Forget the Footnotes

Interactive blasphemy

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A lot of excitement has been generated in the Muslim world by the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons showing the Prophet as a terrorist. As a compulsive blogger I naturally feel compelled to have a view on this topic. Republishing the cartoons here in the name of free speech is one obvious option. However, everyone’s going after Muslims these days and that’s surely not right.

A lot of excitement has been generated in the Muslim world by the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons showing the Prophet as a terrorist. As a compulsive blogger I naturally feel compelled to have a view on this topic. Republishing the cartoons here in the name of free speech is one obvious option. However, everyone’s going after Muslims these days and that’s surely not right.

‘This is Europe and if we have a thought, we express it.’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Historically speaking there is a close connection between civil rights and civility. That is, you have the right to say whatever you want but you also have an obligation not to offend people around you. If you offend them they aren’t going to talk to you and maintaining the conversation is the first imperative of social interaction. On the other hand, you also have an obligation not to take offence too easily. Claiming offence provides people with a veto on what can and cannot be said. This is exactly why it is so difficult to include a certain brand of fundamentalist Muslims in our public conversations.

Pragmatically speaking there is surely no point in offending Muslims just because you have the right to! I mean, these are my neighbours; every second person is a Muslim where I live and my kids’ school is virtually shut down over Eid. Why antagonise all these friendly people?

Yet this conclusion is based on a consideration of appropriateness, not rights. Everything changes the moment our right to publish an offensive cartoon is denied us — by irate fundamentalists outside of the Danish embassy in London, for example. When death threats are issued our right to free speech is taken away from us. Suddenly we have an obligation to stand up for this right and an obligation to publish the offensive cartoons. How else but through a publication is it possible to distinguish those who are trying to be polite from those who merely are scared? Being polite is fine, being scared is not. A society where people are afraid to speak their minds can never be considered free.

This is the only kind of fundamentalism I believe in — the fundamental right to free speech. Of course you have to be civil about it, but this is a pragmatic consideration guided by social norms not rights. Infringe on my rights and I too will turn into a fundamentalist!

As an interactive exercise, use this web page to draw your own picture of the prophet! Blasphemous? Of course not, you are using The Muslims Internet Directory.

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