About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cartoon riots, part deux

A thoughtful friend of mine, who usually agrees with and enjoys my blog posts, was very upset yesterday because of my comments on the “cartoon riots,” i.e. the attacks against Western embassies of countries were newspapers have recently published a series of satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Since this blog – at its best – is devoted to the thoughtful discussion of political, cultural and philosophical issues, let me try to address my friend's concerns, which I suspect are shared by several other readers as well.

* By talking about groups one ignores differences among individuals. Yes, that is a perennial problem whenever one makes generalizations. But without the ability to make generalizations we couldn't get any discourse going about culture, politics, or much else regarding the human world (other than personal experiences). One should always be mindful that generalizations do not imply that every (or, in fact, even most) individuals in that group will behave that way, but I have to leave that caveat to the (hopefully) thoughtful reader, or my columns will become too cumbersome to read. In the specific case, there are many Muslims who disagree with the violent response to the cartoons, but the point is that there are tens or hundreds of thousands who participated, and millions who acquiesced by not condemning them (but see postscript below).

* It is unfair not to distinguish between different Muslim societies. I actually used the word “most” when discussing certain attitudes prevalent among Muslim societies, but it is true that, say, Indonesia isn't the same as Egypt, and neither one is Saudi Arabia. By the same token, there are significant differences between the US and European countries, but they also share commonalities that differentiate them socially and culturally from, say, Iran. In the case of the cartoons, unfortunately the riots happened both in the more conservative Afghanistan and in the more liberal Lebanon, highlighting the fact that the publication of the cartoons really hit a common raw nerve in those societies.

* The West has its own problems with freedom of speech. No question about it, and in fact most of my columns are about the danger that George W. is (not so) slowly turning the US into a quasi-fascist “democracy” where the press is intimidated or manipulated, and the public goes about life focusing on the latest “reality” show rather than on the ugly reality of the war in Iraq. Nonetheless, freedom of speech comes in degrees, and it would be intellectually dishonest or naïve not to differentiate between, say, the US or Western Europe on the one hand and Iran or Egypt on the other. Indeed, liberals such as myself ought to be very careful both not to overstate their criticism of their own society and to understate similar problems in oppressed societies they wish to help.

* The West has its own contemporary examples of violence inspired by religious fundamentalism. True, and in fact I did mention abortion clinics bombings and shootings as examples. But again, the two phenomena simply do not seem to be on the same societal scale: so far, fundamentalist Christians who wish to stop abortions in the US have mounted large protests, but of a peaceful type; they have sought (misguidedly) to change the law of the land, but they have done so using legal means; and, more importantly, when the few do overstep those legal boundaries, they are both loudly condemned by other Christians and prosecuted according to the law. It is simply not possible to deny that public dissent about religious issues is much more difficult to sustain in Muslim countries. The Muhammad cartoons affair is only the most recent example, others including the death fatua issued years ago against Salman Rushdie's head (for his publication of “The Satanic Verses”), and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh (for shooting a movie on the oppression of Muslim women).

* Western Christians also attempt to suppress the publication of material they deem offensive to their faith. Yes, they do, and sometimes they sadly succeed. But, again, such attempts are usually carried out my means of financial and political pressure – boycotting certain TV stations, movie houses or newspapers; or by lobbying elected officials and/or campaigning against them. This is troublesome, because it reflects a lack of appreciation for multiculturalism and the free expression of ideas, but it is not in the same category as bombings, shootings and torching of buildings.

* These are small groups of people with no real power. The rioters actually count into the tens or hundreds of thousands, probably more. But what makes them powerful on the world scene is that some Muslim governments back them up: for example, Iran has officially suspended all trade with Denmark. Considering that Iran is a major exporter of oil, that's real power in the world economy.

* There is much more to the riots than the cartoons. Right, there is, and this is perhaps the real crucial matter. The argument here goes that whenever large crowds become violent this is usually the reflection of some deeper societal problem, and whatever sparked the riot is only a superficial reason. There is much truth to this, and it is a truth that applies not only to religious violence, but to ethnic clashes, and even to episodes of violence in European or South American soccer stadiums. One of the reasons fundamentalism of all sorts (both religious and political – as in the case of the extreme right in France, Germany, and Italy, for example) has been on the rise throughout the world over the past decades is precisely because it is an easy response to complex problems, problems that the well to do among us keep refusing to address seriously. That said, however, most of the people who participated and condoned the recent riots really believe that publishing satirical cartoons of Muhammad is punishable with death – and such belief is wrong, regardless of the attenuating societal circumstances. Similarly – and here I might alienate more of my liberal friends – Hamas simply cannot pretend to democratically lead the Palestinians while at the same time openly calling for the destruction of Israel. I have criticized Bush for allegedly promoting democracy in the Middle East and then picking and choosing which democratic outcomes he can live with. But it is also true that democracy comes with responsibilities, and Hamas has to face them without playing Humpty Dumpty. The alternative is what happened in Germany after World War I: Hitler was elected democratically (twice), but then used his power to annihilate the very institutions that gave him that power.

