The controversy over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad has generated plenty of hypocritical commentary from politicians and other public figures in attempts to convey an impression of moderation and neutrality. In most cases they do so by taking up the quarrel in the middle and condemning both the “insensitivity” of the cartoonists and the “overreaction” of the Muslim world, both alleged instances of “extremism.” They expect us to believe that there is a moral equivalence between the exercising of a fundamental right (freedom of expression) and the attempt to abolish this right.
Many also adopted the snobbish position that the cartoons should not have been published because they were “substandard.” Ooh, those gourmet cartoon connoisseurs, they will settle for nothing but the best. Other evasions include the implication of ulterior motives, e.g. that the “real” object of the controversy is Denmark’s restrictive immigration policy rather than the cartoons. This goes against all the testimonies of Muslim government spokesmen and demonstrators. Another diversionary tactic is to declare that “the real issue” is unemployment of young Muslims in Europe, as if that was a concern of the violent demonstrators in faraway Beirut or Peshawar.
I do not know if hypocrisy is better or worse than the second most common position encountered in liberal circles: openly siding with Islamic fanaticism and putting the blame fully on the cartoonists and their editors, as Bill Clinton did, Kofi Annan and the Foreign Affairs spokesmen of the Bush and Blair governments. In the Brussels weekly Knack, the Belgian equivalent of Newsweek and Time, with a weekly circulation of 160,000 copies, the editor, Karl Van den Broeck, launched the innovative conspiracy theory that the Neoconservative cabal, with tentacles stretching from Washington DC and Tel Aviv to Aarhus and Brussels (this website!), had planned the whole cartoon riot incident as the trigger for the Clash of Civilizations and the invasion of Syria and Iran, no less. Well, not all that innovative: a similar view was expressed by Ayatollah Khamenei.
A well-known Belgian novelist (Kristien Hemmerechts), a noted feminist and cultural relativist (who has spoken in favour of female circumcision), stated that since the Muslims are so sensitive to the cartoons, the latter should not have been published. Typically, the liberal sympathisers of Muslim “sensitivities” do not seem to notice how childishly selfish the Muslim position is. For centuries and until today, Islam has ordered the destruction of everything that is sacred to other religions, starting with the 360 idols in the Kaaba (including Jesus and Mary) smashed to pieces by Muhammad himself, down to the Bamian Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, the weekly vandalising of Hindu temples in Bangladesh, or the destruction of Christian churches in Iraq during the last couple of months. In many cases, moreover, not only the places of worship but the worshippers too have been assaulted. What an arrogance for Muslims, with their heritage of iconoclastic insensitivity, to put up this show of indignation for a handful of harmless cartoons. And now we are being expected to feel pity for those poor touch-me-nots?
In Muslim circles, meanwhile, only a few independent intellectuals have come out unequivocally on the side of freedom of expression, most bravely the Jordanian journalists who confronted their readers with the poser: “Which is worse for Islam, these cartoons or the TV images of Iraqi mujahedin beheading their hostages?” They were arrested. So were several Algerian journalists, for republishing the cartoons, and their paper was banned from publication. Likewise a leftist Syrian journalist was arrested under the law against “insulting religious feelings” for having proposed a dialogue about the cartoon controversy on the plea that violent protests could only hurt the image of Islam. And in Konya, Turkey, a woman journalist was stoned for not wearing a headscarf while reporting on a demonstration held under the motto “loyalty to the Prophet.”
By contrast, many Europe-based Muslim intellectuals who joined the debate, esp. those who opened their interventions with a plea against violent protest by way of captatio benevolentiae (then followed by “but…”), only did so as the first, non-violent line of attack in the broader Islamist offensive against freedom of expression and of the press. They are the ones who stand to gain most from this type of crisis: with every Islamist bomb attack by the violent wing, the non-violent vanguard’s prestige with Western governments and media goes up. They become ever more needed as “dialogue partners” to fend off the violent option. But objectively they are working for the same goal as the armed Islamists: to curb democratic freedoms as a crucial step in the imposition of an Islamic order on the West.
