Thursday, September 21, 2006

Will I defend to the death your right to say it?

Or will I kill you for what you say?

As a South African of a particular generation, albeit a white one, freedom and freedom of speech have always been very cherished concepts. Which is why, as a left-leaning sort who hung around other lefties, some of whom didn’t just lean but had actually fallen over, I found their comparisons of Thatcher with Hitler an affront. No matter how right-wing she was and despite her authoritarian tendencies, she was a democratically elected leader whose political life depended on the ballot box.

So, it is with increasing dismay that I view the depressing effects of how Muslim extremism is setting the political agenda and managing to curtail freedom of speech. Other, far more articulate and erudite, commentators get this point across far more effectively than I can, so I’ll resort to quoting them rather than come up with my own words and arguments:

Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post:
Nothing the pope has ever said comes even close to matching the vitriol, extremism and hatred that pour out of the mouths of radical imams and fanatical clerics every day, all across Europe and the Muslim world, almost none of which ever provokes any Western response at all. And maybe it's time that it should: When Saudi Arabia publishes textbooks commanding good Wahhabi Muslims to "hate" Christians, Jews and non-Wahhabi Muslims, for example, why shouldn't the Vatican, the Southern Baptists, Britain's chief rabbi and the Council on American-Islamic Relations all condemn them -- simultaneously?

Maybe it's a pipe dream: The day when the White House and Greenpeace can issue a joint statement is surely distant indeed. But if stray comments by Western leaders -- not to mention Western films, books, cartoons, traditions and values -- are going to inspire regular violence, I don't feel that it's asking too much for the West to quit saying sorry and unite, occasionally, in its own defense.


William Rees-Mogg in The Times:
The question is not whether the quotation from the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus is offensive: it is.

The question is whether the emperor is justified in what he said. His main thrust was at least partly justified. There is a real problem about the teaching of the Koran on violence against the infidel. That existed in the 14th century, and was demonstrated on 9/11, 2001. There is every reason to discuss it. I am more afraid of silence than offence.


From Der Spiegel:
But the attacks against the pope are especially grotesque. The severe criticism -- often coupled with threats of violence -- directed at the speech held last Tuesday by Benedict XVI is not just an attack on the head of the Catholic Church. The malicious twisting of the pope's words and the absurd allegations made by representatives of Islam represent a frontal attack on open religious and philosophical dialogue.

That so many in the Muslim world joined the protests against the pope merely show just how influential Islamist extremist groups have become. The political goal of the Islamists is clear: any dispute between Christianity and Islam must obey the rules handed down by political Islamism.

Bending to this demand would be a mistake -- indeed it would be tantamount to turning one's back on freedom of expression and opinion. What will come next? Perhaps a complaint that Allah feels insulted by the numerous European women who don bikinis during a summer trip to the beach. It could be anything really -- militant Islamists will always find something. But the response needs to be firm. Freedom of speech, after all, is a vital value and needs to be defended. Any attempt to make political speech hostage to some imagined will of God must be resisted.


I’m one of the first to admit antipathy towards the Catholic Church, being fully aware of the atrocities perpetuated under its name in times past and the present atrocity of preaching against the use of condoms. So, I’m no apologist for the Pope and the Catholic Church. In fact, I’m almost a subscriber to the rather simplistic notion that all religion should be abolished as it has been and continues to be such a cause of conflict. But, despite my decade of idealistic youth having long gone, I do still cherish freedom of speech even if my understanding of it has taken a battering.

I fully understand how the actions of the West have angered Muslims but their grievances, often justified, are done no favours by irrational, often violent, reactions to any perceived slight from the ‘infidel’. Some would argue that knowing that such reactions are not uncommon, one needs to be careful about what one says and how one says it. As with greater power requiring greater responsibility (Uncle Ben to Peter Parker/Spider-man), you could argue that greater freedom requires the same and, therefore, freedom of speech should be about provoking meaningful debate and not about being deliberately insulting. The Pope’s recent remarks were provocative, deliberately so, but definitely not insulting. The Danish cartoon debacle could have been described as deliberately provocative and insulting although the worldwide Muslim reaction was completely irrational and inappropriate.

There's no reason to respond to every presumed insult. Consider an example from Denmark. Recently, a paper there published a number of rather tasteless Holocaust cartoons which had been shown in Tehran. The reaction of Copenhagen's rabbi was instructive when considered against the bloody response to the Muhammad cartoons -- outrage which ended up costing lives. When asked if he would call for protests, the rabbi merely said: "You know, I've seen worse."

Voltaire is attributed with having said, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This appears to have been a corruption of something he really did say, 'I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.' At one stage I would have happily claimed to subscribe to such a sentiment but when freedom of speech is threatened with death you begin to think that Voltaire was being impossibly and impractically noble.

