Tuesday, February 07, 2006

We are all Danes now...

Writes Jeff Jacoby in Boston Globe:

Freedom of the press, the marketplace of ideas, the right to skewer sacred cows: Militant Islam knows none of this. And if the jihadis get their way, it will be swept aside everywhere by the censorship and intolerance of sharia.

Here and there, some brave Muslim voices have cried out against the book-burners. The Jordanian newspaper Shihan published three of the cartoons. ''Muslims of the world, be reasonable," implored Shihan's editor, Jihad al-Momani, in an editorial. ''What brings more prejudice against Islam -- these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras?" But within hours Momani was out of a job, fired by the paper's owners after the Jordanian government threatened legal action.

He wasn't the only editor sacked last week. In Paris, Jacques LeFranc of the daily France Soir was also fired after running the Mohammed cartoons. The paper's owner, an Egyptian Copt named Raymond Lakah, issued a craven and Orwellian statement offering LeFranc's head as a gesture of ''respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual." But the France Soir staff defended their decision to publish the drawings in a stalwart editorial. ''The best way to fight against censorship is to prevent censorship from happening," they wrote. ''A fundamental principle guaranteeing democracy and secular society is under threat. To say nothing is to retreat."

Like most Americans, I feel very strongly about maintaining freedom of the press and am deeply critical of efforts to silence political discourse. This cartoon flap has enormous geopolitical implications, and it is worth thinking hard about how to make sense of it.

My own first reaction, is to take sides. I agree with the Danes, so I guess that puts me on their side. But what does that mean? That I will support the Danish government in some way? the Danish newspapers? The cartoonists themselves? Or does it mean that I will support the US government in offering diplomatic or military aid? In point of fact, really all I have the power to do for the Danes is to root for them, and offer moral support on a blog.

And why is it that I took the Danes' side and not the Islamists? Do I not find disrespect for religious sensibilities distasteful? Surely I do, and would find any desecration to fall on the spectrum between an act of impoliteness at best and hateful bigotry at worst. So while not completely unsympathetic to the Islamists, I find myself valuing free speech over blasphemy-avoidance, because of the consequences to democracy if the press is so constrained. It is conceivable to me however that a reasonable person might feel the other way.

So is this taking of sides all that useful? Here is the crux. Holding a strongly valued political opinion allows one to be a vigorous voice in the democratic debate, but taking sides based on cultural affinity, personal allegiance (to a political leader) or ideological concordance is the slippery slope to authoritarianism--and is the root of organized violence.

So I take the side of freedom of press, vigilant to avoid the temptation to use each flash of threat to cherished Western values as a focal point to divide the 'us' from the 'them', but rather as a reminder that our broadest goal is to expand and protect the circle of 'us'--sometimes with a carrot, sometimes with a stick--both in the international community, and in the way each of us thinks about how our culture is situated in the world.


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