Much ado about nothing?

Update 02 February 2006 @ 10:34: Militant Islamists surround EU office in Gaza.
Update 01 February 2006 @ 17:54: Leilouta commented briefly on this post. A much fiercer debate is currently played out on her own website.
Update 01 February 2006 @ 16:45: Der Spiegel captures some of my worries brilliantly, Threaten One, Intimidate a Million.
Update: Jyllands Posten’s main offices are currently evacuated due to a bomb threat.

Following the heated controversy spawned by eight satirical depictions of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten), I am appalled, angry, and disappointed, all at the same time.

Acknowledging the complexity of the situation, I shall not attempt to formulate a one-answer-fits-all argument, rather a series of related yet distinct observations will have to suffice:

I do not believe in any such thing as Truth or Essence whether it may go under the label of religion or science, that is to say, nothing holds universal privilege, and the word ‘blasphemy’ does not hold any credit in my vocabulary. I do, however, respect that different people hold different values, and that these may be rooted at various levels and based on assumptions that may appear strange (e.g. see my postings below).

Taking this into account, freedom of speech should be applied reflexively and with respect. This in a way that cannot be systematised nor legitimised according to abstract principles, although philosophers and a heterogeneous pool of polemists have tried to do so for thousands of years.

Personally I cannot think of any symbols which, when treated with ‘disrespect’, as in the case with Jyllands-Posten, would cause outrage to the extent witnessed in the current matter, but I do believe that one should not deliberately cause havoc, for whatever ‘legitimate’ reason, by disregarding (for lack of better word) what other people hold dear. This principle works both ways and is intrinsically paradoxical; I would literally fight for my rights and convictions, which are sort of compatible with ‘Danish’ values (most sociologists would kill me for assuming such a thing), if they were ever to be threatened by other totalitarian knowledge systems.

That said, I can only laugh when a country such as Saudi Arabia, notorious for its brutality and systematic suppression of minorities, dares to criticise Denmark for not paying respect to Islamic values (who’s values?). And Libya, and Iran, and…

I can only laugh, admittedly worried laughter, when so-called Islamist hackers shut down newspaper sites and blogs of people with whom they disagree in order to forcefully impose their own ‘information’.

I can only get worried when a militant group encourages Muslims (I wonder what sort of Muslims they have in mind) to strike against everything Danish and Norwegian, attributing the ‘wrongdoings’ of a newspaper to a whole nation and its people.

I wonder why the head a prominent imam of the Muslim Society in Denmark, Abu Laban, has not bothered to learn the language, and thus have to be interviewed in English every time he makes a media appearance.

I recognise that what may appear as crowds of Palestinian fundamentalists burning Danish flags and images of the Danish PM may in fact be the reaction of people who have not had the privilege to experience a separation between the government and the press. Faced with such tension, we should avoid the propensity to read deeper motives into spontaneous acts.

Yet I am worried because, more and more often, I find myself drifting to the right side of the political spectrum when thinking about issues as the one above. I tend to agree with people with whom I used to have nothing in common. I no longer know which foot to stand one when neither apologetic nor right wing responses seem to lay the foundation for a fruitful path.

Check how the story unfolds at Google News.

Does anyone have anything to contribute?

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  1. It is a big topic to chew over. Though, my intuitive response would be: avoid thinking about it until it concerns me. Sounds naive, but maybe worth a short justification: I have it from my parents, and they have it because they lived in Russia from mid 60s onwards. So many crap things happen that you accustom yourself to protecting only your own back (and your family’s and close friends). Of course I did not experience what my parents did, but character traits are passed down the line.

    This goes some way for explaining my Russian part, but I should have something to say for my English side too (after all I’ve spent more than half my life here). Well, I have to agree on most points with you, Christian. Particularly not knowing which foot to stand on finally.

    I also have some lust for the ‘one answer’ which makes me feel frustrated that there is none. And so I never want to go into politics because you finally have to pick one option. Is it my female side that wants to avoid such decisions and the responsibility that follows? – a heightened sensitivity to danger. Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s the neutral philosopher.