16 Comments:

Anonymous kyknoord said...

Hmm... for some reason, I am reminded of another quote: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

1:23 pm  
Blogger andrea said...

Thanks for the balanced perspective, N. It actually made me realise that as a lefty I have sunken into the default position of defending anything that might provoke the American right, especially when faced with a debate with anyone of a right-leaning perspective. It's a reflex action. Must. Learn. To. Stop. And. Think. First.

5:36 pm  
Anonymous xmichra said...

well written Nomad.. and it does make you think, even if you are not politically aligned (like myself). I find that politics and religion are prisions man made to justify war. It's all bull to me.

But that is just me.

Still, when starting out a sentance with "i have the right..." you are going to look for trouble. No matter if you indeed do have that 'right' someone on the otherside will think differently. It's all in perspective and wording.

6:28 pm  
Anonymous nyasha said...

it is a can of worms! the cartoon issue in Denmark caused so much controversy in the middle East and further East that most here can't understand how "innocent" cartoons could have such an effect.
To be fair, i can't either. The cartoons and the papal statement had not hidden intentions to insult or provoke. Free press, free speech, and of course we have a laugh at a bit of sarcasm, black humour, and we riducule everything and everyone. Hugo Chavez just referred to Dubya as the "devil" in a speech at the UN. Should he be scared for his life now?
I don't know.... this subject got me very agitated earlier on this year... and i feel it coming back now. Let me go have a chamomile tea and i will be back! :D

10:06 pm  
Anonymous Sir Check said...

Impossibly and impractically noble, you say? So is it better to bend and accept the will of somebody/something more powerful in order to save your life even if that means compromising your beliefs? Perhaps you can do it and stay morally sound. Perhaps life itself is more precious than quality of life. Perhaps...

Have you actually noticed that you defend the right of the ‘Western world’ to free speech while denying the ‘Eastern world’ its right to 'exaggerated' reaction? Not to mention that the reaction we see on TV and read about in the newspapers is the reaction media deem appropriate for the news. Surely the coverage is balanced and fair… Surely…

11:59 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

kyknoord: But they used cushions, not suicide bombers!!

andrea : I’ve been guilty of that sort of thing in the past. When talking to my in-laws, traditional racists, about S African politics in the eighties, there were times when I’d be inclined to censor some of my beliefs/thoughts as I knew they’d provide ammunition for their way of thinking even though that wasn’t the intention.

These days, many on the left (and many feminists) find it hard not to side with anything that is the enemy of the right, particularly the American right. Just because they are against the war in Iraq, some feminists will be quiet on abuses of women in the Middle East because they feel it diminishes their arguments against the war. Others who believe in cultural relativism will be quiet on human rights abuses committed by others (not just the Middle East) whereas those same human rights abuses would be railed against if they happened in the West. Etc, etc, etc…..

xmichra: This post was a bit of a boring rant but it really does bother me that the political agenda has been hi-jacked by extremists, religious ones at that.

Extreme positions can be justified, in my opinion, where there is no democratic way of making your voice heard – many of the guerrilla/freedom wars in Africa fell into that category. I’m sure that some would argue that the dominance of the West, fuelled by the hypocrisies of Western foreign policy when it comes to oil and slavish support of Israel, are reasons for resorting to extreme behaviour. They have a point…But, Islamic extremism is not about human rights, it is about imposing and exporting a system that contributes towards the denial of human rights.

While I understand your sentiments about religion and politics and I can see why people want to remove themselves from both, politics are always there and will always affect your life in some way. Often they can be ignored but when/if they begin to affect your life that is where you need to show some involvement even if it is just voting.

nyasha : It also got me very agitated earlier on in the year and the agitation has returned. Agitated to the extent that I can feel myself wanting to espouse sentiments that feel quite foreign to me, eg ‘If they hate it so much in the West, why don’t they go live somewhere where they’d obviously prefer to me, like Iraq?’

It’s fascinating/horrifying to see how second (and third) generation Muslims in Britain (and elsewhere in Europe) have become so radicalised despite growing up so differently and in homes that don’t espouse the same beliefs. Interestingly, the US Muslim population, these days even bigger than the US Jewish population, show negligible signs of radicalisation even though 9/11 has made the rest of the population slightly wary of them.

The American ‘melting pot’ approach to immigration, attracting immigrants who want to go there as opposed to arriving there through the vagaries of past colonial connections, seems to have been more successful in making people feel that they belong without having to lose their cultural heritage.


Sir Check: Those are big moral questions, the sort that the West had thought were no longer necessary. How many people do you think would flock to sign up for a war as they did for the two world wars? Not that many, I suspect.

