyway, all of that is by way of saying that it seems if one wants to look to sacred texts to justify violence, there's some back-up in there for you. Still, it would behoove the Muslim rioters to concentrate their attention on the people who were actually responsible for the insult, not ambassadors and peace-keeping forces unrelated to the incident.

Kard said...

It does Andy. There are contradictions and when it comes to interpretations of religious texts, yes you are right. It really depends on how any individual interprets it.

Even if there is something for them to back up to to justify that violence, I seriously question, why the need to resort to violence? Are their families being threatened by death?

Yes, they should concentrate on the people who are responsible for the insult. Not to the peace-keepers and not to the ambassadors. Seems to me that the only reason why they do this is because they want the ... sorry to say ... the Danish government to stop allowing others to practice free speech.

Sorry Andy, for the lack of a better response. It's almost 4am here and it's time for bed.

u r darn right imabigot said...

I wanna illustrate that point the other anonymous made earlier with Jews and see how you feel about this free speech:

Homosexuals rule the world through secretive government agents stretching back from Jon Nicolay.

Homosexuals force their political views through intimidation of accusing people they disagree with of bigotry.

Homosexuals have infiltrated our day care centers, schools, catholic churches and youth groups to convert them.

Homosexuals created Teletubbies to send sublimal messsages to convert kids.

Homosexuals have pursued gay marriage and adoption so they can teach their kids to be gay.

Homosexuals have infiltrated the operahouses of the world in order to convert us all with their subliminal messages.

How do you like that free speech?

Andy said...

Finally something on this blog that makes sense!

Kard said...

Andy, which post are you refering to "that makes sense"?

biscuit said...

Whoa...we took over the operahouses to convert people too? That's a new one on me. Isn't that a matter of...well, for lack of a better term, preaching to the choir? (laugh)

Andy said...

The Andy that thought something made sense was not author-Andy. I have no idea what Andy 2 is talking about.

Bigot, it doesn't matter what I think of what you wrote. I have the right to be offended, but that doesn't have anything to do with your right to express yourself.

Matthew said...

This was a great post, Andy. Very well-written and well-thought-out.

What used to be cast in a negative light and termed as "bad taste" is now in a quasi-positive spotlight under the guise of "politically incorrect" (especially when it comes to supposed 'humor.')

I don't agree at all with the violent reactions in the Middle East toward these cartoons, but I also think it's sad that people don't have the common sense, decency and empathy for their fellow man to think twice about running something so offensive.

And, of course, now some American newspapers are going to start running the cartoons in defiance of the violence, and will no doubt be cheered-on for it (I've read about it happening just this afternoon).


Humanity disappoints me sometimes.

little-cicero said...

Operahouse infiltration? Now come on, I think this bigot has you on that point!