A good example is the Brussels government-funded “intercultural” lobby group KifKif. Last Tuesday, seven of its board members, including widely read intellectuals of Moroccan origin, such as Tarik Fraihi and Sami Zemni, published a plea for “limits on freedom of speech.” They argue that “an absolute freedom of expression can only benefit antidemocratic extremists.” This position is evidently the opposite of the truth. Unfettered freedom of expression is a fundamental precondition for a democracy, because a democratically sovereign citizenry needs to be able to inform itself about the existing spectrum of opinions on any matters that come up for decision-making. In a democracy there cannot be two unequal categories of citizens, with one allowed to select what the other may hear and read. Conditional freedom of expression is typical of dictatorships. Hitler and Stalin did not oppose the freedom to express opinions that were in line with their own policies, and likewise, KifKif does not advocate limits on the expression of opinions in line with its own.
But since the job of this type of lobbying groups is to put a democratic face on their attacks on the foundations of democracy, their spokesmen cleverly use the language of human rights. Kifkif writes: “The self-declared defenders of absolute freedom of expression forget (deliberately?) the second part of the much-discussed article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, not coincidentally the part in which the limits of freedom of expression are defined.” This is bluff aimed at fooling lazy readers, for those who take the trouble to read the ECHR article in question, which guarantees freedom of expression, will find that the limits mentioned there are conceived in terms of national interest and morality, not of prohibiting criticism of religious doctrines and leaders. The only straw to which the KifKif authors can cling is the following: “An important limit according to the ECHR is the ‘protection of the rights of others.’” This they take to include “the right to respect (art. 8) and the right to freedom of religion (art. 9).”
This is another attempt to fool unsuspecting readers, for the rights guaranteed in articles 8 and 9 are in no way thwarted by any form of self-expression. The “respect” mentioned in art. 8 is not the right to freedom from criticism which Islam is now demanding, but the very tangible right of freedom from encroachment on one’s private correspondence, home and family life. The freedom of religion guaranteed in art. 9 is similarly unaffected by the expression of opinions. The religious freedom of Christians, for instance, has not been violated by the various forms of criticism which have been aimed at them since the 18th century (but it has been violated by various forms of prohibition, repression and pogroms in Communist and Islamic countries).
The KifKif authors continue: “Freedom of expression is limited in this sense that exhortation to hate or racism are forms of verbal violence and therefore punishable offences.” That is not in the ECHR, but granted, this idea does underlie the anti-racist legislation in some European countries. The Newspeak notion of ‘verbal violence’ is an attempt to vitiate the debate by pretending that strong rhetoric amounts to, and is somehow equivalent to, physical violence. Again this is a trait which is typical of dictatorships, where dissenters are routinely criminalized as ‘trouble-makers irresponsibly sowing conflict in society’ and the silencing and incarceration of dissidents is justified as ‘necessary for the people’s well-being and social peace.’ In fact, it is precisely the so-called ‘violent’ speech that is protected by the principle of freedom of expression. Sweet talk is not controversial and no-one seeks to curb it. The opinions that need to be protected from censorship are precisely the opinions that hurt. As George Orwell said: if freedom of speech means anything at all, it is the freedom to say things that people do not want to hear. That is, those things that the targeted will resent as ‘verbal violence.’
The reference to anti-racist restrictions is yet another attempt to distort the debate, for criticism of religion (which is the basis of any criticism, according to Karl Marx) has nothing to do with race. There are many Muslim-born critics of Islam, racially identical with the Islamists they criticize, people like Ibn Warraq or Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Conversely, there are quite a few European-born converts to Islam, often with a convert’s militant zeal. I have been on debating panels with several of them, and a few have made headlines by joining the armed struggle in Afghanistan or Iraq against Western forces, whose soldiers are mostly white like themselves. If the KifKif advocates of Islam’s right to veto criticism have to resort to the misplaced rhetoric of anti-racism, diverting attention from the religious basis of the controversy, this may well indicate that they know that their core argumentation is weak.
