The row over the cartoons of the Prophet has pitted freedom of speech against the concept of blasphemy and looks at first sight like a head-on clash of secular and religious traditions. This is pretty much how the French press came to see it once the trouble erupted again, following the reprints in France Soir. It’s the kind of problem that crops up from time to time, said Charb, a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, and the best solution is for offended parties to go to law. Right-wing Catholics and fringe Muslim groups had already had a go at Charlie Hebdo in the past and they’d done so in the courts. That struck him as reasonable. But then, as he hastened to add in an interview for Libération, Charlie hadn’t lost the cases. That was before it published the 12 Danish cartoons plus a handful of its own and had another case against it thrown out on a technicality.

The press in Continental Europe has gone about insulting Muslims, and defending its right to do so, with a zeal which ought to alert us to the fact that this is an ‘all-faith’ conflict, with staunch believers in either corner: ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ are more the trappings of the fighters’ retinue. The solemn talk about democratic values, the dire imprecations of the ultra-godly, the pious tantrums: these are among the reasons neither opponent can quite pick the other out, let alone the end of his own arm. From time to time it must be tempting to take a wild swing. Torching a legation in the Middle East is one possibility. Another is to flail around with such commendable gusto as to propel oneself over the ropes and into the crowd, leaving the adversary untouched. In a recent opinion piece for Le Figaro, Renaud Girard, a senior foreign correspondent, gave a spirited show of how this is best achieved, on an off day, by an intelligent heavyweight (‘grand reporteur au service étranger’). ‘If the 5000 Muslims who demonstrated in Brussels are so horrified by the Western values of freedom and secularism,’ he declared . . . the rest is easy to guess.

Not every advocate of the right to break a religious taboo believes that European Muslims who find it upsetting should pack up their grievances and head for Saudi Arabia – Girard’s destination of choice. There are more serious points to make. Many insist very reasonably on a qualitative difference between acts of imaginative or rhetorical violence, on the one hand, and acts of physical violence, on the other. Yet even here it’s hard to draw the line. Lynndie England, the little chicken-plucker at Abu Ghraib, would have winked at the distinction: with a bit of ingenuity you can inflict lasting damage without using outright physical violence. Editors, reporters, cartoonists and cameramen, who spend so much of their time trying to maximise the effects of language and imagery, are the first to acknowledge the power of the symbolic order. Preachers and politicians understand it. Abu Hamza gets it.

The source of this row was a debatable wish on the part of the Danish children’s author Kåre Bluitgen to find an illustrator for his book about Islam. Artists seemed to know about representations of the Prophet and at the time – last summer – he couldn’t find anyone to do the job. (Apparently the book has since been published, with illustrations.) The editors at Jyllands-Posten, horrified like the rest of the Danish press and public about the murder of Theo van Gogh, the man who used to call Jesus ‘the rotten fish of Nazareth’, saw this as a dire state of affairs. There was also anger about the nervy cancellation of a screening of van Gogh’s Submission (screenplay by Ayaan Hirsi Ali) at the European Parliament press centre last April. The paper commissioned the cartoons in a bid to fight the insidious pressure of ‘self-censorship’. Now a largely conservative Continental press has lined up like a bunch of drunk undergraduates, convinced of their rectitude, to moon at conservative Muslim sentiment.

‘Slay those who insult Islam’: a placard at the demonstration outside the Danish Embassy in London. This kind of ‘Islamic’ dissent and the people who express it simply strike us as grotesque: full-dress aliens, perfectly wardrobed as the Other, ranting fire and brimstone. But it may be safer, in trying to explain why a free press is so important – and a press that is free to give offence – not to fall back on the word ‘democracy’. Many people who think like the demonstrators, and millions who don’t, remember the Islamic Salvation Front being denied their victory at the polls in Algeria in 1991 (it was the wrong result); they see all the tut-tutting about the recent Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections (wrong result); they watch as the murderous gift of democracy is bestowed on Iraq. In these contexts, you would be likely to approach democracy in the way a scientist examines a dangerous virus or a villager circles the wreck of a downed aircraft. A better argument is surely that Europeans were inveterate scribblers, muckrakers, sedition-mongers, pamphleteers and blasphemers long before the advent of universal suffrage and that we wish this admirable tradition to survive in the era of consumer democracy and its dominant Anglo-Saxon version: democracy-as-shopping-and-bombing. That’s humane, precision shopping, of course.

In return for acknowledging this tradition? The possibility that the press won’t always worship at the shrine of its own self-importance. There is something tacky and melodramatic, especially post-Communism, about European editors rediscovering self-censorship as a sinister, internalised instruction that holds them back from the fullness of democratic genius. Earlier generations might have thought of the same impulse as a kind of acumen. In any case self-censorship isn’t an entirely useless faculty: it’s part of the wider set of restraints that can help brash, in-your-face cultures from toppling into utter incontinence.

Anyone who visited Bradford ten years after the publication of The Satanic Verses and canvassed opinion about the whole affair would have found a healthy self-consciousness among the city’s Muslim community that included a real measure of shame. But that was before 9/11 and the current misadventures in the Middle East; Western opinion was less convinced, in those days, that an ‘open’ society must draw its enemies into the open, as the European press has done. How this differs from piling one enmity on top of another is probably an issue they mean to get around to, when they have a moment.

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Vol. 28 No. 5 · 9 March 2006

Christopher Prendergast
University of Copenhagen

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