Concerning moderates and the mob

udhrThe cartoon controversy (far too weak a word at this point) is causing some interesting divisions on the right as well as the left. The debate that I think deserves the most serious news coverage concerns the role of Islamic moderates and what they do or do not believe about the freedoms of the West.

When it comes to brand-name conservatism in the United States, it’s hard to get more solid than the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. Yet, at the moment, there are some interesting conflicts in what they are saying about this clash of cultures.

Perhaps it is a matter of emphasis. Perhaps they are talking about different issues within the larger crisis. That’s the point.

In a Hot Topic editorial, the Journal lays out the history of the crisis and places a heavy emphasis on the role of Muslim governments in fanning the flames. Thus, the headline reads: “Clash of Civilization — The dictators behind those Muslim cartoon protests.” Perhaps what we are seeing is, most of all, a conflict within Islam and not a conflict between Islam and the West, symbolized by the Bill of Rights. Thus, here is a long statement of the Journal thesis:

… (Mass) demonstrations almost never represent mainstream public sentiment in the West. Why then should we take it as given that they do among Muslims? Every society has its silent majorities, but it’s only in democracies that those majorities exercise a decisive influence. If Islamic societies seem premodern and violent, this surely has something to do with the fact that most Muslim countries today are places where there is no democracy; where silent majorities stay silent; where, to adapt W.H. Auden, “only the man behind the rifle has free speech.”

So it has been in the case of the cartoons, which were first published in September, to the fairly muted protests of Danish Muslims. Ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries demanded that the Danish government “take all those responsible to task,” apparently forgetting that, unlike in their own countries, Danish authorities do not serve as press censors. Around the same time, an Egyptian newspaper reprinted the cartoons without drawing any noticeable wrath from Muslim clerics.

It was only after a December meeting of the 56 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conferences — all but a handful of which are dictatorships or absolute monarchies — that the “outrage” really took wing.

Thus, totalitarian leaders promoted coverage of the cartoons as a way of showing what would happen to Islam if Western-styled freedoms came to the Arab world. What we are seeing, according to the Journal, is not the “proverbial rage of the Arab street. It’s an orchestrated effort by illiberal regimes, colluding with fundamentalist clerics, to conjure the illusion of Muslim rage for their own political purposes.”

billofrightsAccording to this point of view, those seeking progress must cheer for democracy and the rise of a moderate, modernized Islam. Thus, things are going well in Iraq and the bottom line is simple: Stay the course. The problem is not with Islam itself, but with those who want to use violence for political ends.

Krauthammer, on the other hand, is not impressed with what he is hearing out of the moderates — in Europe, in American newsrooms or in the Islamic world. He notes that the moderates are united in their opposition to violence. But what if that is not the real issue? What if the key issues are the freedom of the press and the role of Islamic law in the future of Europe? In that case, says Krauthammer:

What passes for moderation in the Islamic community — “I share your rage but don’t torch that embassy” — is nothing of the sort. It is simply a cynical way to endorse the goals of the mob without endorsing its means. …

Have any of these “moderates” ever protested the grotesque caricatures of Christians and, most especially, Jews that are broadcast throughout the Middle East on a daily basis? The sermons on Palestinian TV that refer to Jews as the sons of pigs and monkeys? The Syrian prime-time TV series that shows rabbis slaughtering a gentile boy to ritually consume his blood? The 41-part (!) series on Egyptian TV based on that anti-Semitic czarist forgery (and inspiration of the Nazis), “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” showing the Jews to be engaged in a century-old conspiracy to control the world?

A true Muslim moderate is one who protests desecrations of all faiths. Those who don’t are not moderates but hypocrites, opportunists and agents for the rioters, merely using different means to advance the same goal: to impose upon the West, with its traditions of freedom of speech, a set of taboos that is exclusive to the Islamic faith. These are not defenders of religion but Muslim supremacists trying to force their dictates upon the liberal West.

Meanwhile, he is not impressed with the American media moderates who seem to want to look the other way and avoid the core issues, a set of issues that might be called the Bill of Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So there are two issues here. The first is the role of the mob. The moderates agree that the mob cannot be endorsed. However, are the goals of the mob wrong? Are the beliefs of the mob wrong? Does the mob have the right point of view, when it comes to freedom of speech and religion? Is the mob on the right side of history?

This is where journalists can do some digging. What do the American moderates truly believe? What do the Muslim moderates actually believe on these issues?

