05 February 2006

Clash of Values

I've read a few posts over the last few days, written by bloggers I usually enjoy reading, on the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad issue. Wilkins comes closest to my own views, but none of the posts really manages to capture what I think is the essence of the issue.

This is both a simple issue and a complex one, all at the same time.

PZ is right about some of the complexities involved. There are some parallels between this situation and various ugly forms of discrimination and prejudice. There are also issues of perception and of national and ethnic identity. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that some of the anger these cartoons have inspired stems from the glaring economic disparity between the parts of the world doing the mocking and the parts being mocked. I think that those are real problems, but I think that the simpler issue is also the more important - at least at the moment.

That issue is freedom, and whether cultures based on the freedoms that provide the stable core for liberal democracies can coexist peacefully in the same world with cultures that demand that their values be given special treatment.

This case may have been started by a low-circulation Danish newspaper trying to piss off a religious group that is a distinct minority in their country, but it has rapidly turned into an international dispute involving the whole world. It has also brought to light an extremely alarming school of thought on freedom of expression.

The armed takeover or burning of embassies is bad, as are death threats. They're also nothing new in the stormy world of modern politics, particularly when we're talking about the Mideast. To put it another way, the violence is appalling but hardly surprising.

What's more alarming, at least in my opinion, are some of the views that various nations have expressed about what freedom of expression should mean. Newspaper editorials from Nepal and Bangadesh, demand that the freedom of expression be limited to exclude criticism of religion. Pakistan issued a statement declaring that freedom of expression does not extend to the freedom to insult someones religion, and the president of Afghanistan said that the publication of those comics was an act that, "must never be allowed to be repeated." Other Islamic nations have made similar statements.

The Muslim world wasn't the only place where governments have objected to the publication of the cartoons. A South African court has issued a ruling barring the publication of those images there. Our own State Department has been at best lukewarm in their support for press freedom in this case. And the Vatican informs us that, "the right to freedom of thought and expression...cannot imply the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers."

Of course, it should not come as a surprise that the Vatican is not in favor of the right to blaspheme. However, the right to blaspheme is absolutely critical in a secular society - and while people may bash secularism, the secular society has proven to be the single best way of creating an environment where everyone is free to worship (or not) as they see fit.

Without the freedom to blaspheme, there can be no true freedom of speech and there can be no true freedom of religion. These civil liberties are at the core of western democracy, and cannot be set aside just because religious people have had their feelings hurt.

The Commissar suggests that a good way to show support for the freedom of expression in this case is to reprint the cartoons in question. I am not going to do that. I fully support his right, and the rights of others, to piss off whoever they want. Personally, I think that the cartoons represent a gratuitous insult to Muslims, and I decline to personally participate in spreading them. Similarly, I fully support the right of the KKK to peacefully march through a community, but I refuse to put on a sheet and march with them.

The situation with these cartoons looks more and more like a clash of values with every day. I, for one, am not willing to have my freedom of religion and expression restricted to satisfy anyone's sensibilities. Many Muslims, on the other hand, appear unwilling to tolerate a society that allows people to insult Mohammad. I am optimistic enough to hope that we will be able to find a way to resolve this cultural divide to everyone's satisfaction, but I am realistic enough to realize that the hope appears faint.
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