February 12, 2006

No Apologies

The furor over the Danish cartoons that depict Mohammed in an unfavorable light is getting crazier by the day so here are my thoughts:

1. Some commentators have gone to great lengths to state that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful people who don’t engage in violence. The problem is that this doesn’t really matter. No one is claiming that Muslim hordes are about to try to conquer Europe; with well over one billion Muslims in the world, if even a small percentage of them are incited to violence this is a BIG problem. And if even a bigger percentage tacitly support extremists this is an even bigger problem.

2. Many also like to point out that Islam is a “religion of peace”, and that people who kill in the name of Islam are perverting the true nature of the religion. This requires a little more attention. In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris identifies dozens of passages in the Koran where Muslims are urged to commit violent acts (or at least welcome them) against non-Muslim infidels. (Harris has a chillingly provocative piece on Islam on truthdig.com.) In addition, while much of the rage in the Muslim world is directed towards the West for all sorts of real or perceived grievances that have to do with honor, imperialism, and territorial disputes, there are a fairly large number of examples of Muslims killing Westerners explicitly in the name of Islam (e.g., in Spain, Britain, the U.S., Indonesia, the Netherlands, Jordan, Turkey, and of course Iraq and Afghanistan.). The problem with (all) religion is that while many can say that the fanatics are not “real” Muslims, there is no objective standard with which to make the case. I’m sure Osama bin Laden and Zarqawi can point to plenty of examples in the Koran that support their arguments. (And remember, the god in the Christian Bible routinely acts like the biggest terrorist on the planet, killing entire races of people and their newborns so it is very easy to use religion as a pretext to mass murder.)

3. It would be a lot easier to sympathize with Muslims if over the past few years we had witnessed massive public protests when Muslims (who are supposedly acting against the true meaning of Islam) massacred innocent people in the name of Islam. Instead we have the Iranian president recently saying that the Holocaust didn’t happen, and that Israel should be eliminated. The Muslim press routinely publishes all sorts of anti-Semitic propaganda and we hear barely a peep. It is the official policy of Saudi Arabia to prevent Jews from setting foot in the Muslim holy land. Even more disturbing, consider the Jordanian wedding bombings a few months ago. Only after this horrific attack did many Jordanians begin to reconsider their favorable impression of Al Queda. So it took a bombing in their own country to make them wonder whether bin Laden’s mission was actually something to be supported! Jordan is one of our staunchest allies in the Middle East, and while it is extremely difficult (and perhaps life-threatening) to stand up to religious extremists, until Muslims start doing so en masse, people in the West are going to believe that the majority of Muslims aren’t really too concerned that their religion has become a tool of terrorism. It isn’t fair, but it’s reality. Where is the Muslim MLK or Gandhi? (Click here for a disturbing piece on the Jordanian journalist who has been imprisoned and harassed for publishing the cartoons.)

4. A fantasy shared by many in the West is that if only U.S. troops would leave the Middle East, all this animosity would go away. After all, this is Osama’s main rationale for fighting against the West. I have opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and I believe the continuing absence of a Palestinian state has hampered U.S. security, but it is naïve to believe that terrorism would go away if the Middle East were free of Western military intervention. Western values of freedom, women’s rights, and free religious expression run counter to Islamic fundamentalism; given the pressures of globalization, these influences will be considered a serious threat by Muslim extremists regardless of whether they are accompanied by U.S. soldiers. That being said, I think U.S. foreign policy has exacerbated the problem tremendously, and is the principal failure that the Bush Administration will ultimately be held accountable for.

5. As for the cartoons themselves, there should be no apologies. The ones that are supposedly the most inflammatory show Mohammed with a bomb for a turban, and Mohammed telling would-be paradise-seekers that there are no more virgins left. As to the one with the bomb, with the major terrorist organizations in the world using Mohammed as one of their inspirations for Muslim conquest (given that he was a warrior for Islam), the cartoon makes a point. As to the other, given the number of suicide bombers who have blown themselves up with dreams of 72 virgins, simple math is all you need to conclude that perhaps paradise really is running out of chaste maidens. The point is that if these cartoons did not contain at least a modicum of truth they wouldn’t be considered offensive. This is what makes good satire, even satire directed at “sacred” figures. Muslims are free to be as offended, and they can boycott Danish products and criticize the West and protest. But they cannot demand that we in the West give up our right to offend people’s sensibilities, religious or otherwise, in our free societies. (As a side note: the Iranian president called for a competition for the best cartoons that trash Jews and say the Holocaust didn’t happen. Anyone who believes there is a moral equivalence between criticizing Islam’s connection with modern terrorism and denying the Holocaust needs a lesson in ethics. In addition, the contention that the cartoons were in some sense equivalent to yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater is absurd; cartoons do not present a potentially life-threatening situation.)

In summary, Muslim outrage at the cartoons is perfectly acceptable, but violent reaction is not. One doesn’t have to be a cynic to suppose that these cartoons have done significant damage to relations between the Muslim world and the West, and probably were not the wisest thing to do. But I defend the right of any newspaper anywhere to print satirical cartoons of any religion (and in most circumstances I welcome them). In addition, maybe there will be a silver lining to this otherwise bad situation; perhaps we will finally get a dialogue going with the Muslims who don’t want to be hijacked by the religious fundamentalists in their midst, and this will lead to a coordinated and sustained campaign against extremism. Muslims themselves must act; no amount of military force from the outside is going to transform their societies into peaceful and stable areas that coexist peacefully with the West and respect freedom, even freedom that offends.


“Insisting that we must all be subservient to an evil and vengeful god, now that is offensive.”

P.S. In last week’s post I discussed the tenuous historical link between democracy, human rights, and peace. I posted much of this piece as a comment on the Becker-Posner blog in response to their discussion of the significance of the Hamas electoral victory. Here is what Richard Posner said in his response to the comments:

“I completely agree with those commenters who say that democracy is not a panacea, that it is compatible with cruel and aggressive policies (with many illustrations from U.S. history). Remember that I'm a Schumpeterian; to me, democracy is simply the system in which the rulers stand for election at frequent intervals. Such a system tends to align policy with public opinion, but there is no reason why public opinion can't be exploitive, discriminatory, etc. What does seem true is that democracy, plus rights, provides a good framework for prosperity, and that a prosperous country is unlikely to initiate a war, because commercial values tend to be antagonistic to martial values. "Unlikely" is an important qualification. A democratic country such as the United States, which has been thrust into an "imperial" position, becoming the "world's policeman," is likely to be involved in frequent military operations, some of which it will have initiated. But if democratic countries are indeed unlikely to go to war, then two democratic countries are very unlikely to go to war with each other.”

One other quick observation: In my piece I don’t think I spent enough time discussing women’s rights. With the passing of Betty Friedan, it is worth remembering how full rights for women are also relatively new to our great democratic nation.

Jason Scorse