I cannot recommend highly enough Ken Macleod’s post (found via Crooked Timber) on how the “socialism of fools” – Engels’ description of anti-semitism – was accompanied by a sort of “liberalism of fools”, to wit, the anti-Catholicism of the pre-WWII era. Macleod, acknowledging that anti-Catholicism is rather passÃ© these days, wonders if hatred of something else, perhaps another sect, might fill the roll as a modern liberalism of fools.
And, on a not entirely separate topic, French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo (no website, not that kind of paper) is republishing the images, along with one on its cover of Mohammed crying “It’s hard to be loved by fools”. An effort by the Conseil franÃ§ais du culte musulman to stop publication through the French courts was rejected on a technicality.
Chirac, however, has demonstrated that he is not, contrary to widespread belief, the biggest fool in Europe. Unlike the Danish Prime Minister, he has “condemned all manifest provocations that are liable to dangerously arouse passions.” Alas, he has only retreated to the number two slot in European political idiocy. He also said, “Anything susceptible to harm the convictions of others, particularly religious convictions, should be avoided. Freedom of expression should be exercised with a sense of responsibility.” Right on count two, wrong on count one. Responsible freedom of expression means that when you go out to offend people, you can’t claim to be surprised when they are offended. But there is little point in free speech if it is forbidden from trying to change convictions.
And round and round this totally avoidable fiasco goes.
Lost in the Muhammed cartoon fiasco, a large ferry sunk in the Red Sea last Thursday, killing roughly a thousand people. Yesterday, the bereaved families ransacked and torched the offices of the Egyptian ferry company. Why? This doesn’t happen in the west after all? (Well, at least not recently.) But there is a big difference: When a plane crashes in Europe, we feel reasonably confident that a thorough investigation will take place, that the press will disseminate information about it, and that in the end, the families of the victims stand a good chance of successfully suing the airline, the airport, or their own national government if it is perceived to bear the greatest responsibility. In Egypt, no one has any such guarantee. In the face of unresponsive powers, people riot. They burn things.
This is natural enough human behaviour. Consider, say, the rioting in France late last year. Now, how many times in French history have Paris’ poor had a political grievance, no adequate avenue of redress, and in consequence taken to the street and burned things? Off the top of my head: 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, more than once during the Third Republic, I’m sure, and most recently in 1968. Half of French history can be summarized as “the people of Paris rioted, burned things, and then the government actually took action or went into exile.” This is hardly the behavour of an unintegrated minority – it’s about as French as you can get. How the riots in France came to be about Islam, rather than some real issue like institutional racism, is beyond me.
Behind the cartoon fiasco, behind the rioting and threats, rests exactly the combination of double standards and powerlessness exposed in the French car burnings. The double standards are outlined in today’s Christian Science Monitor:
[…] Muslims […] charge that hate-speech laws are implemented unfairly. Many countries, they say, do not abide anti-Semitic outbursts, but will tolerate cartoons that to many Muslims are deeply offensive.
“Most of Europe would not dare mock the Holocaust, and rightly so,” says Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. “Newspaper editors exercise good judgment every day when it comes to printing material so as not to cause offense, so why not on this occasion?”
In a bid to redress grievances, the French Council of Muslims has said it is considering taking France Soir, which reprinted the cartoons, to court for provocation. Last year, the Catholic church won a court injunction to ban a fashion ad based on the Last Supper. The judge said the ad was “a gratuitous … act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs.”
[…] At times, he [Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt which has printed the cartoons] says, it may appear there is a double standard. “Evenhandedness cannot be a goal,” he says. “It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there.”
[…] In France, where anti-Semitism remains taboo, a comedian named Dieudonne has been effectively sidelined for his anti-Jewish rants. Newspapers must even be careful not to equate the actions of Jews everywhere with the state of Israel following a recent case that punished the daily Le Monde.
Roy says a form of self-censorship is in practice in France. “No mainstream newspaper would ever publish an interview with Dieudonne,” he says. “He has been sidelined because he is supposed to be anti-Semitic.”
French Muslims have questioned whether the outcome would have been the same if Dieudonne had aimed his humor at Muslims.
I may never read Die Welt again. The dictatorship of the majority is one of those principles I thought liberalism was supposed to oppose. This is the ugly “my country, my rules” notion of cultural nationalism – something one would think was out of step with modern European unity. It’s certainly out of place coming from the mouth of a newspaper editor intent on defending free speech.
