The 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.”
According 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.