  2. Thank you!
    We better focus on our real problems instead of drooling over stupid cartoons.

  3. I post a thought, that can make the discussion a bit more theoretical or general, but in some situations such an abstraction from a specific case can be beneficial.

    Then I warn that the original idea of the following considerations are inspired by some articles from the nobel-prize winner, A. Sen.

    Behind moralism, there is often a clear economic explanation : harmful externalities. I see a young guy begging money in the street early in the morning, when I am on my way to work. His act affects my well-being, my happiness. Moreover, economically speaking, he decreases my wealth : the money I spend every day to buy a newspaper to feel that I’m a good citizen are neutralized by the sight of poverty around me. Can i bar him from begging money ? And what about the freedom of someone lying in a state of poverty. Is a poor entitled to a right of begging money ? Where does my freedom end ( or my self interested desire of happiness ? ) and where does the beggar’s interest begin ?

    Someone is having fun from someone else religious symbols, can the latter feel compelled to stop the former ? What about the former’s entitlement of having fun by ridiculizing the latter’s religion ?

    It might sound odd but our idea of liberalism just does not fit into our framework of values and we have to accept that barbarians exist and they threaten violence and destruction when we trespass their symbolic world.

    If democracy, for example, was not that important value worth fighting for and even using violence and lethal destruction, would have the liberal occidentals sent military troops in a remote area of the planet where a dictator was killing innocent people to export it ? Would we ?

  4. Quote: “Yet I am worried because, more and more often, I find myself drifting to the right side of the political spectrum when thinking about issues as the one above. I tend to agree with people with whom I used to have nothing in common. I no longer know which foot to stand one when neither apologetic nor right wing responses seem to lay the foundation for a fruitful path. ”

    To me seem that seems to suggest some kind of lack in belief.
    I certainly do believe in “our” system, rational and critical with roots in the enlightment and renaissance. The liberal idea of the free man.
    Anyways. Generally the events of 9/11 and now this have made som serious cultural clashes.
    This new form of moral colonization, if we do have a in a world context superiour system, we cannot expect people to follow them without questioning. Our values are different but our approaches to solve misunderstandings and problems are very different. In the same way that we in the “western world” are raised and schooled into our democratic, human rights, liberal etc. system. The same way others must be raised and schooled into this way of thinking and acting. They must see the benefits of this system instead of being forced into it. But what annoys me is that millions of muslims do not stand up and defend their own views, that they allow such a small part of muslim leaders be their spokespersons. Only fundamentalists on both side cant will not see any solution to this or see the benefits from this crisis.

  5. An article in yesterday’s Herald Tribune nicely puts the current tension into contrast. Rather than get caught up in the hype and the controversy, why not step back for a moment and see that ‘this way of opening a debate on emotional grounds is, in fact, a way of closing the door on rational discourse.’

    Now it is a power struggle. Who will have the final word? Who is right? Who will have the upper hand? What do we want, to polarize our world or build bridges?

    I’ll be interested on your feedback from the article.

  6. Hi danish fellow Europeans,

    I\’m from the Netherlands, and was looking for a way to warn danish population about the real occurences behind the burning of the danish flag, the killing of Theo van Gogh and other hypocrite occurences, that are being organised by the Roman Catholic Church under the name of Counter Reformation. In addition to the burning of your flag, a Roman priest was killed in Turkey, that is now being declared holy by the Vatican.

    Here in the Netherlands the Roman Catholic organisation behind these demonstrations and flag burnings is very visible, the police was protecting marroccan moslems burning the danish flag, while native dutch that do such are being arrested immediatly.

    Proving that the Vatican is behind organised moslem hypocracy is very easy after one knows a Spanish Jesuit has been able to flee the Roman Church by the name of Alberto Rivera. He would flee to a strong protestant community in USA, and published the truth about Roman Catholicism over here:

    In the Url given by my post I have put a more privat anonomous way to visit these cartoons. I hope my word will reach you.

    Always in support of danish protestantism,
    The soldiers of Admiral Lumey.

  7. And the moon is made of green cheese, I have been told.