When Fanatics Attack, Blame the Victim

So, there’s an outside chance you’ve heard about a certain column by Nancy Graham Holm, who gifted the world with her thoughts on the ax attack on Kurt Westergaard earlier this month. Although we got a bit sidetracked, I still want to write a direct response to what she said, because I think there are some lessons to be drawn from it.

Muslims failed to see Westergaard’s cartoon as satire. Instead, they saw in it a defamatory and humiliating message: Muslims are terrorists. Humiliation is a devastating feeling…

Why did the editors of Jyllands-Posten want to mock Islam in this way? Some of us believed it was in bad taste and also cruel. Intentional humiliation is an aggressive act.

…The free society precept is merely an attempt to give the perpetrators the moral high ground when actually it is a smokescreen for a deeply rooted prejudice, not against Muslims, but against religion per se.

Really, I’m marveling at that last sentence. “The perpetrators“, she says. And who are the perpetrators, according to Nancy Graham Holm? Not the people who’ve plotted to murder Kurt Westergaard – including, let me say it again, the fanatic who bashed down his door with an ax – but the people who drew cartoons that certain Muslims didn’t want to be drawn. Those cartoonists are the ones who started this; they deserve the blame for their “aggressive act”; they’ve unjustly sought to claim “the moral high ground”. Presumably, if any of them actually are murdered by religious fanatics, Holm will tell us that it was their fault.

Is there an informative parallel here? Why, yes, there is; I’m so glad you asked. The parallel that I’d draw is to the people who claim that rape victims are at fault for being raped, because they “invited” their own sexual assault by dressing or acting provocatively and we all know men just can’t be expected to control themselves when that happens:

The survey also found that 26 per cent of adults believed that a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing. Some 22 per cent held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. Similarly, 30 per cent said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk.

Another parallel is with the “gay panic” defense, which claims that men who are the recipients of unwanted homosexual advances are legally justified in murdering the other person:

Weighing the options, [the jury] chose to believe Biedermann and his lawyer, Sam Adam, Jr., who also successfully represented R. Kelly in his 2008 child pornography charges, and who is also ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich’s defense attorney. They accepted as reasonable the premise that it had taken Biedermann 61 stab wounds in order to successfully fend off an unwanted sexual advance from another man.

The exact same reasoning is deployed by Nancy Graham Holm, here, in her argument that Danish cartoonists “provoked” the Muslim segment of society with their aggressive cartoons and therefore deserve what they get. As if any act of speech, regardless of the speaker’s intent, could ever justify others committing violence against them! This is nothing less than a rejection of the charter of rights that makes democratic society possible in the first place. It’s an abject surrender to the vicious thugs who would blackmail everyone else into submission by the threat of violence – as if it was our job to “back down” and “apologize” to them, both of which she calls on the Danes to do.

It’s also, though Holm doesn’t realize it, extremely prejudiced against Muslims. She criticizes the Danes for acting immaturely:

As a journalist now living in the same town as Westergaard, I thought some at Jyllands-Posten had acted like petulant adolescents.

Yet if Danish people are to be judged “petulant adolescents”, the consequences of her view for Muslims are far worse. Her view treats Muslims as if they were wild animals – dangerous creatures who can’t be counted on not to lash out if provoked. We, in contrast, view them as human beings, and accordingly expect that they should be able to listen to criticism and respond to it with an appropriate degree of maturity. In many cases, of course, this turns out not to be true. But arguing that we should censor ourselves so as not to anger them is as futile and offensive as arguing that women should never wear revealing clothes so they don’t get raped, or arguing that homosexuals should stay in the closet so as not to be murdered by homophobic crazies. In a free society, we should all have the right to express ourselves in any way we choose. Why are some people so eager to call for the revocation of that right the moment a bunch of ignorant thugs object to it?

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.