Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Chiming in on the "Intoonfada"

I can't claim credit for the above coinage- I read it in the wonderful Reason Online.

I'll assume everyone knows what that refers to and get started. My take? There are, as I see it, two reasonable positions I have encountered thus far in the blogosphere. The first is has been expressed most vehemently by Andrew Sullivan (I won't link to a specific post, just scroll along and you'll find plenty). Sullivan sees the right to offend as inextricable from the right to free expression. He has also vehemently decried the hypocrisy of media outlets who have refrained from publishing the cartoons. He questions the ability of the many Muslims to live in an open society.

Another, perhaps more nuanced, position comes from Gregory Djerejian at The Belgavia Dispatch (main post here). Djerejian point to the imprudence of publishing what might seem like crudely provocative material, which he sees as designed to offend Muslims of all stripes. He also expresses aversion to the wave of "Buy Danish" posts and reprinting of the cartoons throughout the blogosphere.

I'd have to say I side a bit more with Sullivan on this one, but only a bit more. The point Djerejian misses, I think, is that a free press cannot be seen as an arm in the war on terrorism or the effort to democratize the Muslim world. If the publishing these cartoons is imprudent, than certainly a lot of free expression is imprudent by the same criterion.

Djerejian also points out that the publishing of these cartoons doesn't make western pluralism look good to many Muslims. This may well be true, but it is also true that you simply don't have pluralism without the right to free expression, even offensive expression (I think many Muslims recognize this, and have protested and petitions peacefully, as is their right). In this case, prudence gives way to principle.

That said, I think Djerejian is right to be cautious of the way some have used this kafuffle to more or less say "See, I told you Muslims are antagonistic to the west!" This is the sort of reasoning that's very appealing to European isolationists, as well as to the more fanatical sort of pro-Israel types and other hawks. It's also plainly false. Certainly protests have been widespread, but, by all counts, violence has been fairly rare. One editor of a Jordanian paper was fired for publishing the cartoons. Characterizing this as the Muslims World rising up in rage is simplistic at best.

At the same time, it's also true that the Muslim world does not have the same tradition of secularism and free speech that the west does, and this is likely a reason, along with the misery and oppression under which many in the Muslim world live, for the wide-spread outrage. Christian zealots in the west have had a long time to get used to the idea that many people really don't give a flying fart about Jesus or what the Bible says. One of the great virtues of the United States is the amazingly inspired idea to completely prohibit state sponsored or endorsed religion. This idea has had over two hundred years to take route. Sullivan is right to take pride in this.

In many European countries, on the other hand, laws exist prohibiting insulting any religion. In Germany, denial of the holocaust, or the publishing of materials that do so is a crime. France has taken a different approach enacted laws widely recognized as targeting Muslims' expression of their faith in public places. One can hardly fault Muslims for pointing out obvious hypocrisy in European treatment of religious groups. Muslims are right to feel targeted in Europe, and, in a more abstract and debatable sense, by the U.S. Arabs might live under repressive regimes much infinitely worse than ours, but they’re not stupid. While I've heard countless pundits decrying Palestinian terrorism (rightly so), I don't here them deny that Israel is, in fact, occupying land internationally recognized as Palestinian territory, and has actively pursued the gradual annexation of that territory through the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Is it so outlandish to suspect the motives of the American government and the West in its Middle East policy?

My point here is only to say that just because a Muslim feels outrage because of this latest incident does not make him a fanatic, even if his attitude is based partially on pre-enlightenment notions of religion and the state. One of the reasons why the Bush administration's policy of democratization has met with such hostility at home and abroad is that it marks a radical departure in our approach to the region. I don't consider it in the least bit unpatriotic or pro-islamist to say that the west has done quite a job of fucking up the middle east, whether through colonialism, supporting various nasty regimes, or just plain negligence. I also don’t see why one can’t simultaneously be ardently against so called Islamo-fascism, and ultimately support efforts to counter its influence.

If we're really serious about the whole liberal society thing, we'd better be prepared to actually be liberal-minded and be prepared to admit our mistakes and contradictions. How well U.S. policy fits that bill is certainly open to debate, but surely we can't be so full of shit as to hold ourselves up as the absolute paradigm of liberalism when we've engaged in such illiberal practices in the past. I still believe that the U.S. is among the most liberal societies in the world, and has a good deal to offer the world. But that doesn't mean that we should engage is shallow posturing. I suspect our best chance of ensuring the spread of liberal societies is for our pundits and politician to show a bit more honesty and seriousness. I'm trying to do my part.

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