Although Francis Fukuyama was wrong when he talked of the ‘end of history’ at the end of the cold war, wealth and liberal democracy in the West seems to have made people much ‘softer’ in the sense that having ‘won the war’, they no longer have the moral fibre to fight any subsequent wars. But, if Huntington is right about ‘the clash of civilisations’, we’ll probably see a return of the spirit that readily fought previous wars.

Of course I defend ‘free speech’ (and not just in the Western World!!) against ‘exaggerated reaction’ as the latter leads to violence and mayhem and the former leads to reasoned debate which, sometimes, even leads to change. ‘Exaggerated reaction’ equates to force and not to persuasion that is readily accepted, no matter how slow that acceptance may be. Yes, recently, we’ve seen free speech leading to the same when it provokes those who are prone to exaggerated reaction (ironically mostly in Muslim countries) but that reaction will alienate and not persuade, no matter how much fear it provokes. It is sad, however, to see how exaggerated reaction has started eroding at freedoms that were taken for granted.

As for the news, what we see in the West may not be perfectly balanced, whether as a result of not presenting the complete picture or because other viewpoints, while given, are not given equal prominence, but it much more balanced than what is presented in the Middle East.

9:52 am  
Blogger Terri said...

I would probably fall somewhere left of right and right of left so I'm not going to argue both sides here.
What I am going to say is that there's an awful amount of hate and distrust going on in the world at the moment on a global scale and it makes me very, very nervous.
It's like storm clouds brewing.

10:25 am  
Anonymous nyasha said...

excellent exegesis Nomad. Love reading your posts and then your comments to the comments.
The debate today is no longer one of West vs. East or of the strong on the weak, the colonials vs. the colonised. It has become so complex, it is no longer the big issues that incite conflict, it is the little details. A word, a sentence misplaced or out of context will transform itself into a monster and cause havoc like the author(s) could not have predicted.
We live in a global society, where as you said it is a melting pot of cultures, beliefs, religions, backgrounds, etc... and we live next to each other, we shop in the same shops, we attend the same schools, we use the same public transport. But, despite the global aspect of it, we all very much cling and stick to our "support" group. I see that everywhere in Europe. And it is this factor that drives people to move away from the togetherness of the community and the fact that we all live in the same country, we hang out in groups that have the same beliefs, etc.... and this ultimately is conducive to extremism.
I have friends from all walks of life, having grown up in Africa and in 5 different countries in Europe, i am not picky when chosing my friends. I have friends of all colours, backgrounds, educational levels, poor & rich, muslim, jewish, christian, atheists etc... however, when debates like the danish cartoons arise, you will see myself go back to my "support" group and i will have harsh opinions like i never thought i could have. I become in some ways an extremist. And i hate that.
The best book to read is "Jihad vs. McWorld" - a synopsis of society today. Eventhough we live in a world of globalisation, we are more nationalistic and drawing back to our ethnic roots today than ever before.
phew, that was a long comment..... had to get it out.

12:49 pm  
Anonymous xmichra said...

this post was not boring. It was a well thought out and articulate rant. Much more conducive to your point I would think, then my profanity and gut wording. Now for the boring part...

I agree with you that politics and religion do affect me. Every day. But I do not need to condone or rationalize or accept that. I am lucky, where I live in a place that doesn’t step down on my living my life my way. And I am lucky that while I can do this.. the worst things in my government are nothing compared to the atrocities in other nations. So yes, if I had a different kind of life, and did not have the luxury to choose weather or not I wanted to participate in all the religious and political crap… then I imagine I may have a difference of opinion there. However, I have this one : I do not participate in things that I find harmful. Sure, this may seem extremist to put politics, religion and shooting up heroin in the same category. But to me, they are all the same. It’s all a bunch of crap that can do only harm. In the long run, religion and politics are there to ‘run’ your life. Why men decided this was a good thing, I will never know. But I am choosing to not be a party to something so archaic and stunted. The more the world tries to ‘get along’ the more separated we become.

Acceptance is a hard concept to most, and that is why these are problems in the first place. All I can do is make my house and my life as hate free as possible, and accept that although others have a different belief than I do.. it’s just as valid.

But, having said that.. I do not think that voting for the sheer purpose of “I can” is any solution. Voting for what you believe in, yes. But not taking the options you have available and making the best color mud. That, to me, is a complete waste of time. The people we have to vote for in our country are all the same really. It’s just a difference of corruption. So it doesn’t matter who is in the drivers seat. They are all in the car.

Once again, something the luxury of my country provides. My life is not in peril for voting. So maybe I am in a lax position and come by my opinion quite easily. But I am still entitled to them. Like what I was saying with the “I have the right…” comment. Very sketchy when everyone has a different way of perception.

6:13 pm  
Blogger Aref said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:07 pm  
Blogger Aref said...

