Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Blues For Allah

(part 1)

It seems easier to take a closer look on the cartoon controversy now that well orchestrated hysterical reaction (it's an oxymoron, I know, but history has many cunning passages) of the Muslim world has subsided and nervously defensive response of most of the European press has toned down as well. Although Muslim reaction deserves special analysis from the point of view of international politics (Jernej Letnar, Where Art Thou?) especially since this global dispute about taste has turned into vandalism and even killing sprees in some cases I do not wish to speak of Muslim response, neither of use of the Arab street by the ruling elites, and some of the particular characteristics of Islam, respectively (a-propos, Slovenian Franciscan missionary was badly beaten in Turkey, which is a possible candidate for a EU entry).

What I wish to elaborate on is purely and simply a problem of freedom of speech and its relation to religious feelings. This question inevitably brings me to the point of dealing with more profound subject of European identity. This post is a continuation of debate started by two of the Avbel's posts (Freedom of Expression - a Case of Abuse? february 04, Dworkin on Cartoons and Holocaust Denial, posted on february 22), and of the comments we made on the last one.

There are roughly three kinds of arguments in the global debate, at least three that I can think of:

1. The most vocal are of course classical representatives of the so called »progressive liberal thought.« Theirs is the usual mantra that goes like this: we-won't-give-our-freedom-of-speech-away or in some (usually tabloid) cases: to-the-barricades! This argument does not need any further consideration since it's simply a battle with straw men - this is one tangram shape that has already been assembled and a Columbus' egg that already stands on end. Just for the record: surely nobody at the right mind denies catalogue of human rights as it was adopted in international documents especially in ECHR. Even freshmen in Faculties of law don't need much persuasion on this matter. This is why it is even more surprising how one dimensional and undifferentiated is the debate on this level. I was leaning towards a notion that Dworkin belongs to this crowd, but Avbel (see his response to my comment on his Dworkin on Cartoons and Holocaust Denial post) has showed that this is hardly the case.

2. Much more interesting is an opposite approach: this one says Danish cartoons are only result of western intolerance towards ethnical minorities; they are a symptom of western arrogance in relation to the rest of the world. This argument is especially dear to those who see western imperialism and globalisation behind every corner. But not just multicultural fanatics, also many liberals inclined to the left side of political spectrum who are usually free speech absolutists have taken up this standpoint. Since they have always been free speech fanatics especially when Christian religious feelings were on the agenda, some took great effort to defend their new position during this Bilderstreit which is in favor of non publishing the cartoons. However most of them just forgot their previous position hoping that everybody else will do the same.
Despite this I have to admit that in general this approach is much more creative from argument described in No.1, but it's hard not to see duplicity of some opinion makers, and their moralizing of the worst kind. In Slovenia double standards are most visible in relation to Catholic religious feelings, which are not worth a dime in media landscape.

3. If we reject free speech absolutism this controversy can be viewed as a classical case of balancing between freedom of speech and protection of religious feelings. The peculiarity however which cannot be overstated, is that this case cannot be resolved with usual juristic vocabulary. The reason is that European society simply does not understand the notion of offended religious sensibilities anymore. In the society where religion has been successfully removed from the public sphere, there can be no understanding of religious feelings. Typical for this atmosphere is a good cartoon by Bernd Zeller in Berliner Zeitung, (Berliner Zeitung, 11./12. February, No. 36). Cartoon shows a group of immigrants in a immigrations office. One of them says to the immigration officer:

Unsere Religion verbietet Darstellungen von Heidi Klum, Dirk Bach und Florian Silberreisen !

Officer's response is this:

Ach ja? Und wie gewalttätig sind sie?

It's a good joke, which Danish cartoons certainly aren't (note a very important distinction: German cartoonist is making a legitimate comment on certain kind of religious belief, but is not trying to break the particular religious taboo). German cartoon also includes justified comment on the islamist violence. However, it is obvious, that the author simply does not understand that certain categories actually can be sacrosanct to some people. This new ignorance goes for whole European society. Of course, religious citizens can express their indignation but at the end of the day media, public opinion and justice system simply cannot understand what the big fuss is all about. As far back as 1949, Lord Denning said: »The offence of blasphemy is now a dead letter«.

Until now, that is. (to be continued)


At 6:47 PM, Blogger Jernej Letnar said...

Thank you for your very intersting post. My thought are published above. Jernej


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