Cartoon Debate – The case for mocking religion.
By Christopher Hitchens
PART ONE (See below for part two)
As well as being a small masterpiece of inarticulacy and self-abnegation, the statement from the State Department about this week’s international Muslim pogrom against the free press was also accidentally accurate.
“Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief.”
Thus the hapless Sean McCormack, reading painfully slowly from what was reported as a prepared government statement. How appalling for the country of the First Amendment to be represented by such an administration. What does he mean “unacceptable”? That it should be forbidden? And how abysmal that a “spokesman” cannot distinguish between criticism of a belief system and slander against a people. However, the illiterate McCormack is right in unintentionally comparing racist libels to religious faith. Many people have pointed out that the Arab and Muslim press is replete with anti-Jewish caricature, often of the most lurid and hateful kind. In one way the comparison is hopelessly inexact. These foul items mostly appear in countries where the state decides what is published or broadcast. However, when Muslims republish the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or perpetuate the story of Jewish blood-sacrifice at Passover, they are recycling the fantasies of the Russian Orthodox Christian secret police (in the first instance) and of centuries of Roman Catholic and Lutheran propaganda (in the second). And, when an Israeli politician refers to Palestinians as snakes or pigs or monkeys, it is near to a certainty that he will be a rabbi (most usually Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the leader of the disgraceful Shas party) and will cite Talmudic authority for his racism. For most of human history, religion and bigotry have been two sides of the same coin, and it still shows.
Therefore there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general. And the Bush administration has no business at all expressing an opinion on that. If it is to say anything, it is constitutionally obliged to uphold the right and no more. You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and messianic Israeli settlers, and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken.
Which is what taboos are for. Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.
I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find “offensive.” ( By the way, hasn’t the word “offensive” become really offensive lately?) The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization. I am not asking for the right to slaughter a pig in a synagogue or mosque or to relieve myself on a “holy” book. But I will not be told I can’t eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger. But these same principles of mine also prevent me from wreaking random violence on the nearest church, or kidnapping a Muslim at random and holding him hostage, or violating diplomatic immunity by attacking the embassy or the envoys of even the most despotic Islamic state, or making a moronic spectacle of myself threatening blood and fire to faraway individuals who may have hurt my feelings. The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.
As it happens, the cartoons themselves are not very brilliant, or very mordant, either. But if Muslims do not want their alleged prophet identified with barbaric acts or adolescent fantasies, they should say publicly that random murder for virgins is not in their religion. And here one runs up against a curious reluctance. … In fact, Sunni Muslim leaders can’t even seem to condemn the blowing-up of Shiite mosques and funeral processions, which even I would describe as sacrilege. Of course there are many millions of Muslims who do worry about this, and another reason for condemning the idiots at Foggy Bottom is their assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people. There’s an insult to Islam, if you like.
The question of “offensiveness” is easy to decide. First: Suppose that we all agreed to comport ourselves in order to avoid offending the believers? How could we ever be sure that we had taken enough precautions? On Saturday, I appeared on CNN, which was so terrified of reprisal that it “pixilated” the very cartoons that its viewers needed to see. And this ignoble fear in Atlanta, Ga., arose because of an illustration in a small Scandinavian newspaper of which nobody had ever heard before! Is it not clear, then, that those who are determined to be “offended” will discover a provocation somewhere? We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.
Second (and important enough to be insisted upon): Can the discussion be carried on without the threat of violence, or the automatic resort to it? When Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988, he did so in the hope of forwarding a discussion that was already opening in the Muslim world, between extreme Quranic literalists and those who hoped that the text could be interpreted. We know what his own reward was, and we sometimes forget that the fatwa was directed not just against him but against “all those involved in its publication,” which led to the murder of the book’s Japanese translator and the near-deaths of another translator and one publisher. I went on Crossfire at one point, to debate some spokesman for outraged faith, and said that we on our side would happily debate the propriety of using holy writ for literary and artistic purposes. But that we would not exchange a word until the person on the other side of the podium had put away his gun. (The menacing Muslim bigmouth on the other side refused to forswear state-sponsored suborning of assassination, and was of course backed up by the Catholic bigot Pat Buchanan.) The same point holds for international relations: There can be no negotiation under duress or under the threat of blackmail and assassination. And civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient. It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts, and it is positively outrageous that the administration should have discarded them at the very first sign of a fight.
