Monday, February 20, 2006

The Terrorists' Veto


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

NOTE: This is the version of this editorial that will appear in print in the March 2006 edition of Zenger's Newsmagazine. A previous version published to this blog was a first draft.

Since the Islamist terrorists of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda (“The Base”) attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 I’ve written a lot of words critiquing the bizarre combination of bullying and idiocy that has characterized the U.S. response. I’ve asked embarrassing questions like why, when the people who actually did 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the U.S. retaliated by attacking Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve opposed the blatant violations of civil liberties by the U.S. government both at home — the USA PATRIOT Act, the “special registration” requirements imposed on legal immigrants from 25 countries (all but one of them with Muslim majorities) and the recently revealed secret, illegal wiretaps against American citizens — and abroad: the detention centers at Guantánamo and Bagram, the tortures at Abu Ghraib, the “extraordinary renditions” of alleged terror suspects to countries where they would be tortured and the network of secret prisons set up by the CIA.

What I haven’t really dwelled on — partly because it hadn’t seemed necessary, given the way America’s mainstream media have covered these stories, and partly because I didn’t want to be put in a position of appearing to condone racist or religious prejudice against Muslims and Middle Easterners — is that there really is a “clash of civilizations,” or at least a clash of cultures and values, between the West and radical Islam. The West believes in freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and it’s made at least some progress towards acknowledging racial and gender equality. Radical Islam believes in none of those things. The West believes in what Thomas Jefferson called “a wall of separation” between church and state. Radical Islamists believe in Islam as a total system that dictates not only religion but law, politics and even family life. Christianity was founded by a prophet who said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” Islam was founded by a prophet who not only represented himself as the “messenger of God” but sought and achieved the power of a Caesar.

The flaming (literally and figuratively) controversy over the cartoon caricatures of Muhammad published by Jyllands-Posten, a small-circulation newspaper hitherto unknown outside of its native Denmark, last September has highlighted the gulf between the Western world and radical Islam. The West doesn’t always live up to its proclaimed ideals — the above catalogue of human-rights abuses by the Bush administration in the name of the “war on terror” proves that — but radical Islam still believes in ideas the West gave up long ago: heresy trials, witch hunts, the Inquisition and the idea that “respect” for their religion should be enshrined in civil law and that even nonbelievers who criticize or ridicule Islam should be punished, often with death.
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, he is not to be depicted visually at all. The Islamists 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 attempting 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 so he or she cannot get his message out. What we are seeing in the cartoon controversy is a far more sinister 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), which consists of leaders from 56 Muslim nations, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia — Islam’s holiest city and one non-Muslims are barred from visiting at all. A press release on the OIC’s Web site,, dated February 11, paraphrased the group’s secretary-general, Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, as saying “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.” To me, that seems to mean 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 radical 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. More recently, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh — great-grandnephew of the famous painter — was brutally murdered by a Muslim extremist in protest against his 15-minute film attacking Islam’s treatment of women.

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.”

Alas, instead of rising to the “debate” Rose called for, all too many officials in Western governments and media companies are caving in to the Islamists’ demands. 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. 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 by radical Islamic terrorists on 9/11, now piously insists that they’re not showing the cartoons on screen or Web page “out of respect for Islam.”

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.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the cartoon controversy is that righteous revulsion over the Islamists’ demands that we censor ourselves in the name of a religion we don’t believe in will only fuel the uglier aspects of the “war on terror”: more “special registration” programs and long-term detentions targeting people from Muslim countries, restrictions on immigration, racial profiling of Arabs and others from majority-Muslim countries and racist hate crimes against them. Certainly people in Muslim countries have plenty of legitimate grievances against the West, from the European colonization of the Middle East after World War I to the formation of Israel on Palestinian land and Israel’s subsequent quasi-fascist occupation against Palestinians, the U.S. aggression against Iraq and our treatment of most of the Middle East as if it were a giant ATM that dispensed oil instead of cash. But these do not justify the violence being inflicted on European embassies or the dark threats of “another 9/11” aimed at getting us to give up our right to freedom of expression where Islam is concerned. Muslims need to come together, reject both the demands and the tactics of the radical Islamists and learn to live in a free world in which the right to practice one’s own religion comes with the obligation to tolerate others who criticize or even ridicule it.