One of the first
things I wrote after getting this job as a columnist was a defense
of Muslim sensibilities in the Salman Rushdie case. That was in
1989. Rushdie, already a prominent novelist, had just published
a devastating send-up of Islam in "The Satanic Verses."
The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's murder.
The author has been reclusive ever since. Like everyone else,
I was outraged and pointed out the obvious: In the West we don't
censor books or order hits on authors we don't like.
Still, I thought a
few words should be said for restraint when dealing with other
people's deep religious beliefs. I still believe that. So in the
current uproar over the cartoons of Muhammad printed in a Danish
newspaper, and eventually in other European papers, I have some
sympathy for Muslims, who believe it is blasphemous to create
images of Muhammad. In one of the 12 cartoons, Muhammad tells
dead suicide bombers he has run out of virgins to give them as
their reward. Another showed him in a bomb-shaped turban. But
the political barbs are almost beside the point. Even positive
images of Muhammad are offensive to Muslims as too close to idolatry.
It is not just extremists and street crazies who are complaining
about these cartoons. Muslim moderates and professionals are upset
If millions of people
think their faith is compromised by illustrations of a particular
religious figure, why not just drop the illustrations? Columnist
Charles Krauthammer once wrote that in America "pluralism
works because of a certain deference that sects accord each other.
In a pluralistic society, it is a civic responsibility to take
great care when talking publicly about things sacred to millions
of fellow citizens."
free speech in the 1989 Rushdie case, Leon Wieseltier of The
New Republic took a different and harder line. He said, "It
was blasphemy that made us free. Two cheers today for blasphemy."
That was a voice of the secular intelligentsia that doesn't hold
much sacred, dismissing the concern of supposedly backward people
This is why the cartoon
controversy has some people talking about Andre Serrano's alleged
artwork, "Piss Christ." In general, I support any artist's
attempt to turn his own urine into profitable commerce. But if
it had been a different image in there -- Martin Luther King Jr.
or Anne Frank, let's say, instead of Jesus -- I think we might
have heard less about free expression and more about pointless
The cartoon controversy
is an ugly one -- Muslim boycotts of Danish goods, death threats
against publications that ran the cartoon and against a number
of Christians and westerners in Arab countries. The editor of
the Danish newspaper issued an apology, and the managing editor
of a French paper that ran the images was fired.
My civility argument,
I think, is weakened by two problems. First, it is one thing to
call for civility and restraint in a nation that has a First Amendment
and lots of people willing to defend it. It is something else
in Europe where civility often has the power of the state behind
it, i.e. hate-speech laws. Some European nations are as eager
to punish speech as any American university. In France, charges
against Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci for anti-Muslim prose
were dropped. In June, she is scheduled to go on trial in Italy
on similar charges. A Protestant minister in Sweden was convicted
of making anti-homosexual remarks in church. He was unexpectedly
cleared by the Swedish Supreme Court.
Second, pressure to
avoid publishing things that offend Muslims has been rising, particularly
when death threats are made or expected. Fallaci, the target of
many such threats, is said to be in hiding in New York. Nobody
knows how many death threats have arisen from the cartoon dispute.
Under the circumstances, civility might emerge as less important
than standing up now to the danger of censorship through fear.
2006 John Leo
by Universal Press Syndicate