Stand up for Denmark!
Why are we not defending our ally?
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006, at 12:29 PM ET
Put the case that we knew of a highly paranoid religious cult organization with a secretive leader. Now put the case that this cult, if criticized in the press, would take immediate revenge by kidnapping a child. Put the case that, if the secretive leader were also to be lampooned, two further children would be killed at random. Would the press be guilty of “self-censorship” if it declined to publish anything that would inflame the said cult? Well, yes it would be guilty, but very few people would insist on the full exertion of the First Amendment right. However, the consequences for the cult and its leader would be severe as well. All civilized people would regard it as hateful and dangerous, and steps would be taken to circumscribe its influence, and to ensure that no precedent was set.
The incredible thing about the ongoing Kristallnacht against Denmark (and in some places, against the embassies and citizens of any Scandinavian or even European Union nation) is that it has resulted in, not opprobrium for the religion that perpetrates and excuses it, but increased respectability! A small democratic country with an open society, a system of confessional pluralism, and a free press has been subjected to a fantastic, incredible, organized campaign of lies and hatred and violence, extending to one of the gravest imaginable breaches of international law and civility: the violation of diplomatic immunity. And nobody in authority can be found to state the obvious and the necessary—that we stand with the Danes against this defamation and blackmail and sabotage. Instead, all compassion and concern is apparently to be expended upon those who lit the powder trail, and who yell and scream for joy as the embassies of democracies are put to the torch in the capital cities of miserable, fly-blown dictatorships. Let’s be sure we haven’t hurt the vandals’ feelings.
You wish to say that it was instead a small newspaper in Copenhagen that lit the trail? What abject masochism and nonsense. It was the arrogant Danish mullahs who patiently hawked those cartoons around the world (yes, don’t worry, they are allowed to exhibit them as much as they like) until they finally provoked a vicious response against the economy and society of their host country. For good measure, they included a cartoon that had never been published in Denmark or anywhere else. It showed the Prophet Mohammed as a pig, and may or may not have been sent to a Danish mullah by an anonymous ill-wisher. The hypocrisy here is shameful, nauseating, unpardonable. The original proscription against any portrayal of the prophet—not that this appears to be absolute—was superficially praiseworthy because it was intended as a safeguard against idolatry and the worship of images. But now see how this principle is negated. A rumor of a cartoon in a faraway country is enough to turn the very name Mohammed into a fetish-object and an excuse for barbaric conduct. As I write this, the death toll is well over 30 and—guess what?—a mullah in Pakistan has offered $1 million and a car as a bribe for the murder of “the cartoonist.” This incitement will go unpunished and most probably unrebuked.
Could things become any more sordid and cynical? By all means. In a mindless attempt at a tu quoque, various Islamist groups and regimes have dug deep into their sense of wit and irony and proposed a trade-off. You make fun of “our” prophet and we will deny “your” Holocaust. Even if there were any equivalence, and Jewish mobs were now engaged in trashing Muslim shops and embassies, it would feel degrading even to engage with such a low and cheap stunt. I suppose that one should be grateful that the Shoah is only to be denied rather than, as in some Islamist propaganda, enthusiastically affirmed and set out as a model for emulation. But only a moral cretin thinks that anti-Semitism is a threat only to Jews. The memory of the Third Reich is very vivid in Europe precisely because a racist German regime also succeeded in slaughtering millions of non-Jews, including countless Germans, under the demented pretext of extirpating a nonexistent Jewish conspiracy. As it happens, I am one of the few people to have publicly defended David Irving’s right to publish, and I think it outrageous that he is in prison in Austria for expressing his opinions. But my attachment to free speech is at least absolute and consistent. Those who incite murder and arson, or who silkily justify it, are incapable of rising above the childish glee that culminates in the assertion that two wrongs make a right.
