Free speech should soar above insult and injury
The real clash of ideas is within each culture - over who best represents us.
GIG HARBOR, WASH.
It's disturbing to watch bad ideas grow legs. In the deadly firestorm ignited by the Danish cartoons caricaturing Islam, one bad idea - the "clash of civilizations" - seems to have found its feet. The agenda shaping up for this clash - free speech versus Islam - is driven by another bad idea: the "right to offend." Free speech is to represent the best of Western civilization and the Enlightenment, with its most extreme test - and biggest gun - proudly trundled forth: insult and provocation.Skip to next paragraph
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As if! As if Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, invasion and occupation of Iraq, and other varieties of "regime change" the West envisions for the Arab world were not offense enough. And how bizarre that offensiveness is held up as civilized, rather than seen as fueling the clash.
Descending to the bait, defenders of offensiveness weigh in across the spectrum. On the left, Art Spiegelman, cartoonist for The New Yorker, asserts in The Nation, "There has to be a right to insult," even if it stirs discomfort. Aligning on the right, William Bennett and Alan Dershowitz castigate Western media for "betraying" their "duty" to republish the Danish cartoons. Meanwhile, contrarian Christopher Hitchens derides "the babyish tantrums" of the Islamic world and "this sickly babble about 'respect.'"
More such ilk doubtless will air in Round 2, when Iran's largest newspaper publishes the "winners" of its Holocaust cartoon contest, and an Israeli paper does likewise with its anti-Semitic contest. The media will again agonize about republishing - and the West's insult-artists can crow again about taking the blows and, unlike those 'babyish' Muslims, not burning down a Starbucks.
This is so sandbox, so sticks-and-stones, and in these tinderbox times so dangerous, like strapping on a suicide belt. Rights come with responsibilities, and it's time to talk about the responsible use of free speech.
Starting with this question to the insult-artists: And your higher point is...?
What's lost in this slugfest, drowned out by extremists, are the voices of moderate, responsible, democracy-promoting Muslims. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a majority of Americans now think Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence.
A Muslim who spoke out was the editor of the Jordanian paper Shihan who posed this question: "Muslims of the world, be reasonable. What brings more prejudice against Islam - these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim?" For his bravery he was fired. Instead of insult, how about defending this speech of reason?
And how about reviewing the clashing civilizations' agenda? While the West insists free speech be on the docket, Islamic thinkers would offer another item: power.
As Rami Khouri, respected editor at large of Beirut's Daily Star, claims: "This is not primarily an argument about freedom of the press.... It is about Arab-Islamic societies' desire to enjoy freedom from Western and Israeli subjugation, diplomatic double standards, and predatory neocolonial policies." Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author shortlisted for the Nobel, writes that people in the West "are scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population."