Meanwhile, says Krauthammer:

The mob is trying to dictate to Western newspapers, indeed Western governments, what is a legitimate subject for discussion and caricature. … The Islamic “moderates” are the mob’s agents and interpreters, warning us not to do this again. And the Western “moderates” are their terrified collaborators who say: Don’t worry, we won’t. It’s those Danes. We’re clean. Spare us. Please.

Would The New York Times agree or disagree? For that matter, would The Wall Street Journal agree or disagree? How about the White House?

Yes, there are divisions on the right as well as on the left. Journalists have work to do, finding the cracks in the “moderate” middle.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bartholomew

    But who exactly is Krauthammer talking about? He complains about bogus “moderates”, but he provides not a single source or quote – let alone giving any sense that he has surveyed commentary on the subject in any detail. Nice work if you can get it.

  • Alan Jacobs

    I agree with everything Krauthammer says except this: “A true Muslim moderate is one who protests desecrations of all faiths.” This is to equate “moderate” with “liberal” — in the philosophical sense, not the American-politics sense. A liberal is someone who believes in tolerance of varying opinions, in the real good of diversity, in the value of open minds and the dangers of indoctrination. It would be on those grounds that someone would say that ALL religious and political opinions deserve legal protection.

    But what if you’re not a liberal? What if you believe that error and falsehood have no rights? Then the question is how you respond to error and falsehood, with violence or with gentle persuasion. The Muslim moderate goes for gentle persuasion, but he is not hypocritical if he fails to denounce anti-Semitic and anti-Christian journalism. Denunciation, he thinks, is what error deserves. And this is why those whom Krauthammer calls “Muslim moderates” don’t mind what goes on in Arab-world TV and print media.

    Only the Muslim who claimed also to be a liberal would be hypocritical if he failed to denounce anti-Semitism, etc. But how many Muslim liberals are there? (This is a real, not a rhetorical, question.)

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    You’re right about “controversy” being the wrong word — it’s a cartoon intifada!

  • Will

    Meanwhile, the owners of the “alternative” New York Press refuse to run The Cartoons, whereupon the whole editorial staff quit, crying that they had “suborned” [sic] the paper’s principles. Division on the left? Division on the right? Or just part of the continuing self-destruction of NYP? (Not to mention that apparently it is no longer considered necessary for “editorial staff” to be able to write English.)

  • Herb

    How many liberal Muslims are there? I can’t really find out from this and other descriptions, but I would warrant that there are several million. Enough to warrant publication of volumes like like this one.

  • Bartholomew

    O’Hannigan:it’s a cartoon intifada!

    What exactly does that mean? “Intifada” refers to the Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. “Intifada” doesn’t mean “fanatical brown people creating public disturbances”, and it doesn’t have a particularly Islamic connotation either.

    (and yes, I know that Ahmed Abdel Rahman Abu Laban is of Palestinian background. That does not make the term “intifada” more applicable)

  • Scott Allen

    TMATT, Thank you for taking on this difficult subject. It’s clear from previous posts that some people think that provoking muslims is a bad idea. Well, it’s a bad idea because some muslims get ultra-violent. Which proves the point that we either say nothing critical about muslims, ever, and self-censor on all sorts of subjects (women’s rights, sex, alcohol, other religious images, Jesus as the only Way, etc.) or we decide that violent muslims are responsible for their own actions. Krauthammer’s overall point, and that of any reasonable person (including a muslim, who should not expect infidels to play by their rules) is to give muslims a level playing field (that is, apply the same procedures to Islam that we do to other religions). A level playing field, in fact, is far better treatment than Christians, Jews, Hindus or anyone else can expect in a muslim country. So it may sound bigoted, but if muslims want to live under Sharia, their best move is to move — back home.
    Folks like commenter Daniel consistently posit that we should self-censor. Well, his quest to never “unnecessarily” provoke muslims is a hopeless one. No doubt the NYT’s editorial positions are an affront to Islam on many occasions. Institutions like the NYT and individuals like Daniel may wish to define their standards for what constitutes a “necessary” provocation. For example, I find the image of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban to be a quite fitting summary of the worldwide violence perpetrated by many adherents of Islam. Daniel may find an image of President Bush with a bomb as a hat to be equally fitting. Yet, he would censor my viewpoint while deciding that it is “necessary” to publish his own. How convenient.
    I mention Daniel because his standards, in microcosm, reflect that of the NYT. They are free to choose their own battles but they should drop the slogan “All the News that’s fit to Print” from their masthead and the notion that they are defenders of freedom from their self-esteem.
    The images in the Danish cartoons were mild. If the NYT had printed them, their readers could have made their own judgements. Yet the NYT feared the reaction of non-readers, that is, millions of muslims who never pick up a copy. This sort of self-censorship reveals the true nature of modern liberalism — it will only pick a fight with those who will not fight back (most Christians, Jews, Hindus, and helpeless people starting in the womb, progressing to kids like Elian Gonzalez and ending in euthanasia of the Terry Schiavo’s). Yes, that’s a strong condemnation but it is sadly supported by actual events.

