Friday, February 17, 2006

The Terrorists’ Veto

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

Link to view the Muhammad cartoons:

If the current controversy over the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s publication last September of 12 cartoons caricaturing Muhammad, the prophet and “messenger of God” whose revelations are at the heart of Islam, means anything at all, it’s that the rivalry between the largely Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim world really is “a clash of civilizations” — or, at the very least, a clash of cultures and values. Though the West has its own dark history of burning heretics, running inquisitions and doing witchhunts, at least in the last 250 years our proclaimed values have been those of the Enlightenment: human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The First Amendment embodies both arms of the Enlightenment’s attitude towards religion; it guarantees everyone the “free exercise” of religion, while prohibiting the government from passing laws that favor any one religion over another.

Those have never been the ruling values of the Muslim world. Jesus Christ essentially proclaimed the separation of church and state when he said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar, and unto God that which is God’s.” Muhammad not only represented himself as the “messenger of God” but fought and won a bloody war to gain the power of a Caesar. Christianity and Judaism speak to religious and spiritual concerns. Islam is a total system of submission (the literal meaning of the Arabic word “islam”) that has no limits; it not only rules its believers’ spiritual lives but provides a framework for how they shall be governed and how their families shall function. Though Islam — or at least some tendencies of it in some countries at some times — has granted a grudging tolerance to other religions (particularly the other Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Judaism), it has never believed in the freedom of conscience. In power, it has consistently demanded that those it rules, whether they believe in it or not, submit to its laws, doctrines and restrictions.

Among the restrictions of Islam is a rule that not only is the Prophet Muhammad not to be ridiculed or made fun of, either in word or image, but he is not to be depicted visually at all. The Muslims who are filling the streets in protest against the Jyllands-Posten images of their prophet and torching the embassies of Denmark and other European countries whose newspapers have reprinted the cartoons are shock troops in an attempt to force the rest of the world to abide by the laws of their religion. Free-speech attorneys use the phrase “the hecklers’ veto” to refer to meetings in which hostile members of the audience shout down a speaker and disrupt the proceedings so he or she cannot get his message out. What we are seeing in the cartoon controversy is a far deadlier and more evil version of the hecklers’ veto: the terrorists’ veto.

The demonstrations against European newspapers and governments in the Muslim world didn’t just “happen” spontaneously. They were organized last December at a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia — a city non-Muslims are barred from visiting at all, in a country where non-Muslim houses of worship are flatly banned. The OIC, which consists of leaders from 56 Muslim nations, was lobbied to get involved by a group of Danish Muslims called the European Community for Honoring the Prophet, whose spokesperson, Ahmed Akkari, a 28-year-old Lebanese immigrant to Denmark. Akkari said his group had worked for two months within Denmark to get the Danish government to take action against the newspaper, including circulating a petition that got 17,000 signatures, “but could get no action.”

Just what “action” he had in mind was revealed in a press release on the OIC’s Web site,, dated February 11, which paraphrased the group’s secretary-general, Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, “that the OIC Member States expect from the EU [European Union] to identify Islamophobia as a dangerous phenomenon and to observe and combat it like in the cases of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, by creating suitable observance mechanisms and revising its legislation, in order to prevent the recurrence of the recent unfortunate incidents in the future.” That means, in plain English, that the governments of the world’s Muslim countries expect the governments of Europe to police their citizens to make sure that no caricatures or images of Muhammad ever darken the pages of a European newspaper again.

Such demands are nothing new to Islam and its practitioners. When Salman Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988, and it contained an irreverent account of Muhammad’s conversations with the Angel Gabriel as well as a much more vicious caricature of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini (referred to in Rushdie’s book only as “The Imam”), Khomeini issued a fatwa — a religious decree — that said it was the sacred duty of all Muslims worldwide to kill Rushdie. The author spent over a decade in England under what was essentially house arrest, with a security guard provided by the British government to protect him against Muslim assassins, while two people who had done translations of his book actually were murdered.

The climate of fear that resulted was so powerful that, when Jyllands-Posten culture editor Flemming Rose sought an illustrator for a children’s book about Muhammad, three artists turned him down outright and the one he hired insisted on anonymity. It was this experience that led Rose to commission 12 Danish cartoonists to draw cartoons both depicting and commenting on Muhammad, creating the layout that was published last September and sparked the current controversy. “I was concerned about a tendency toward self-censorship among people in artistic and cultural circles in Europe,” Rose told Newsweek. “That’s why I commissioned these cartoons, to test this tendency and to start a debate about it.”

The threat against Europe’s newspapers today is essentially the threat against Salman Rushdie writ large, aimed not only at one author but against the entire concept of a free press. And when Muslim activists demand that Western blood must be shed to avenge the insult on their Prophet, they are all too believable. In the last five years, four major Western cities — New York, Washington, D.C., Madrid and London — have been successfully attacked by Islamic terrorists. Everyone in the world knows what the threat of “another 9/11” means. The aim, as shown by the statements and actions of the OIC as well as the demonstrators themselves, is to terrorize the Western world into submission (“islam”) with the threat of further violence.

And so far, it’s working. An editor who reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in a major French paper was fired. French president Jacques Chirac asked his country’s publications not to publish the cartoons and told his Cabinet he condemned “all obvious provocations likely to dangerously kindle passions.” In the U.S., virtually no newspapers, TV stations or mainstream media Web sites have shown the cartoons at all. CNN, which for a year after 9/11 had a policy that deaths of civilians in the U.S. attack on Afghanistan could not be reported unless the on-air journalist immediately reminded viewers that 3,000 people had been killed on 9/11, now piously insists that they’re not showing the cartoons on screen or Web page “out of respect for Islam.”

At least the Boston Phoenix was honest. Its editors admitted that they decided not to print the Jyllands-Posten cartoons “out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy.”

It’s not like our hands are entirely clean on these issues. In the U.S. we’ve had former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson openly calling for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and saying that Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke was God’s revenge against him for pulling the Israeli occupation forces out of Gaza. We’ve had Christians equally incensed over works of art like Andrés Serrano’s Piss Christ — a crucifix displayed in a jar of the artist’s urine — and Chris Ofili’s feces-smeared painting of the Virgin Mary. But at least they pursued their grievances through the political process — attacking the public subsidies given to those artists and the museums which exhibited them — rather than threatening to kill the artists and blow up the museums.

That’s the basic difference between the West and the Muslim world. We don’t always live up to our ideals of freedom and human rights — indeed, the Bush administration has run roughshod over them in pursuit of the so-called “war on terror” — but the Islamic world doesn’t value freedom and human rights at all. We need to put them on notice that this is the 21st century; that we don’t burn witches and heretics at the stake anymore; and that the freedom to practice one’s religion (or none at all) includes the freedom to ridicule someone else’s religion and the need to react in a calm, measured fashion when one’s own religion is the subject of ridicule. Jyllands-Posten and its editors have performed a rare act of courage, they deserve to be commended for it, and those cartoons ought to be emblazoned on every newspaper front page, TV screen and Web page everywhere in the civilized world until Islam’s practitioners learn to get over it and get their heads out of the Middle Ages.