As an Arab Muslim, I view the statements uttered by the Pope, a religious figure, as extremely offensive. The Pope should be a force of moderation and mutual understanding between adherents of Islam and Christianity. There are so many similarities between these two great faiths that one can build upon.

As an Arab Muslim, I see the West's hypocrisy when it comes to the cartoon affair. Offensive cartoons about a Prophet revered by 1.4 billion muslims around the world are ok, but let me ask you this: what would the average European's reaction be, had someone made cartoons that ridicule the Holocaust? Does freedom of speech end there?

Let me propose a very simple paradigm: freedom of speech is sacred. But offending and ostracizing millions is stupid.

As a Muslim who has lived in both the US and Europe, I believe that the West needs to learn more about Islam, and, among other things, the West needs to learn that Islam demands that its adherents believe in Jesus and Moses and all the other prophets. Islam teaches us that these prophets came with earlier messages from the same God. The converse is not the same, and thus Islam is, effectively, more tolerant than Christianity or Judaism.

Finally, and in both sides of the world, politicians will forever build upon our differences in order to hide their own incompetencies (when it comes to domestic policy) and in order to rally their own people behind a sick and base feeling: xenophobia, or fear of the other.

1:14 pm  
Anonymous Stephen said...

Here is a bit of sanity from the Bible : Once upon a time there was a man called Gideon. He was pretty angry that a false god called Baal was being worshiped in his country. So he destroyed Baal's altar. You can imagine the fury and offence this caused to Baal's followers. So they came to Gideon's dad's house and demanded that Gideon be handed over for execution. But Gideon's dad had a bit more sense than that. He said basically "If Baal's mad, he can take it up with Gideon himself. But you lot aren't laying a finger on my son." The Christian God instructs His followers to live by this same principle : "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Allah must be pretty feeble and unsure of himself if he needs a posse of angry imams and mobs of international terrorists to do his dirty work for him.

2:40 pm  
Blogger catsilvermoon said...

I am thankful for free speech and I am ever so thankful for the internet-so that those of many cultures and places can have discourse like this. I really like this blog. Very intelligent and thought provoking, not only for the original posts but for the follow up comments. Here's to the freedom of speaking one's mind and the ability to hear other's points of view.

3:56 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why the bending over backwards to apologize for those cartoons? they surely were insulting, and surely intended to insult. their target was radical fascists who promote violence and intolerance. they are deserving of insult.

what if nazis complained about cartoons insulting hitler? should we say, "sorry", and "we didn't mean to offend"?

violent fanatical fascists feel they deserve the "right" to suicide bomb people, but we don't have a right to voice our objection. those promoting violence and intolerance have no right to demand tolerance for their intolerance. Intolerant people have forfeited their right to be treated with tolerance.

incidentally, the cartoons supposedly violated the muslim law to not depict muhammed in pictures. but that is a muslim law-- it applies to muslims. as a catholic, i would have no right to force non-catholics to obey the laws of my religion.

Radical muslims don't seem to understand this idea:
"We [Muslims] do not need lessons in democracy, but it is actually us, who through our deeds and speeches educate the whole world in democracy."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akkari-Laban_dossier

At least some of the cartoons were not intended to attack the Muslim religion, only the violent fanatics. As the cartoonist who had drawn the 'bomb in turban' picture explained, it is not "about Islam as a whole. It is about certain fundamentalist aspects."

i agree with the author of this blog. and i enjoy his eloquence as well.

7:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aref said...

"what would the average European's reaction be, had someone made cartoons that ridicule the Holocaust?"
--that's not a legitimate comparison, because the victims of the Holocaust were just that: victims. Fanatical adherents to Islam claim to be god's bombers, with a mission to slaughter infidels.

"offending and ostracizing millions is stupid."
--Muslims who perpetrate wholesale slaughter of non-believers are stupid and offensive, and deserve to be ostracized.

"the West needs to learn more about Islam"
-Why? You have your path, I have mine. Why must you push your faith on me? I'm not interested. And, the West's missionaries should not push their faiths on the rest of the world either.

"the West needs to learn that Islam demands that its adherents believe in Jesus and Moses and all the other prophets."
--and MY faith is not concerned with any prophets. Respect that too.

"Islam teaches us that these prophets came with earlier messages from the same God. The converse is not the same, and thus Islam is, effectively, more tolerant than Christianity or Judaism."
--False. "Tolerance" is not defined by whether your philosophy accepts my philosophy; tolerance is when you accept me, and i accept you. In terms of people simply accepting other people, christianity and islam both have a bloody history of intolerance.

"politicians will forever build upon our differences"
--I agree. But most religions are ultimately in conflict-- it's unavoidable. Most religions ultimately demonize and damn non-adherents. Few spiritual paths truly celebrate the dignity and sacredness of all life and all people everywhere. Christianity and Islam are not among them.

5:17 pm  
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