Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

They Can't Take a Joke

What’s the matter with Islam is also the matter with Kansas. But who says freedom of speech isn’t a little negotiable?


As a phrase born in the nineties, “the clash of civilizations” had an orotund, Ivy League–lecture-hall ring—vaguely worrisome but with the fuzzy comfort of all grand historical abstractions. This reductionist idea was then reduced still further to signify only the most salient of clashes: Western Christendom versus Islam. Even after 9/11, though, it was hard for me to buy completely that it’s our culture Muslims irreconcilably loathe—that is, feminism and show business and laissez-faire conversation—rather than America’s support of Israel and the various geopolitical alliances to which our oil addiction leads us.

But the events of the past two weeks—all because of a few dopey Danish cartoons—have tended to convince me. It apparently is Western civilization, or at least our core value of free expression, that some significant fraction of Islamic civilization can’t handle.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. In fact, it’s an episode so tricky that mainstream American punditry has mostly punted: The cartoons were unfortunate and the violent responses were wrong. And the controversy has thrown together such strange bedfellows—aggrieved Muslims, the Vatican, the White House, and liberal American newspapers on one side, Le Monde, Christopher Hitchens, and Republican ideologues on the other—that the default lines of left and right have been rendered obsolete. Which is one very small silver lining in an otherwise lose-lose confrontation. Mostly, the affair deserves the designation that journalists overuse to describe every fatal accident or natural disaster: This is a tragedy.

It’s a tragedy in part because it all began blithely, earnestly. In Denmark, of all places, a country devoted to goodness and moderation in all things. Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons, didn’t think he was being reckless. After hearing that an author could find no artist in Denmark willing to illustrate his children’s book about Muhammad, because of Islam’s prohibition on visual depictions of the Prophet, Rose conceived a meta-test of his very free country’s freedom. He solicited drawings of Muhammad from the national cartoonists’ association, which he then published last fall, along with an editorial. Some Muslims insist “on special consideration of their own religious feelings,” Rose wrote. “It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule . . . It does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but . . . we are on our way to a slippery slope where no one can tell how the self-censorship will end.”

Perfectly reasonable . . . although this is Europe, where Muslims make up an uneasily assimilating several percent of the population, so it was a gauntlet thrown. In a nervous, everyday way that we don’t feel here, the front line in the clash of civilizations runs through Leeds and Hamburg and Copenhagen.

Of the dozen cartoons, two don’t show Muhammad at all, three are entirely benign, and three others postmodernistically make fun of the stunt itself. Maybe three are actually scurrilous—and to my irreligious New York eyes, mildly and unremarkably so.

Oh, we secularist naïfs. After all hell started breaking loose, at first, instinctively, I cheered the papers that republished the cartoons. And Le Monde’s own fresh cartoon commentary—a disembodied hand writing “I must not draw Muhammad,” with the sentences forming Muhammad’s face—was smarter than any of the originals. At first, I considered American and British newspapers craven for all but unanimously declining to reprint any of the cartoons.

But the line between standing up for journalistic principle and bloody-minded mischief-making can be blurry. And as embassies burned and protesters died, I found I lacked the stomach for making the cartoons a do-or-die stand on behalf of free expression. This, of course, is also tragic.

One gropes for hopeful glimmers in the mêlée. Here and there in the Middle East, commentators bravely said Al Qaeda is to blame for the Muhammad-as-terrorist cartoons. “We must be honest with ourselves,” one columnist in the United Arab Emirates wrote, “and admit that we are the reason for these drawings.”

The vicious circle spins: Jihadist murder leads to rude foreign caricature, which is manipulated to provoke mob violence and threats of murder, which in turn seems to confirm the original ugly caricature, on and on. And practically no one is honest with himself: Instead, hypocrisies are hurled back and forth.

What standing do Muslims have to complain about religious offense from Europeans, given that the state-controlled press in the Middle East routinely runs anti-Israeli cartoons that are also anti-Semitic?

If the jaded, sophisticated West sincerely is so devoted to jocular free speech about sacred subjects, how will it react to the Iranian-government newspaper’s contest for cartoons about the Holocaust?


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift