Saturday, February 04, 2006

What did Osama ask Santa for last Christmas?

I am feeling very conflicted about the row over the Muhammad cartoons. I have now seen them and most of them are just plain obnoxious. I am sure that if I was an Arab or a Muslim I would be grossly offended. Mind you, I’d be writing a letter to an editor and not burning buildings down. Of course, everyone is trying to roast their own marshmallows on the bonfire. The latest to jump on the bandwagon is the Vatican with a Cardinal from the Vatican’s diplomatic service giving what appears to be the official Vatican position:

The cardinal said secular societies should not assume a right to offend religious sentiments. He noted that many countries consider it illegal to offend their national flag and asked, "Shouldn't we consider religious symbols on an equal level with the symbols of secular institutions?"

Well, hate to agree with a Cardinal but he’s right to say that religious symbols ought to be on an equal level with secular symbols – so, pass me the lighter and hold the flag and the vestments for a second. Free speech is only meaningful if it means the freedom to say things that offend other people. This ought to be blindingly obvious! No-one got dragged off by the NKVD for shouting, “Long live the Party and the First Secretary!” When people are free to speak what they will, other people’s feelings will get hurt. And religious feelings must, absolutely, not be exempt from that. A number of European countries do have laws that protect religious sentiments and that is outrageous. So, Cardinal, I do not assume the right to offend religious sentiments, I think it is something that has to be fought for to be obtained and then retained.

Having said that, it is very important to keep in mind the context of this situation. The religion that had been offended is not Christianity – the main European religion – but Islam – whose adherents are currently routinely vilified in Europe. To print such cartoons is akin to printing anti-Solzhenitsyn cartoons in the USSR. To then claim that this is a victory for free speech is too crass to be laughable. Just because one should have the right to do something isn’t necessarily a good enough reason to do it.

So, what would have been the right thing for the European community to do in response to these cartoons? The American answer would be that some Muslim organisation should sue the ones who printed them originally – the point being not that the cartoons are offensive but that they vilify. But defamation law can be used almost as effectively to control other people’s speech as straight-out censorship and this would not change the general perception in the Muslim world that the West generally supports this. I think the European community should, in any of a number of ways, show their clear opposition to the vilification of Muslims. The magazine has the right to print those cartoons but everyone else in Europe has the right to stand up and be counted against the attitudes that those images were expressions of. If we did that I think the Muslims would feel a hell of a lot better about their relations with Europe. The only people who’d be bothered by that would be the extremists on both sides for whom this debacle is, dare I say, a Godsend.


At 17/2/06 6:08 am, Blogger Sportin' Life said...

I disagree that the cartoons amount to vilification. They seem like straightforward commentary to me, of the sort that various institutions and people (including religious ones) are routinely subject to in Europe. Muslims aren't being singled out for this.

Anyway, concerns about stereotyping are not the issue for the protestors--at least as far as I know. Some Western editorialists (incorrectly, imo) equate the cartoons with racist caricatures, but the issue for Muslims seems to be blasphemy. Inexcusable.

I'm happy to have found your blog, by the way. Your great comment at Freethought Weekly got me over here. Cheers!


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