On Line Opinion is an Australian publication whose self-conscious, and almost singular, purpose is freedom of speech, so we can’t really keep silent on the Mohammed cartoon issue.
On Line Opinion doesn’t do editorials - that is incompatible with our mission as a Socratic space where intelligent readers can draw their own conclusions on the issues of the day, based on debate between frequently knowledgeable and always opinionated contributors. However, as founder, and chief editor, I do have views, and I have a right, and at times a duty, to express them.
The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had every right to publish the cartoons. Some publications have argued that their publication is not a good cause to champion. "Freedom of speech should be reinforced and promoted, but there are far finer causes to uphold than the right to lampoon Islam,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
This is a view that Crikey! - ironically for a while the greatest source of offence in Australian journalism - shares. “There are really important occasions to invoke ‘the precious right of freedom of speech’ … choosing the wrong one … devalue[s] the concept, giv[ing] more ammunition to opponents of free speech for no reason, and ma[king] it a little bit harder for all other journalists to invoke it in the future.”
The implication is that free speech is defensible only when it is polite and responsible. But if free speech defends only the right to be nice to others, then it is not worth defending itself. Free speech exists to protect the objectionable and the unreasonable, or it means virtually nothing.
This is an issue on which journalists and media organisations should stand firm. Even if we haven’t published the cartoons for whatever reasons we deem fit - that doesn’t mean it is wrong for others to publish them.
The Islamic reaction to the cartoons demonstrates that Jihadist violence is not directed solely, or even primarily, at US Middle-Eastern policy. It is directed at modernity. Australians use the term “culture wars” to refer to the battles between the left and the right for control of the national narrative. But both left and right nominally subscribe to much the same values, or at least to the United Nations Declaration of the Universal Rights of the Human Being.
The cultures in the war that has erupted over these cartoons are alien to each other, exacerbated by the fact the Islamic culture of the protesters is inimical to, and intolerant of, any other culture. These protestors don’t subscribe to what some of us erroneously think of as “the global consensus”, and so there is a necessary battle to be joined.
Ironically, the political freedoms we enjoy in the West are religious in origin. They stem in part from the need of post-reformation religious groups to be irrational in their own ways.
To a large extent it was a truce. Faced with the impossibility of remaking the whole world in their own image, the various Christian denominations, as well as theists, deists and atheists, accepted as a compromise the ability to maintain their part of the world as they wanted it, and leave others with theirs. Conversion by persuasion was fine, but force was forbidden.
Islam has never accepted that truce. It seems too self-absorbed to understand that its practices can offend others. From a Christian or Jewish perspective Islam is heretical and an affront to cherished beliefs and principles. But the truce that Christians operate under says that it is OK for others to be heretics, even if some Christians still don’t understand that.
The Piss Christ has become a symbol for freedom of expression in Australia. Depicting a crucifix in a vial of the artist’s own urine must surely be as great an insult to Christians as the Mohammed cartoons are to Muslims. It was exhibited in Australia in 1997, and was physically attacked by extremists, and its exhibitor sued by Catholic Archbishop George Pell.
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