The silky ones may be more of a problem in the long term than the flagrantly vicious and crazy ones. Within a short while—this is a warning—the shady term “Islamophobia” is going to be smuggled through our customs. Anyone accused of it will be politely but firmly instructed to shut up, and to forfeit the constitutional right to criticize religion. By definition, anyone accused in this way will also be implicitly guilty. Thus the “soft” censorship will triumph, not from any merit in its argument, but from its association with the “hard” censorship that we have seen being imposed over the past weeks. A report ($$) in the New York Times of Feb. 13 was as carefully neutral as could be but nonetheless conveyed the sense of menace. “American Muslim leaders,” we were told, are more canny. They have “managed to build effective organizations and achieve greater integration, acceptance and economic success than their brethren in Europe have. They portray the cartoons as a part of a wave of global Islamophobia and have encouraged Muslim groups in Europe to use the same term.” In other words, they are leveraging worldwide Islamic violence to drop a discreet message into the American discourse.
You may have noticed the recurrence of the term “One point two billion Muslims.” A few years ago, I became used to the charge that in defending Salman Rushdie, say, I had “offended a billion Muslims.” Evidently, the number has gone up since I first heard this ridiculous complaint. But observe the implied threat. There is not just safety in numbers, but danger in numbers. How many Danes or Jews or freethinkers are there? You can see what the “spokesmen” are insinuating by this tactic of mass psychology and mobbishness.
And not without immediate success, either. The preposterous person of Karen Hughes is quoted in the same New York Times article, under her risible title of “Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy.” She tittered outside the store she was happily giving away: “The voices of Muslim Americans have more credibility in the Muslim world frankly than my voice as a government official, because they can speak the language of their faith and can share their experience of practicing their faith freely in the West, and they can help explain why the cartoons are so offensive.” Well, let’s concede that almost any voice in any world has more credibility on any subject than this braying Bush-crony ignoramus, but is the State Department now saying that we shall be represented in the Muslim world only by Muslims? I think we need a debate on that, and also a vote. Meanwhile, not a dollar of Wahhabi money should be allowed to be spent on opening madrasahs in this country, or in distributing fundamentalist revisions of the Quran in our prison system. Not until, at the very least, churches and synagogues and free-thought libraries are permitted in every country whose ambassador has bullied the Danes. If we have to accept this sickly babble about “respect,” we must at least demand that it is fully reciprocal.
And there remains the question of Denmark: a small democracy, which resisted Hitler bravely and protected its Jews as well as itself. Denmark is a fellow member of NATO and a country that sends its soldiers to help in the defense and reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. And what is its reward from Washington? Not a word of solidarity, but instead some creepy words of apology to those who have attacked its freedom, its trade, its citizens, and its embassies. For shame. Surely here is a case that can be taken up by those who worry that America is too casual and arrogant with its allies. I feel terrible that I have taken so long to get around to this, but I wonder if anyone might feel like joining me in gathering outside the Danish Embassy in Washington, in a quiet and composed manner, to affirm some elementary friendship. Those who like the idea might contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and those who live in other cities with Danish consulates might wish to initiate a stand for decency on their own account.
Update, Feb. 22: Thank you all who’ve written. Please be outside the Embassy of Denmark, 3200 Whitehaven Street (off Massachusetts Avenue) between noon and 1 p.m. this Friday, Feb. 24. Quietness and calm are the necessities, plus cheerful conversation. Danish flags are good, or posters reading “Stand By Denmark” and any variation on this theme (such as “Buy Carlsberg/ Havarti/ Lego”) The response has been astonishing and I know that the Danes are appreciative. But they are an embassy and thus do not of course endorse or comment on any demonstration. Let us hope, however, to set a precedent for other cities and countries. Please pass on this message to friends and colleagues.