March 3, 2006
Publish or Perish: The Lessons of the Cartoon Jihad
issue of the "cartoon jihad"—the Muslim riots
and death threats against a Danish newspaper that printed 12 cartoons
depicting Mohammed—is obvious. The issue is freedom of speech:
whether our freedom to think, write, and draw is to be subjugated
to the "religious sensitivities" of anyone who threatens
us with force.
That is why it is necessary for every newspaper and magazine
to re-publish those cartoons, as I will do in the next print issue
of The Intellectual Activist. Click here.
This is not merely a symbolic expression of support;
it is a practical countermeasure against censorship. Censorship—
especially the violent, anarchic type threatened by Muslim fanatics—is
effective only when it can isolate a specific victim, making him
feel as if he alone bears the brunt of the danger. What intimidates
an artist or writer is not simply some Arab fanatic in the street
carrying a placard that reads "Behead those who insult Islam."
What intimidates him is the feeling that, when the beheaders come
after him, he will be on his own, with no allies or defenders—that
everyone else will be too cowardly to stick their necks out.
The answer, for publishers, is to tell the Muslim fanatics that
they can't single out any one author, or artist, or publication.
The answer is to show that we're all united in defying the fanatics.
That's what it means to show "solidarity" by re-publishing
the cartoons. The message we need to send is: if you want to kill
anyone who publishes those cartoons, or anyone who makes cartoons
of Mohammed, then you're going to have to kill us all. If you
make war on one independent mind, you're making war on all of
us. And we'll fight back.
But the issue of freedom of speech is too clear, and too well
settled, in the West, to be worth spending much time debating
it. What is far more interesting is the fact that such a debate
is occurring, nonetheless.
This is a fact from which the Western world can draw some crucially
The West has long been aware that, while we hold freedom of speech
as a centerpiece of our liberty, the Muslim world does not recognize
this freedom. Before now, however, our worlds have rarely collided.
The Muslims have not usually dared to extend their dictatorial
systems to control our own behavior within our own cities. The
Salman Rushdie affair—the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 death
edict against the "blasphemous" novelist—was an
ominous warning, but Americans did not take it seriously.
Now, seventeen years later, the Muslim fanatics are making it
clear: you don't have to come to our country, you don't have to
be a Muslim. Even in your own countries and under your own laws,
you will not be safe from our intimidation.
For the whole Western world, this is an opportunity to learn
an important truth about the goal of the Islamists. Their goal
is not to achieve any specific political demand or settlement.
Their goal is submission: our submission to their will, to their
laws, to their dictatorship—our submission, not just to
one demand, but to any demand the Muslim mobs care to make.
Europe particularly needs to learn this lesson. The Europeans
have deluded themselves into thinking that this is our fight.
If only Israel weren't so intransigent, if only the US weren't
so belligerent, they told themselves—if only those cowboys
didn't insist on stirring up trouble, we could all live in peace
with the Muslims. And they have deluded themselves into thinking
that they can seek a separate peace, that having the Danish flag
on your backpack—as one bewildered young Dane described
it—would guarantee that you could go anywhere in the world
and be regarded as safe, as innocuous.
Now the Europeans know better. With cries of "Death to Israel"
and "Death to American" now being joined by cries of
"Death to Denmark", every honest European can now see
that they are in this fight, too—and they are closer to
the front lines than we are. Threats against American cartoonists,
when anyone bothers to make them, are toothless; there is no mob
of violent young Muslims in the United States to carry them out.
European writers and filmmakers, by contrast, are already being
murdered in the streets. The first people to find themselves living
under the sword of a would-be Muslim caliphate are Europeans,
The lesson here is not just that the Islamist ideology of dictatorship
is a threat to Europe. It is also that the dictatorships themselves
are a threat. The advocates of cynical European "realpolitik"
deluded themselves into thinking that, if they just made the right
kind of deals with Saddam Hussein, or with the Iranian regime,
or with the Syrian regime, then the dictatorships over there would
have no impact on us over here.
But we can now see that the anti-Danish riots did not explode
spontaneously: they were instigated by the dictators, by the regimes
in Iran and Syria. To their credit, Danish
Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and now US
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been pointing out
this connection. The lesson for Europe: if you accommodate and
appease the dictators, they won't leave you alone. Having gotten
some of what they want, they will come after you and take the
rest. Europe ought to have learned that lesson, at terrible cost,
in 1939; this ought to refresh their memory.
If we want to know why these lessons have not been learned before
now, the cartoon jihad also gives us clues to the answer. Note
that those who are supposed to help us learn those lessons—the
left-leaning intellectuals and newspaper editors, the people who
have traditionally posed as the brave defenders of free speech—have
been the first to collapse in abject submission to Muslim sensibilities.
The New York Times, for example, dismissed the cartoons
as "juvenile" and explained that refusing to publish
even a single image of the cartoons "seems a reasonable choice
for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults
on religious symbols."
Note how the New York Times—like many other left-leaning
newspapers—hides behind the evasion that the Danish cartoons
are "silly" or "juvenile." On the contrary:
the best of the Danish cartoons provided a far more serious, hard-hitting,
thought-provoking commentary than has been provided in the pages
of these same newspapers. While the mainstream media has drooled
that Islam is "a religion of peace"—in the midst
of yet another Muslim war—it was left to a Danish cartoonists
to suggest that Mohammed himself, and the religion he represents,
might be the bomb that has set off all of this violence. (To see
these cartoons, go to the simply named website muhammadcartoons.com.