  • Michael

    First of all, journalists “self-censor” all the time. It’s called journalism. Journalists make decisions every moment of every day when it comes to what is news and isn’t, what’s appropriate and isn’t, what’s objective and isn’t. Not all voices are equal and not all ideas are equal.

    Daniel is free to defend himself, but he raises an interesting point about this whole discussion. Here at Get Religion, there is much discussion about understanding religious perspectives and exposing situations where those religious perspectives are being silenced. With that background, it seems important to understand how Muslims in Europe are silenced, how Muslims in Europe are used as scapegoats, as Muslims in Europe are discriminated against legally and economically. It also requires a historical perspective that looks at the role of European colonialism in the Muslim world and how that still influences Europrean/Musmlim relations.

    With that backdrop, it places the Danish newspaper’s actions in perspective. So to say “they were unnecessarily provocative” is not to say they shouldn’t have printed the cartoons, but to say that it was possibly an unwise decisions and that it is further proof that “free speech isn’t always free.”

    That doesn’t condone “censporship.” That doesn’t condone the raging violence. It provides a persepctive that isn’t being heard.

  • Todd

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but is not the vast majority of the violence and issuance of threats arising from outside of Europe? And if this is truly the case, then how are the social/economic problems that Muslims in Europe face relevant?

  • Scott Allen

    Michael, I agree that details matter, and that journalists (to quote Bob Seger) have to decide “What to leave in, what to leave out.” Frankly, we all do, whenever we communicate (Seger was talking about writing songs), so let’s not pretend that journalistic decisions are some extraordinary sign of sophistication.

    Which leads to your final comments, “That doesn’t condone “censorship.” That doesn’t condone the raging violence. It provides a perspective that isn’t being heard.”

    Oh really? Do you exhaustively monitor the European press? By all accounts they are sympathetic to the Palestinians, and anti-U.S. Perhaps this is exagerrated, but I doubt that muslim “religious perspectives are being silenced.”

    Conversely, it is quite clear that the perspective that wasn’t being heard is that Islam is a religion of violence, as portrayed in the cartoons. Read the biography of Muhammed and compare it to Christ. I minored in Arabic in college and took every available course on the history of the Middle East and Islam. A muslim will not apologize for Mohammed’s life. And in the West they have apologists like Daniel whose “perspective” provides endless excuses for murder and other acts of violence.

    In your comment, you mention their “perspective” as if it excuses them, and then say you’re not condoning it. That’s a fine distinction, possibly without a difference — having your cake and eating it, too?

    For 21 years, my profession in the Marines was the use of violence, and it’s not used lightly like you see portrayed in the movies. If I wanted to go out in the streets and burn down theaters showing the Da Vinci Code, or kill producers, marketers, or audience rest assured I could do so. But I don’t. Why not? Is it because the MSM and NYT back my “perspective?” Hardly. It’s because of the christian influence on America, the Marines, and eventually God changing my heart. And so I consider a human life to be worth more than a cartoon or film. Choose the perspective you wish to back. Even mention the “other side” for “balance” to mitigate their offense. Or continue to pursue the “wise” course of action, which is to say nothing that might offend purveyors of violence.

    You’re right, free speech isn’t free. Perhaps you will have to choose some day between excusing and condoning murder, if there is indeed a difference. Until then, I expect you will be “wise” while others pay the price for freedom.

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  • Herb

    I’m pretty sure that the current uprisings are only the tip of the iceberg. If it isn’t cartoons, it will be something else. There is a definite conflict of cultures going on. We may be at the beginning of another Thirty Years’ War, though I can imagine it might last longer than that.

  • Patrick O’Hannigan