For anyone who has taken interest in the heated debate over the Muhammad Cartoons, I strongly recommend reading this Washington Post column written by Fleming Rose — the man who made the decision to print the images. In the piece he explain why he thought it important to put them in the paper. He also reflects on the debate that has followed, and his thoughts are sober and reasonable.
Censorship is an evil, but self-censorship may be equally harmful. It is, of course, important to distiguish between self-censorship and ordinary decisions to not publish, perhaps due to lack of quality or — indeed — due to offensiveness. But it is a fact that threats towards people putting out works critisising Islam, like Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses or Theo van Gogh and his movie Submission, has had a strong restraining effect in the Western world. There’s no hesitation to write or paint negatively about Christianity (and there shouldn’t be), but when it comes to Islam it’s a different story entirely. A few examples are given in Rose’s column. This is potentially very dangerous; in part because giving in to pressure leads to more pressure, and in part because it shows the lack of willingness to defend the universal humanist values that Westerners have fought so hard to achieve. Freedom can never be taken for granted.
As I’ve said before this does not mean that I lack understanding of why some people felt offended. But they have to deal with it, just as I’ve got to deal with racists writing about the superiority of the Aryans.
In order to avoid straying too far from the subject, here’s a short quote from Rose’s readable column:
I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn’t to provoke gratuitously — and we certainly didn’t intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.
Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn’t intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.
I feel this last point to be particularly important.