And it is. Suppose we take them at their word when they argue: “Freedom of the press and of expression cannot and must not become a licence or alibi for gratuitous, mendacious and disrespectful messages.” The first two adjectives are bluff, again. There was nothing ‘gratuitous’ about raising the issue of whether artists are afraid to depict the Muslim’s prophet. A Danish author of children’s books had discovered this to be the case, which was the reason for Jyllands-Posten’s invitation to the cartoonists. Neither was it gratuitous when two of the cartoonists connected the person of Muhammad with the contemporary theme of terrorism. It so happens that hundreds of terrorists in the past few years have justified their actions with references to the words and actions of their Prophet. It is not gratuitous or frivolous for a newspaper to address politically relevant and topical facts.
Secondly, there was nothing ‘mendacious’ about depicting Mohammed in a way that associates him with terrorism. KifKif has no monopoly on access to the orthodox Islamic sources about the life and works of the Prophet of Islam. We can check for ourselves that the Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet’s words and deeds) and Sira (biography) literature describe Mohammed as engaging in armed raids, plunder, hostage-taking, rape, assassination of critics and mass-murder of prisoners. Instances of this conduct are also confirmed and justified in the Quran itself. In a democracy it is perfectly legitimate to point this out, whether laboriously in a scholarly paper or more caustically in a cartoon.
As to the third adjective, one may agree that from a certain angle the cartoons can indeed be considered as ‘disrespectful.’ But in that case, one must likewise judge ‘disrespectful’ the sources on which the message they convey is based. As we just pointed out, the notion that Muhammad was a kind of terrorist is not an invention of some 21st-century ‘Islamophobe’ or ‘racist,’ it is based on Arabic sources compiled by orthodox Muslims and enshrined as the basis of Islamic doctrine and law. If cartoons critical of the Prophet are to be banned, what does KifKif propose to do with the Hadith collections and the Quran: ban those books in toto or merely excise the parts that testify to Muhammad’s acting in contravention of the ECHR?
I am unambiguously opposed to any curtailment of the freedom to buy and sell and read and discuss the Quran. Everybody should read it, for that is the best immunization against silly sop-stories about Islam being ‘the religion of peace’ or Muhammad being ‘the first feminist.’ Anyone who, like KifKif, demands restrictions on publications that cast the Muslim’s prophet in a negative light, is demanding restrictions which would logically affect the basic texts of Islam. If logic had any force of law, the KifKif board members would be well advised to ponder the old proverb: “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”
The question of how the Islamic texts would fare under a KifKif regime becomes all the more relevant in the light of another assertion of the board members: “Kif Kif is of the opinion that there are limits to freedom of expression. t is at least necessary that those limits are the same for everybody. […] We wish to live in a tightly coherent society with equal rights and duties for everyone. A society without racism, whether it is Islamophobia or anti-Semitism.”
This seems to mean that disrespect for any religion should be treated the same as disrespect for Islam. So, if insults to Islam or the Muslim community must be prohibited, then so must insults to other religions and their adherents. (In the new nomenclatura, this might be called Kafirophobia, aversion to Kafirs or ‘unbelievers;’ if the KifKif authors mean what they say about equality, they should henceforth twin every mention of ‘Islamophobia’ with ‘Kafirophobia.’) How would the Quran fare in such a system?
The Quran contains dozens of verses that preach hostility to Pagans (polytheists, Zoroastrian ‘fire-worshippers’ and atheists), Jews and Christians. It denounces their teachings as false and evil and a sure passport to hell. By modern Western standards the author of the Quran is entitled to his freedom of opinion on religions. But by KifKif standards, these insulting comments on other people’s religions are not so innocent and ought to be curtailed, especially in a multicultural society. (And indeed, the orthodox sources agree that it was Muhammad’s lifetime achievement to have transformed Arabia’s multicultural society into a monolithic Islamic one.)