I welcome any other thoughtful comments from thoughtful readers. The unthoughtful ones need not apply.

Post-script: There are now some signs that members of the Muslim community are distancing themselves from the rioters and calling for an end to violence, as Mohammed Usman – a member of a top Afghan Muslim organization – did today. Moreover, some Muslims are using the same “offending” weapon to retaliate: a Muslim immigrant organization today published on its web site a cartoon of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank, with the dictator saying “Write this one in your diary, Anne.” Now, the latter move is in fact meant only to offend, and -- unlike the original cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammad – hardly qualifies as “satire” since it has no political point – but it sure beats the hell out of torching embassies.

On the other hand, we still see politicians like French President Jacques Chirac apologizing on behalf of newspapers and claiming to be against “all obvious provocations likely to dangerously kindle passions.” Ah, but that's the point: for some people any slight deviation from their arbitrary creed is a dangerous provocation. More sensible seems to be Denmark's Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who insists that his government will not apologize for the free expression of the press in that country.

What a mess!


  1. I am dissapointed that so many people have not seen the terrible harm that the rioters have done to the Islamic faith. This violent reaction continues to illustrate to many in the west that the Islamic faith is incapable of peaceful coexistence in even the most tolerant of societies. For such an ancient and advanced society to degrade itself by participating or justifying this activiy is another example of how far they have fallen.

    It is now the responsibility of the Islamic majority to find a way to put a stop to those that continue to bismirch their faith, society and culture with such tactics. For a culture that wants to be heard, these reactionaries seem to be determined that no credibility will ever be afforded those that actually do deserve it in the Middle East.

  2. From the article: "The West has its own contemporary examples of violence inspired by religious fundamentalism. True, and in fact I did mention abortion clinics bombings and shootings as examples. But again, the two phenomena simply do not seem to be on the same societal scale"

    Offhand, I think this is because democracy tends to marginalize violence as a political tool. Fundamentalists in the U.S. are immersed in American culture, so they have usually absorbed that value. In places where power tends to flow more obviously from the barrel of a gun, and it is is common for political parties to even have their own militias, violence is less obviously illegitimate, so protesters more readily resort to it.

  3. Well said j.j.
    I was contemplating another aspect that at first seemed strange to me. The protesters were demanding an apology from the French and Danish governments. Why? What do the governments of those countries have to apologize for? They didn't publish the cartoons and they don't control the newspapers. Then I began to realize that the protesters probably come from countries where the government *does* control the news media and so their paradigm is different. They don't quite understand "free press" and possibly wouldn't want it if available.

  4. One thing that complicates these issues is that many countries are willing to convict people of hate crimes based on such things as holocaust denial. Of course holocaust denial does not constitute an advocacy of anything, but it does make some people angry. Now hamas, and other groups, are pointing to this fact, and saying "what's the difference? This insult to the Prophet hurts us in exactly the same way. I don't see any way around it. Either current hate crime laws in Europe (and Canada) protect too much, and should be repealed or re-interpreted, or the same protection should be extended to Muslime in this very matter.

    But. It is a slippery slope. There is no end of things that make people mad. Johnnie Cochrane drew fire for comparing LAPD's cops to Hitler, for trivialising this sacred (i.e. dreadful) object.

    Some of our politically correct laws are not looking so good now.

  5. What a mess is right.

    The sad loss of life as a result of feelings being hurt underscores the shortage of any real sense of rationality within religion. The majority of us in favour of freedom of expression are more than aware that people will unfortunately take offense, but still, when pressed for a considered position, support it. But opponents do not counter with any sort of reasonable argument other than something that only amounts to, "But I don't like it."

    I agree with Christopher Hitchens (on this point at least) that "free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient." We should be proud of where we have come from as a result of exactly the freedom of expression that is in question. It is messes like this that test the strength of a free society, and we will be stronger for it.

  6. One thing that should be added to the discussion is that these cartoons were published quite a while ago, and also in Egypt, but the furore arose only recently. This suggests manipulation by dark forces, if you'll excuse the purple prose. We need to be wary.

    An anecdote: a philosophy prof in Halifax, Nova Scotia posted the cartoons on his office door for information purposes. The university ordered them removed. He defied them. Students demonstrated. Then he got a visit from five (count 'em) guys. Then the TV said he was reconsidering his position. But the next day, when the students were demonstating, he joined the demonstration against himself, and was shown on TV walking along with the students, and deeply discussing with them. For some reason I thought of Margaret Thatcher: "We have to use all of our native cunning."

  7. I don't give a sh1t what anyone's religion is. If you think killing someone for drawing a cartoon is acceptable, that is an indefensible, reprehensible, idiotic belief, and any "God" that would endorse such an action is not worthy of praise, much less worship.

    16 people just got killed in Nigeria over this. Over cartoons.

    I've gotten some responses similar to Mthe ones Massimo got; that this is the result of Western European oppresion of Muslims. That is a bogus excuse. Take a look at history and religious orthodoxy, when in power, has been more than willing to do the opressing.


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