The Muhammad Cartoon War

It ain't so funny when fundamentalism is in your face.

To me, the Muslim protester’s sign at a London rally in a picture in the Financial Times says it all: “Freedom of expression go to HELL!!”

Those are fighting words.

The problem with religious fundamentalism isn’t what it believes for itself, but that it seeks to impose its beliefs on everyone else.

Nothing has brought this into starker relief than the widespread and growing global stink over a batch of cartoons published in Denmark depicting the prophet Muhammad mostly in unflattering ways. For Islamic fundamentalists, it is blasphemous to portray the prophet at all; when you draw him in a turban that is also a lighted bomb, it is, apparently, a death-penalty offense—even for non-Muslims in non-Muslim countries.

Consultants have rewritten the Golden Rule. No longer is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” an acceptable code of behavior. Business and diversity consultants have modified it: Do unto others as they want to be done unto.

Controversy over the cartoons has sparked riots, protests, boycotts, attacks on European embassies, and threats of terrorism against the Danes and other Europeans from countries whose newspapers have reprinted the cartoons. Apologies and diplomacy have, so far, failed to quiet the crisis and are unlikely to.

A leader of the militant organization Hamas, the group that recently swept the Palestinian elections, told an Italian newspaper that the cartoons were an “unforgivable insult.” He elaborated by saying that those responsible should have been punished by death. So far, the only dead are protesters in Afghanistan and Somalia, but this story is far from over. Iranian clerics are apparently mulling the issuance of a fatwa against the cartoonists, and one has apparently been issued against Danish troops in Iraq by a local cleric. In Pakistan, 5,000 protesters chanted, “Hang the man who insulted the prophet!”

In the West, there are those who are seeking to appease the fundamentalists by claiming a free-speech exemption for religion. The Vatican issued a statement: “The right to freedom of thought and expression . . . cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.” This isn’t a mere appeal for greater sensitivity or self-restraint on the part of media, it’s an exhortation to rewrite the rules to offer special protection for the precious sensibilities of priests and mullahs. It argues that free speech is only what religious leaders allow.

This is the argument of the enemies of freedom.

Unfortunately, even here, where liberty is valued, our freedoms are challenged. A dirty little secret is that many Americans would trash the Constitution and the Bill of Rights if they could. Not only do many people surrender individual rights to live in communities with housing covenants as restrictive as anything Stalin would have imagined, but a quarter of Americans believe the First Amendment goes too far.

While the Bush administration has said that it finds the Danish cartoons offensive, it has also strongly asserted the right to draw and publish such things. “For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy. And it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend, and we will continue to do so,” said State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack. That’s the right stand and makes an important contrast between ourselves and the jihadists who have attacked us.

But it would mean even more if the Bush administration was not so ready to eavesdrop on our calls, detain Americans without due process, and spy on peaceful protest groups. Freedom of expression cannot thrive in a climate of official intimidation, nor will it flourish if other fundamental rights are eroded.

There are big problems on the left, too, as exemplified by the culture of political correctness that is becoming entrenched in our institutions. Consultants have rewritten the Golden Rule. No longer is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” an acceptable code of behavior. Business and diversity consultants have modified it—one calls the new code the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they want to be done unto.

The problem with this is that it leads to the idea that all expression must be tailored to suit each individual member of the audience. This might be useful if you’re making a product sales pitch, but it’s deadly in the realm of ideas. (See Mossback, “Old-School Headache,” Feb. 1.) Telling people only what they want to hear, the way they want to hear it, is ultimately fatal to a free society, let alone shared reality. It turns everyone into their own private little fundamentalist.

The Muslims offended by the Danish cartoons ought to put away their firebombs and fight back with the strongest weapon they have: their words. Already some have responded with their own cartoons, including one depicting Hitler sharing a postcoital moment with Anne Frank. In Iran, a newspaper is holding a Holocaust cartoon contest. Sick stuff, but a war of words, ideas, and images is better than terrorism and lynch mobs.

That guy with the “Freedom of expression go to HELL!!” sign is only alive and waving it because, as dumb as the statement is, there are those in the West who would defend to the death his right to say it. He might not appreciate the irony of being protected by the very people whose values he hates, but lovers of freedom know that goes with the territory.