The Quran also expressly forbids conversion from Islam to other religions, while allowing and encouraging the reverse. This becomes problematic in the light of the KifKif authors’ plea for equality and reciprocity. It is also in contravention of the ECHR’s article 9, to which they purportedly adhere, for this article defines “freedom of religion” as including “the right to change one’s religion.”
In addition the Quran rejects the principle of “equal rights and duties for everyone,” which KifKif now invokes. Apart from the candidly affirmed inequality in rights and duties between the sexes (which admittedly exists in all religions), it explicitly ordains inequality between the different religious communities. To the non-monotheists Muhammad denied freedom of religion completely, and as for Jews and Christians, the Quran only allows them to retain their faith if they accept the status of third-class citizens and pay a ‘toleration tax.’ When the Prophet’s Islamic state developed into an empire under his successors, the ‘rightly-guided Caliphs,’ this principle was elaborated into an entire system of legal inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims. This inequality pervades the Shari’a (Islamic law) and even now it is already seeping into our society, e.g. in the immense and sometimes violent pressure of Muslim communities against relationships or marriages of their daughters with non-Muslims.
There is even grimmer reading, however, in dozens of Quran verses that go further than mere doctrinal disputation and actually enjoin the Muslims to go out and fight the ‘infidels.’ The core text of Islam is not merely disrespectful towards other religions, it extols killing and glorifies dying in the war against the non-Muslims. If the text of the Quran should not be clear enough, one must bear in mind that it is a companion volume to Muhammad’s life story as a religious leader and military conqueror. Consequently, if one should have doubts about the meaning of jihad, literally ‘effort’ but in practice ‘war against the infidels,’ one need merely put the verses in their real-life context. Muhammad understood and used the term unambiguously in the sense of ‘war,’ not some ethereal or metaphorical ‘struggle against the evil in ourselves’ but an actual war involving horses, weapons, stratagems and blood. The Quran explicitly teaches hatred, hostility and the use of force against other religions and their adherents. By KifKif’s own standards, it clearly exceeds the “limits of freedom of expression.”
Fortunately most Muslims do not take the Quran literally. Their common sense, as well as human inertia and immediate self-interest make them focus on their own life’s business rather than on the struggle against the infidels. When pressed for a Quranic justification of this Islamically lax conduct, they may invent some conveniently soft and non-literal interpretation of the more militant verses, or even (before ignorant Westerners) deny their existence altogether. And so they get on with their lives much like their non-Muslim neighbours do.
However, this does not render the Quranic injunctions against the infidels innocent. Of the hundreds of dedicated Muslims who committed acts of terror in the last couple of years, a handful may have been temperamentally violent and predisposed to committing such acts regardless of their religion. They may be the “evil people” whom President George W. Bush blamed for the 9/11 attacks in his bid not to implicate Islam. But many others have crossed the threshold into terrorism through the teaching of the Quran and the example set by the Prophet. After all, they understand the Quran as nothing less than God’s own revelation. Unlike the ephemeral cartoons, which have not motivated a single act of violence against Muslims in the months since their publication, the Quranic injunctions are intended to be taken seriously.
Consequently, when people plead for restrictions on free speech on the grounds that it may cause offence and even inspire hatred and active hostility to certain communities, they ought to realize that they are in effect demanding limitations on the freedom to read and recite the Quran. Is that what the KifKif board members want? If not, they should withdraw their plea for limits on the freedom to express criticism of religions and religious figures including the prophet Muhammad.
PS: please note that in the present article and in other publications, I have practised a reasonable degree of respect for the founder of Islam. Of course I have not used any sycophantic or reverential appositions every time I mentioned his name, such as “Peace Be Upon Him” or “PBUH.” But at least I have repeatedly referred to him as the “Prophet,” and capitalized, no less. As a non-believer, I would have been entitled to describe him each time as “the so-called prophet.” Since I am not in the business of annoying people with such pedantries, I have refrained from exercising that right. It’s just a question of sensitivity, you know.