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Go to: spiked-central spiked-politicsMick Hume

Column
6 February 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Those cartoons: a caricatured argument
All of this heat about the Danish cartoons is shedding no light on the important questions of free speech, genuine tolerance, multiculturalism and society today.


The row over the cartoons of Muhammad is itself a cartoon caricature of a political debate. Worse, it is a kiddie-cartoon, with the childish raspberry that those anti-Islamic daubs represent being met by an infantile tantrum of protests from Muslim groups. None of this has much to do with the arguments we ought to be having about free speech, or the sort of society we want.

Yet such is the febrile climate in which we live today, that what began as a local dispute over some drawings in Scandinavian newspapers of which few had ever heard has escalated into a global dispute, with everybody from the secretary-general of the United Nations to the American and British governments feeling it necessary to get involved.

Those 12 cartoons were first published by a centre-right Danish newspaper more than four months ago, an event almost unnoticed outside Denmark. The angry reaction from Muslims only really took off in late January. Then we had the reaction to the reaction, as other European newspapers published the pictures in solidarity with the Danish journalists. Then came the reaction to the reaction to the reaction, as violent protests spread and Western leaders intervened to call for calm and, mostly, to condemn the offensive images. And so the upwards spiral of histrionics continues.

In all of the confused and overblown reaction and counter-reaction, we are in danger of losing sight of some basic points. So, at the risk of stating what might once (ie, about a fortnight ago) have been considered the obvious, it is worth reminding ourselves that a dozen obscure, unfunny (unless something major has been lost in translation) badly drawn bad-taste cartoons are…

1. Not the start of a slippery slope towards an Islamophoic Holocaust in Europe, as Muslim groups and at least one Labour MP has suggested;

2. Not the bedrock on which principle of free speech in our societies stands or falls, as implied by some in the West.

In attempting to explain the bizarre reaction to these cartoons, one side has suggested that they symbolise the oppression of the Muslim world. The other side claims that it proves the strength of Islamic fundamentalism. In fact, these events owe far more to the influence of multiculturalism and the victim culture in Western societies.

It is worth recalling that the reaction to the cartoons began, not in the Middle East or Asia, but in Scandinavia. In October 2005, Muslim groups in Copenhagen protested outside the offices of Jyllands-Posten (the newspaper responsible), and then reported the paper to the Danish police for 'blasphemy and racial discrimination'. In November and December, a delegation from Danish Islamic groups visited the Middle East to spread publicity about the unnoticed appearance of these drawings (and, it is alleged, included a couple of other defamatory cartoons not originally published in Jyllands-Postern). The protests in Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere did not take off until January 2006.

Multiculturalism and identity politics have been institutionalised in Western societies from the top down. This culture encourages all manner of groups to seek special status by defining themselves as victims and developing a heightened sense of grievance. Whether it is those who claim to speak for Muslims or gay men, the common characteristic of all such politicised identities tends to be a thin skin. Being offended or excluded in some way becomes a shortcut to claiming moral authority and demanding apologies and redress from the authorities.

There is a sense today of the self-styled spokespersons for victim groups scanning the globe for something about which they can become outraged. Thus did the Islamic groups hit upon these obscure but undeniably offensive cartoons in multicultural Denmark. The outrage made in the West was then exported to the Muslim world, where it has afforded various governments and movements the opportunity for some cheap and easy radical posturing - a chance to play the wounded victim card and castigate the West, without risking real conflict.

As with just about anything to do with multiculturalism, these overblown protests have drawn their strength largely from the defensive reaction of the Western elites.

The insecure authorities are now hypersensitive to any allegation of racial or religious intolerance, to the point where the British government has championed new laws against religious hatred while police chiefs warn us not to use the words 'Islamic terrorism' together. Thus it was inevitable that the American and British governments, along with everybody from Bill Clinton to Peter Mandelson, would become involved in this dispute, calling for calm and criticising the cartoons for causing serious offence. This in turn has served to legitimise the protestors' sense of grievance, and given the green light to further puffed-up adolescent expressions of outrage, such as the condemnations of the BBC for daring to flash the cartoons on screen during a news report.

Neither, however, should we heed the call from high places for everybody to calm down
In a counter-reaction, various newspapers in Europe (but not in Britain) have made a show of republishing the cartoons and declaring their solidarity with the Danish paper. This looks less like a principled stand in defence of free speech than another claim for victim status, this time on behalf of journalists.

On spiked, we have always emphasised the importance of defending free speech without compromise, as the key to our other liberties. We have also upheld the right to be offensive, against an increasingly conformist and censorious climate. So it might be assumed that we would immediately join the counter-protests in defence of the cartoons. Well, yes and no.

We certainly defend the right to criticise, offend and ridicule religion - a long tradition in cartoons. And we are absolutely opposed to any demand to censor newspapers or outlaw offensive words and images. So let them publish and be damned if they want.

But that does not mean we want to endorse these cartoons as some sort of blow for freedom of speech. Upholding the right to be offensive does not oblige us to endorse the exercise of that right in every circumstance. For us, the right to be offensive is about the freedom to express ideas and opinions in which you believe, regardless of whether they offend existing orthodoxies or sensibilities. Cartoons like these, however, simply seem to cause offence as an end in itself.

Indeed, those publishing and supporting the cartoons are avoiding the really hard arguments that need to be had out around these issues. It is more like a childish outburst, sticking two fingers up or screaming in frustration because you do not have the words to express what you feel - the political equivalent of a fart in polite company. We do not need to endorse the idiocies of those cartoons any more than we do the bile of the British National Party, even though we oppose censorship of either.

In refusing to publish the cartoons, the British press has laid itself open to allegations of cowardice. The papers arguably should have done so in some form by now, not as some sort of front-page stand for freedom, but merely to inform their readers what the fuss is (or is not) all about. (In that spirit, here is a link to the cartoons for those who are interested (1).)

It is surely time to forget about this childish caricature of a debate. Instead, it has moved on to another level, with demands for a few militant Muslims who protested in London with offensive slogans about slaughtering infidels, 9/11 and 7/7 to be prosecuted for incitement to murder. Those placards were just as infantile a wind-up as the Danish cartoons. As any parent knows, paying so much attention to tantrums can only encourage them.

All of this heat is shedding no light on the important questions we need to be raising about free speech, genuine tolerance, multiculturalism and society today. Indeed the confrontational posturing serves as a distraction and even an excuse to avoid tackling the difficult issues.

Neither, however, should we heed the call from high places for everybody to calm down, behave themselves and turn the clock back to calmer times. We do need to heat up a serious no-holds-barred international debate about the future for free societies in the West and around the world, and to fight hard for freedom of expression and the right to be offensive. One precondition for any such debate must be to draw a line under those irrelevant cartoons and all of the hysterical reactions, counter-reactions and counter-counter-reactions they have provoked.

The only restriction there ought to be on free speech is that it is the preserve of adults. Neither side has passed that test in this infantile spat. Instead of shouting at one another to shut up, it would be better if we all resolved to grow up.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

(1) See the cartoons, republished on the Face of Muhammed blogspot

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