The Danes are confused (me too)

dk sggflLet me offer many thanks to the Divine Ms. M and young master Daniel Pulliam for doing so much in the past few days to keep us in touch with the tidal wave of stories about the Danish cartoons. I literally do not know where to begin and, during five days of travel, I have felt somewhat stunned and confused by what I am reading. I am home again and starting to catch up.

What I am feeling is precisely what I felt in the weeks and months after the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a freethinker who would, under ordinary circumstances, be an icon in places like New York City and Hollywood.

Here is how I would state the question that is at the heart of my confusion: Why is it suddenly liberal for liberals to think that conservatives are out of line for defending the free speech rights of liberals?

Apparently I am not alone in my confusion.

Over at the Los Angeles Times, reporter Jeffrey Fleishman has written a news feature story about the waves of confusion — mixed with some rage — that are sweeping over Denmark. This is a good piece to read if you are wondering where this whole story began, because it does flashback to the beginning and offer timely background materials.

At one point, Fleishman pauses to paint the scene in broad strokes that verge on analysis. But I think his reporting backs it up. The key, if you read between the lines, is this: the future of the European Union is tied to this crisis. That is the political issue that is an obvious stalking horse for the larger clash of cultures.

Danes suspect that the furor over the cartoons has been co-opted by the wider anti-Western agenda of Middle East extremism. Yet they believe the media images of fury over the drawings have cracked the veneer of their nation and exacerbated a debate about immigration, freedom of expression, religious tolerance and a vaunted perception of racial harmony often disputed by immigrants.

Denmark is a small portrait of Europe’s struggle to integrate a Muslim population that has doubled since the late-1980s and dotted the continent with head scarves and back-alley mosques. … Recent polls reveal a country of torn emotions and doubt. The Danish People’s Party has gained 3 percentage points, but so has its nemesis, the Radical Left Party. A newspaper headline this week blamed President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for not supporting Denmark through the ordeal. And nearly 80% of Danes believe a terrorist attack looms.

Or consider this reaction from Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons to make a point that journalists and artists were self-censoring themselves in their depictions of Islam and debates about Islam. He argues that Islam should not be treated differently than Christianity or other religions, when it comes to parody and satire. Under normal circumstances, this is a “liberal” statement.

“I think it’s problematic when a religion tries to impose its taboos and rules on the larger society,” he said. “When they ask me not to run those cartoons, they are not asking for my respect. They’re asking for my submission. … To me, those cartoons are saying that some individuals have hijacked, kidnapped and taken hostage the religion of Islam to commit terrorism.”

Then again, the meaning of the word “Islam” is “submission,” as in the statement that true peace is found through submission to the teachings of Islam.

What does this mean? That is one of the points of debate within Islam. Do the Danes want to submit to the laws of Islam? Does Europe? Stay tuned.

Print Friendly

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.

  • Daniel

    Who are these liberals who have allegedly condemned conservatives for defending free speech? Is pointing out that the cartoons (and reprinting the cartoons) were unnecessarily provocative an indication one doesn’t support free speech?

  • tmatt

    Yes, it is. If there is no right to offensive free speech, there is no right to free speech.

    Ask the ACLU.

    You can say that the cartoons were unnecessarily provocative AND say that newspapers in a free society had a right to print them.

    It took a week for the White House to say that it is wrong for rioters and killers to demand that the Danes CONTROL their newspapers with a government action.

    I was refering to the world of the New York Times…

    You could say that the left is divided on this case. Not all liberals are attacking liberalism in order to attack or be silent on the actions of most conservatives. But the left is clearly divided right now.

  • Daniel

    The left AND THE WHITE HOUSE. Radical liberals like George Bush and Condaleeza Rice hold the exact same position. So does that mean conservatives are divided?

    I can say pornography is offensive and provocative and dangerous. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go to court to prevent its censorship at the hands of the government. That is the ACLU’s position.

  • tmatt

    I said that MOST conservatives are being consistent, slowly but surely.

    So what is your disagreement with the Danish government? What is your disagreement with those who are speaking out in defense of free speech, in opposition to the stance taken by the Islamists?

  • MJBubba

    Flemming Rose, Danish editor, said: “To me, those cartoons are saying that some individuals have hijacked, kidnapped and taken hostage the religion of Islam to commit terrorism.”
    Has Islam really been hijacked? Do any of the seven schools of thought within Sunni Islam disagree that violence should reign when their prophet is slandered? Do all of the seven schools (denominations?) agree that the Danish government should censor the Danish media concerning Islam? I would like to see a western journalist address the question: Do the seven Sunni schools subscribe to censorship?

