JP and the cartoon affair
My friend and distinguished scholar, Wilfrid Knapp, has kindly allowed me to publish his comments on the cartoon affair. With a long career in the field of politics and in-depth knowledge of Danish culture, I believe his answer to my question holds great credibility:
What do I think about the spat over the Danish cartoons? As a political analyst (never a political scientist) I perhaps have little to add to all that has been published in the print media. However: I well remember that in my last days working with Oxford Analytica I was preoccupied, as was our editor, with anger in the Arab world. At that time (say ten years ago) we spoke and wrote about the anger of Arab people, and to some extent governments, directed against ‘the West’ and, more than that, just anger, more explosive because it had no direction or target. The anger came from a deeply held feeling that the world is against Arabs and against Islam. At that time our audiences were fairly deaf to what we were trying to tell them – audiences that wanted to hear from specialists but then would readily dismiss what they heard as being exaggerated. Since then the anger has increased as a result of political events and frustration. Political events – ‘the West’ intervenes in the Balkans to protect Christians, was very slow to to anything to help Muslims in Bosnia, keeps quiet about Russian action in Chechnyia, which is Muslim, supports Israel in all its oppression of Palestinians. Frustration – as Arabs we have a great past, we have oil wealth, but we have no economic growth and no power. So we lash out – we burn flags and buildings and we boycott Danish goods. We have solidarity together and we have support across the Muslim world. Fortunately our neighbours the Iranians do have the possibility of power – they can build a nuclear weapon, although of course the West will try to stop them; the West will talk about sanctions but they depend on us for our oil and anyway sanctions will not work.
On the other side I assume that the cartoonists and the Jylands Posten had little idea of the significance of what they were doing. No doubt they are too young to remember when there were laws against blasphemy – at least there was such a law in Britain – and, being irreligious, they have little empathy with those who react as the Arabs are doing. In their defence some of our media have drawn attention to the satire in our society of Christian religion. This does not help: the Koran gives Muslims a reverence for Jesus, though not as the son of God, and they see the disrespect of religion in our society as another example of its decadence. And then there are the media. First of all that a Danish newspaper can be seen everywhere in the world and then that the semi-violence of the protesters is picked up by the media, who have no interest in showing quiet devout Muslims attending their mosques (though they may listen to inflammatory sermons) So the rioters see themselves and feel better and go on doing more. I have said many times that if a little bit of liberalism and democracy is spreading in the Middle East it is not because of Bush but because of the technology – satellite broadcasting, the internet and e-mail – but the same technology works well for extremists and rioters. And Muslims have noticed that there is in our society a fairly strong taboo against anti-Semitism while the denigration of Islam is fair game.
If then you ask me for my opinion (as an analyst, unlike the Economist, I do not have opinions) I naturally deplore the unrestrained exercise of free opinion – naturally because I have my feet in an earlier period) Especially I deplore the aggressive assertion of free expression. Firstly I hold a pragmatic view that the right of free expression, like rights in general, implies a duty – a duty to exercise the right responsibly. Such a view of course provokes long discussion, which I have not time for now. Secondly the unrestrained commitment to free expression is rarely disinterested and more often is manipulative. And thirdly, since we all have some desire for privacy, it is often accompanied by hypocrisy (though hypocrisy is not the worst vice in our society).
In short I think the cartoons have done a great deal of harm for no gain. Free expression is under no threat in Denmark and does not need an agressive assertion to demonstrate that it exists. The cartoonists and their editors are obviously deeply ignorant of Arab and Muslim society and have no sympathy with those of their fellow-citizens who deplore insults to the deity and to Christian religion. Which most of the time does not matter, but in this instance it does.