We Americans value free speech above any other right. Overriding the tyrannical inclinations of governments before it, our American republic recognized this right at its founding, without which our democracy couldn’t exist. But does it have to be so for everyone else? Is our perception of what is right and just the only correct one?
To begin with, we must take note here of the entire scope of the cartoon controversy. The cartoon published by Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and then republished by several other papers is certainly offensive – not even the strongest proponents of free speech will deny that. Yet it is no more deplorable than the response generated by radicals in the Muslim community, which in many cases has been a far larger embarrassment to the peaceful notions of Islam. Muslims feel offended by the cartoon because it depicts their prophet and faith as a violent one, yet they only further this perception if they react violently.
The ugliest of responses to the cartoon have come from some radical Islam’s own exercise of free speech. In a tit-for-tat move, an Iranian newspaper announced a contest seeking cartoons mocking the Holocaust, calling it a test of the West’s love for free speech. If Muslim cries to respect their precious religious symbols are to be taken seriously, they must condemn such actions by the most radical among them. Mocking Judaism, Christianity or any other faith is no more acceptable than mocking Islam; claiming to value religion while insulting all forms but your own has an inherent air of hypocrisy that works to nullify the Muslim cause.
As has been pointed out several times throughout this controversy, Muslims have no right to expect other cultures to live up to their notions of right and wrong. Yet does this rule not also apply to Western cultures? The inexcusable, violent reactions of a misguided minority aside, why do we expect the Muslim world to value our beloved free speech when we laugh at their notion of prohibiting all depictions of the prophet?
James Pinkerton of Newsday seemed to have an uncharacteristically astute understanding of the situation. He said: “It’s time for all of us to recognize that different cultures have different values . To draw such a distinction between West and East is not to endorse cultural relativism; it’s simply to take note of cultural reality.”
But Pinkerton’s perception of reality leads him to conclude the Muslim world is inherently the enemy of the West and must be held at bay at any cost. A contradiction arises again when he goes on to say speech that incites violence is not to be tolerated. Isn’t this the very argument for avoiding the publication of the inflammatory cartoons in question?
Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean you should. Behind the cartoon controversy lies a lack of understanding between cultures that, regardless of Pinkerton’s delusions, can no longer afford to remain secluded. The editor who originally published the cartoon has confessed a lack of understanding of the values of Islam. In Norway, the second paper to publish the cartoon has apologized, its editor admitting, as the Detroit Free Press reported, “he failed to foresee the pain and anger the drawings would cause.”
Don’t get me wrong – the Danish paper does have the right to portray the prophet Muhammad with a bomb on his head, but then the cartoon of Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler is also perfectly within the bounds of free speech. Yet both are disgusting and counterproductive depictions that serve no purpose and have no reason to be printed. Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune said: “Offense should always have a point . the Muhammad cartoons seem to do nothing more than provoke Muslims, including the vast majority of law-abiding Muslims.” Even free speech’s greatest champions must admit that there are some things that should not be said, even if they can be.
In the clamor over the concept of free speech, we must remember that it is an abstract construct which serves a purpose – to prevent the breakdown of society and the spread of tyranny. While refusing to print something because it may be offensive is the first step down the ill-trod path to censorship, publishing depictions whose only purpose is to offend and inflame is but a different path to the same societal deterioration that free speech seeks to avoid.
A better understanding of our own notion of free speech will reveal that while it is our favorite right, it is also the most misunderstood one. Without free speech, democracy is dead, but unless exercised properly, democracy will die at its hands. Alas, like every right, this is one that comes with responsibilities. In our world, that can only mean its failure.
Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.