They Can’t Take a Joke

Photo: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

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?

Where do American right-wingers get off insisting that we keep waving the cartoons in the faces of apoplectic Muslims, even though five minutes ago they were screaming about our culture’s “war on Christmas”?

When the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington civil-liberties group, insists that it’s “not an issue of free speech, but … hate speech,” do they even know they’re making an Orwellian distinction without a difference—that “hate speech” is just a bitter flavor of free speech?

And why does the Boston Globe have such reflexive sympathy for wounded Islamic feelings, but next to none for American Christians’ anger over blasphemous art?

Because double standards are inevitable, nearly irresistible. Oh, sure, the theocrats at the Vatican are consistent: “The right to freedom of thought and expression,” they declared, “cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.” And the great unbelievers like Hitchens, bless him, see in all religions a potentially dangerous lunacy.

But even most of us hard-core secularists give in to a double standard eventually. It may be a matter of multiculturalist sensitivity, or quasi racism, or (since 9/11) fear—probably all three—but we don’t hold alien cultures to grown-up First World standards. Because we consider Muslim societies retrograde, we can’t expect liberal democracy can take root, and don’t make a big deal out of their anti-Semitism, and, as we’ve now discovered, won’t deal forthrightly with religious controversies—they’re primitive, they’re nuts; best not to rile them; shhhhhh.

It isn’t just us versus the Islamists, however. On the map depicting the clash of civilizations, Pakistan is a red state and Denmark blue, but let’s admit that America is only bluish. Islamic governments have used the cartoons to whip the street into a frenzy and take the democratic heat off their own tyrannies. The Republicans’ culture war is not morally equivalent, quite, but it comes out of the same playbook. Flag-burning and gay marriage are red herrings, as harmless to patriotic and fundamentalist Americans as the cartoons are to pious Muslims. If you dubbed the Christian Broadcasting Network into Arabic, Pat Robertson would be a grinning ayatollah.

Consider three U.S. news stories that broke coincidentally with the cartoon madness. A Bush-appointed PR handler at NASA had insisted that government scientists refer to the Big Bang as a theory. In an exurb of Denver, a public-school music teacher was forced to write a letter of apology for showing a video about opera, because it featured Joan Sutherland talking to puppets about Faust and Mephistopheles—i.e., it was pro-Satan. And after it was discovered that the producers of an evangelical movie had cast a gay actor, the president of a Baptist seminary said, “It would probably be an overreaction to firebomb these men’s houses.” Perhaps he said “probably” ironically, like the Iranians are smirking about their Holocaust-cartoon contest.

For the last half of the last century, we thought that old-fashioned liberalism—free markets, free elections, free expression—had won. We refined a paradigm for civil society, an M.O. under which governments leave religion alone in return for religions leaving government and nonbelievers alone. But we hung our MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banners too soon. Fundamentalist religion remains powerful, still hardwired with a theocratic impulse. Conversely, we secular Westerners are all relativists now, which makes it hard to argue that our belief in the virtue of free expression isn’t, after all, an article of faith. Yet because we don’t pretend that virtue is divinely inspired, we think the world should play according to our rules. And because the fundamentalists know their vision of virtue is divinely inspired, they say we must all play according to their rules.

The Danish prime minister, declining to apologize for the cartoons, said, “Freedom of speech is absolute. It is not negotiable.” Which is exactly what the Muslim protesters (and the Vatican) are saying about religious belief: that its guaranteed freedom from public disrespect is nonnegotiable.

Freedom of speech is absolute: Isn’t it pretty to think so. In fact, everything is a little negotiable. It’s why we haven’t invaded nuclear North Korea, and why we play so nice with the rich Chinese. The cartoon affair has been a negotiation. The drawings were the West’s opening salvo. The violence was the other side’s display of leverage. When the Bush administration responded by coming down on the side of aggrieved Muslims, and the Times decided that it wouldn’t reprint the cartoons, they were, for better or worse, the negotiators on our side of the table, making tactical concessions instead of shouting back or walking away.

In domestic discussions involving race or religion or gender, most of us follow rules that involve some soft-pedaling and dissembling. (When people like Larry Summers make the mistake of speaking their minds, they are punished.) Now, given a wired world full of 1.2 billion very touchy Muslims, where cartoons in Denmark can incite riots in Afghanistan, we evidently need to learn a new etiquette of globalization—not, let’s be clear, for the sake of sensitivity but for realpolitik, to keep the peace in order that we might win the longer, larger struggle. Such is one price of taking up the white man’s burden in the 21st century.


They Can’t Take a Joke