But the prize for most abject surrender to Muslim dictatorship
has to go to the leftist academics. The first to decry the Bush
administration as a creeping "fascist" dictatorship,
they are, perversely, the first to fawn in admiration before the
world's actual fascists. If you think that's an exaggeration,
read an op-ed in Sunday's
New York Times by Stanley Fish, a famous "Postmodernist"
university professor and defender of "political correctness."
"Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism's
museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for
affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more
than we are prepared to give—ask for deference rather
than mere respect—it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous
arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every
newspaper in the country….
"[T]he editors who have run the cartoons do not believe
that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted
or vanquished. They do not publish the offending cartoons in
an effort to further some religious or political vision; they
do it gratuitously, almost accidentally. Concerned only to stand
up for an abstract principle—free speech—they seize
on whatever content happens to come their way and use it as
an example of what the principle should be protecting. The fact
that for others the content may be life itself is beside their
"This is itself a morality—the morality of a
withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is
certainly different from the morality of those for whom the
Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the
difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters
and to the discredit of the liberal editors."
For years, the left has told us that the foundation of freedom
is subjectivism; if you are never certain that you are right,
you will never be certain enough to "impose" your views
on others. But will you be certain enough to defend your mind
against those who want to impose their beliefs on you? If Fish
is any indication, the answer is "no." Note how he bows
with almost superstitious awe before the fanaticism of the Muslim
mobs, while describing the old-fashioned liberals' defense of
free speech as hypocritical, superficial, "condescending."
And now the "hate crimes" laws pioneered by the left
in the name of political correctness, are being invoked by Muslims
to suppress publication of the Mohammed cartoons by a Canadian
newspaper. The intellectuals of the left, having built a reputation
as defenders of free speech by striking a pose of defiance against
innocuous threats at home, have now become the leading advocates
for self-imposed submission to the Muslim hoards abroad.
Interestingly, intellectuals on the right have now become the
loudest, most strident voices in defense of free speech, for which
they deserve our admiration. Blogger Michelle
Malkin has waged a particularly effective crusade on this
issue. And she is not the only one; I linked to many good articles
on the topic in last week's editions of TIA Daily.
But the right has its own contradictions, it own source of sympathy
with the enemy. For years, conservative intellectuals have been
demanding greater "sensitivity" to "religious sensibilities"—at
least, to the religious sensibilities of Christians—and
calling for a great role for religion in the "public square."
They have waged a long crusade to allow religion to serve as the
basis for laws against abortion and homosexuality, and for the
subordination of science to religion, demanding that this be a
"nation under God" rather than a "nation under
And so we have seen a few prominent conservatives falter badly
in the cartoon jihad. Prominent neoconservative scion John Podhoretz
wrote a column
in last Friday's New York Post that sounds an awful lot
like Stanley Fish's column quoted above:
"For many people, the way to grant Muslims the recognition
they crave is to patronize them—to give them nice little
nods and winks and talk about what a nice religion they have.
That kind of recognition is unsatisfying and condescending.
The impulse behind the original publication of the cartoons
in Denmark last September was to cut through the condescension.
They were literally provocative—designed to provoke discussion
about how to deal with the phenomenon that Carsten Juste, the
editor of the newspaper that published them, called the 'self-censorship
which rules large parts of the Western world.'
"Well, as Juste and his staff have learned to their
sorrow, while some of that self-censorship may be the result
of cowardly political correctness, some of it is clearly due
to simple prudence. Juste and his underlings have been in grave
physical danger for months, ever since the cartoons were published.
And it would not be too much to say that they and the world
would have been better off if they had exercised a little more
self-protective caution in the first place."
Meanwhile, Hugh Hewitt—a much more dedicated religious
conservative—practically squirms with discomfort at the
idea of someone criticizing religion. He echoes the idea that
the Danish editors were "irresponsible" for printing
the cartoons because they could have predicted that it would "provoke"
a violent reaction—but he adds a more pro-American gloss
to it. He says
that the cartoons were irresponsible because the enemy will use
them as propaganda to incite riots and try to gain support among
"In a wired world, there aren't any inconsequential
actions, and everything is grist for the propagandists among
the jihadists. That doesn't mean censorship, or even self-censorship.
Only a bit of reflection before rushing off to start new battles
which divert attention from those already underway. There is
a chasm of difference between serious commentary on the Islamic
challenge facing Europe and the West…and crude, sweeping
anti-Muslim propaganda. It isn't necessary to defend the latter
in order to uphold and praise the former."
of Hewitt's commentary on this issue.)
The weakness of the conservatives is that they think the essence
of the West is our religion, our "Judeo-Christian tradition"—rather
than our Enlightenment legacy of individual rights and unfettered
reason. Conservatives try to evade the clash between religious
authority and freedom of thought by claiming that religion provides
the moral basis for liberty. But the clash cannot be avoided,
and conservatives are forced to choose where they will draw the
line: where respect for religious prohibitions, in their view,
takes precedence over respect for the individual mind. On this
issue—involving a religion alien to American traditions—most
conservatives have had no problem drawing the line in favor of
freedom. But will they draw a different line when their own
religious dogmas are challenged?
This is the final lesson of the cartoon jihad. The real issue
at stake is not just censorship versus freedom, but something
much deeper: the need to recognize the real essence of the West.
The distinctive power and vibrancy of our culture, the source
of our liberty, our happiness, and our unprecedented prosperity,
is our Enlightenment tradition of regard for the unfettered reasoning
mind, left free to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
And this controversy has given our minds plenty of evidence to
follow, and plenty of fearless conclusions to draw.
Tracinski is the editor of TIADaily.com
and The Intellectual Activist.