  • Daniel

    I think it was unwise and unncessarily provocative to use the cartoons in the way they did. Clearly, it’s protected by Free Speech, but just because you CAN say it doesn’t mean you should. And free speech has consequences.

    That doesn’t mean that buildings should be burned down or people threatened with beheadings. That’s an even more absurd position.

    What seems to have you bothered is that people are suggesting that maybe we should be more sensitive about how such provocative cartoons would be viewed by an oppressed, conservative religious minority. One doesn’t have to agree with Islamic fundamentalists to suggest that they have reasons to be suspicious of Western intellectuals and question the free speech motives of provacateurs. That doesn’t condone their actions, but merely puts them into perspective.

    Would conservatives in the U.S. be this worked up about free speech if the Danes (or the Dutch) printed 12 cartoons mocking Christian fundamentalists, comparing them to the Nazis or the Fascists, and suggesting their views are incompatible with life in liberal Denmark or the Netherlands? Or is the current concern about free speech fueled, in part, by rampant Anti-Islam bias?

  • skyhawk

    Huh… Daniel… Cartoons mocking Christians are printed everyday, some that are much worse than the Muhammad cartoons and you don’t see many people objecting to it.
    Western society is so hypocritical, it’s ok to make fun and insult Christianity because they can get away with it, but if it’s islam then everybody’s scared and apologizes.
    We’ll never see the day governments apologize for their newspapers bashing Christians like they did with the cartoons.
    Most conservatives don’t object to free speech, even when it bashes Christianity, they object to the hypocrisy and unfairness of the media, which would not dare treat Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc… the same way. This double standard is rampant.

  • Daniel

    I’d love to see a link to a cartoon published “every day” about Christians in the Western press that’s equally as provocative. Not art, but an editorial cartoon.

  • tmatt

    Daniel:

    I have no doubts that conservatives would, in the current climate:

    (a) Say the cartoons are offensive.

    (b) That is it stupid, in an era of crashing readership totals, for newspapers to print them and

    (c) that the editors have every legal right to do so.

    The issues in Europe focus on the Islamic press’ constant barrage of hate material against other religions, especially Jews, and the fact that Islamists are asking European governments to stop newspapers from publishing offensive material.

    So, Daniel, do you support or reject the calls by many radical Muslims, including some governments, for European governments to punish newspapers and to practice prior restraint?

  • Daniel

    So, Daniel, do you support or reject the calls by many radical Muslims, including some governments, for European governments to punish newspapers and to practice prior restraint?

    Of course not, and neither does the NYT, as far as I can tell. Are their liberals in the U.S. who have suggested this or backed it?

  • Todd

    I’d love to see a link to a cartoon published “every day” about Christians in the Western press that’s equally as provocative. Not art, but an editorial cartoon.

    Perhaps it is a bit of hyperbole to say “every day”, but a little Googling will lead you to a large selection of editorial cartoons which conservative Christians would find to be offensive. For example, consider what was printed during the height of the Catholic abuse scandal. I don’t seem to recall any burnings of newspaper publishing houses during that time, nor do I recall seeing the issuance of death threats by those who represent the Catholic church. Whether you like it or not, Daniel, this row over the cartoons is a clash of civilizations and world-views.

  • Daniel

    I don’t doubt that it is a clash of civilizations and world-views.

    I think it’s important to remember that Theo Van Gogh and Pym Fortuyn, who appropriately are seen as martyrs in this clash, would have been equally as horrified if fundamentalist Christians showed up on the shores of the Netherlands and tried to force their views–through prostyletizing–on the Dutch people. To van Gogh and Fortuyn, a fundamentalist Christian’s opposition to gay rights would have been as anathema to Dutch society as the beliefs of Muslims.

  • Tom Breen

    Terry, you wrote:

    “Yes, it is. If there is no right to offensive free speech, there is no right to free speech.”

    Okay, so I look forward to your stirring attack on Article 140 of the Danish Criminal Code, which allows for a fine and up to four months’ imprisonment for “demeaning a recognized religious community.”

    I also anticipate some coverage of the dozen or so European nations which attach criminal penalties to the act of denying the Holocaust.

    Saying this is all about free speech is an utter simplification. We’re talking about a right-wing newspaper in Denmark that solicited the cartoons deliberately to offend Muslims, in a country where conservative members of parliament call Islam “a cancer” on Danish society.

    It seems to me a lot of Europeans have suddenly become passionate about “free speech” at a time when free speech gives them a chance to throw mud in Muslims’ eyes.