Democracy in a Cartoon
Der Spiegel On Line.
February 03, 2006
[On the Danish Cartoons Controversy]
The great British philosopher John Stuart Mill [1806-1873] wrote in On Liberty, “Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”
The cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a mocking light raise the classic question of freedom of expression. Are we in the West going to cave in to pressure from societies with a medieval mindset, or are we going to defend our most cherished freedom, the right to speak freely?
A democracy cannot survive for long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend. It is just this freedom which is sorely lacking in the Islamic world. Without it Islam will remain in its dogmatic, fanatical, mediaeval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. Without this fundamental freedom, Islam will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth.
Unless we show some solidarity—unashamed, noisy, public solidarity—with the Danish cartoonists, then the forces that are trying to impose on the Free West a totalitarian ideology will have won; the Islamisation of Europe will have begun in earnest. Do not apologize. Why should the West render itself unable to defend itself intellectually and culturally? Be proud, do not apologize! There is no need to apologise endlessly for the sins one’s fathers. The British Empire, for example, led also in India to the Indian Renaissance, to famine relief, to railways, roads and irrigation schemes, to the eradication of cholera, to the civil service and the establishment of a universal educational system where none existed before, to the institution of elected parliamentary democracy, to the rule of law. It is in most ways an admirable heritage. The British even gave back to the Indians their own past: European scholarship, archaeology and research uncovered India’s greatness, saved and conserved the monuments of that past glory. British Imperialism preserved where earlier Islamic Imperialism destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, and it also gave to India the marvelous architecture of Bombay and Calcutta.
On the world stage, should the West really apologise for Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe? Mozart, Beethoven and Bach? Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Breughel, Ter Borch? Galileo, Huygens, Copernicus, Newton and Darwin? Penicillin and computers? The Olympic Games and Football? Human Rights and Parliamentary Democracy? The West is the source of the liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, cultural freedom. It is the West that has raised the status of women, fought against slavery, defended freedom of enquiry, expression and conscience. No, the West needs no lectures on the superior virtue of societies who keep their women in subjection, cut off their clitorises, stone them to death for alleged adultery, throw acid on their faces, or deny the human rights of those considered to belong to lower castes.
How can we expect immigrants to integrate into Western society when they are at the same time being propagandised that the West is decadent, a den of iniquity, the source of all evil, racist, imperialist and despicable? Why should they, in the words of the African-American writer James Baldwin, want to integrate into what they are told is a sinking ship? Why do Muslims mostly want to immigrate to the West, and not to Saudi Arabia? They should be taught about the history of the West, which resulted in the freedoms we all now cherish and enjoy. Many fought for these freedoms who must not be forgotten today. These Western freedoms are those the rest of world envies, admires and tries to emulate. When the Chinese students cried and died for democracy in Tiananmen Square in June, 1989, they constructed not representations of Confucius or Buddha but a model of the Statue of Liberty.
Freedom of expression is our Western heritage. Defend it from totalitarian assault! It is also much needed in the Islamic world. By defending our principles, we teach the Islamic world the lesson they, above all other cultures, most need, by showing them that their cherished traditions can only benefit from Enlightenment values. These are in truth not Western values, but human values, universally applicable.