But, this sense of inequality is a real problem and not just an anomaly of the centre-right press. It leads to not just riots, it leads more importantly to the rejection of the Western values that we are supposed to believe are being defended here. Let’s take a look at the promises made by western liberalism as an ideology, and how they are perceived in practice:
- Freedom of religion:
You have the freedom to practice your religion, unless it involves wearing distinctive clothing, like a headscarf.
- Freedom from racial discrimination:
You are not judged by your race or ethnic origin, unless you’re from Africa, the Middle East, south Asia or a Roma.
- Freedom of speech, to protest, and to manifest political opinions:
You have freedom of speech, so long as you aren’t taking about Jews, Israel or the Holocaust; promoting racism; dissing the nation’s founder or symbols; or talking about Armenians. You have the freedom to protest, so long as you don’t make light of terrorism while doing so. You have the freedom to manifest political opinions, so long as you don’t burn flags.
- Right to due process, to fair trials, to rule of law, to not be tortured or held incommunicado:
You have legal rights which the state is obliged to uphold, unless you’re a Muslim, in which case you can be held at Guantanamo Bay or “extraordinarily rendered” to someplace where you don’t have those rights.
- Freedom to elect officials, to vote in free elections, to form political parties and organisations:
You have the freedom to choose your leaders in free and open elections, unless you vote for Hamas or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This list could easily go on if we include the principles of international law. When Iraq invades Kuwait without provocation, it’s an aggressive war. When the US invades Iraq without provocation, it is in support of “international rule of law”. UN resolutions in the Middle East are enforceable with bombs and troops, unless they involve a veto power, a veto power’s clients, or Israel. Human rights in Iraq are profoundly important to westerners, human rights in Gaza much less so. Treaties that guarantee the signatories the right to pursue research and development in atomic energy do not apply to Middle Eastern nations. Or at least, this is how it seems to play out in the Middle Eastern press.
Is it really any wonder liberalism is so easily rejected in the Islamic world? Especially when so many of the regimes that give at least lip service to such notions are so thoroughly corrupt and so far from western ideals? And when so many of those same regimes have been installed and supported by the West? Is it any wonder when people turn to something else?
You may, of course, argue that each of these points is taken out of context; that it is wrong to lump the USA, Israel and Turkey together, and even wronger to lump them with western European democracies; that there are other views and opposing opinions that are not being considered, like quite legitimate concerns about the Iranian nuclear program; that the West is not really so uniform. And, this is all completely true – such a perspective is far from complete and it drastically oversimplifies public policy in the West.
The Christian Science Monitor article cited above goes on to make that case. It does point out that Europe’s speech laws are not so one-sided. It cites a prosecution against a clergyman in Sweden for homophobic statements; charges in Britain against the British National Party; and the trial of Oriana Fallaci in Italy for anti-Islamic statements. It also points out the Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code produced none of the response that The Satanic Letters did.
But then, would you accept the same kind of argument applied in support of Islamic ideas and Islamic nations? Would you see them as less worthy of condemnation just because Syria is actually fairly tolerant of different religions, so long as they steer clear of politics; that Saddam’s Iraq was relatively egalitarian in terms of gender rights; that no one begs or goes homeless in Saudi Arabia; that Dubai has a fairly free press? Does it make a difference that Swiss Muslim intellectual (and “threat to national security” according to US Homeland Security) Tariq Ramadan has a commendable piece up in today’s LibÃ© on tolerance and press freedom, condemning Danish Muslims for traveling to the Middle East to fan the flames of this mess, months after the cartoons first appeared. Do they get any points for proving to be no more uniform than we are?
Whether or not one thinks that a liberal double standard exists, the existence of such a perception is clear. And, as far as I can tell, so far no action whatsoever is being taken to counter that perception. But the idea that the promises of liberalism are all lies is one of the major grounds globally for its rejection, not just among Muslims, but also in many quarters in eastern Asia and even Christian Africa and Latin America.
I’m not writing this to excuse rioting, and even less death threats or embassy burnings. Those things are generally not excusable. But, they can be understandable. Even irrational and counterproductive actions take place for a reason. People who have no other avenue of redress respond that way, or when incited to violence by others, they take to it more easily. The notion that the West, in some generic, broad, uniform, hopelessly simple-minded way, is tilting its rules against others, and that people are powerless to stop it, does play a part in these events.
Europe could have made, and could be making, a real difference in this case by actually standing for liberal values. It could do it by simply acknowledging that it might have a case to answer for when accused of double standards. America can’t do it, Israel even less so, and a Turkey unable to address its own history is hardly a model for applying liberalism in the Islamic world. But Europe could.
But as much as I would like to be wrong, I just doubt that Europe will.