There have been many good articles about this issue in various newspapers and blogs. To name few, which I see with some solid reasoning, are:
1. Andrew Sullivan in Time;
2. Belgravia Dispatch (actually comments and responses on his blogs were with more insights than the original blog;
3. Anne Applebauam in Washington Post (where she is incisively pointing out the contradictions of both Right and Left in America as far as their responses to this controversy go; ‘A Cartoon's Portrait of America'
4. MJ Akbar in Asian Age (‘The answer is Gandhi’ http://www.asianage.com/).
Andrew is presenting a solid defense of these Danish Cartoons on the basis of ‘Freedom of Speech’ (FOS here after) and is going for a strong rebuttal to violent message and reaction coming from Islamic Fundamentalists around the world. Considering his Rightist leaning, it is no surprise about his strong reaction to the violence coming out of this controversy as well as his implicit exhortation to West for a non-compromising policy to deal with Islamic Fundamentalists.
But as one reads the commentary on Belgravia Dispatch, one starts to wonder that there can not be and there never is any absolute notion of FOS. So any defense on that line is going to be shaky. This does not mean that anyone should not strive for as much pure as possible exercise of FOS. Like any other human enterprise, we do not have anything pure (only God in concept is pure) and so is the case of FOS. Because as many have pointed, if one wants to justify these cartoons as an expression of FOS; one cannot use this criteria selectively. And this is where critics pull out skeletons of those backers when they failed in the past, where the backers have selectively applied FOS and so on. MJ Akbar’s article points out these aspects quite well.
Once we accept that there is nothing absolute about FOS; it will be a valid debate whether the Danish Cartoons exceeded the general norms of FOS or not. Though critics like MJ Akbar feel that these cartoons exceed the case of FOS, when one reads arguments presented by Andrew Sullivan; one realizes that it is not a simple matter. Quality of these cartoons cannot be a justification not to use FOS basis. Only when there are many, many substandard cartoons published; society as a whole starts to get some cartoons of real significance. This is true with any human enterprise – let thousand flowers bloom, only some will survive the test of time and quality. But by and large in the end when one reads the quotes of Danish Laws as given by MJ Akbar in his article; one realizes the possibility that these Danish Cartoons indeed broke the law of the land. A valid case can be made so.
Whether these Danish Cartoons exceed FOS or not is the serious part of the debate. It is one of those incidents where moralists, philosophers, historians, law experts and political theorists need to solve the riddle. This blog does not claim to be any of these. Assuming that let us say these experts agree for an answer; what will be the end result? The cartoonist and the publisher of those cartoons will be either prosecuted and laws of Western countries will be explicitly amended to avoid any caricature of the prophet; or the cartoonist and the publisher will be let go with no change in Western notions of FOS and laws.
So until this issue gets resolved within the intellectual space, could the critics have followed the path of attempting to prosecute the cartoonist and the publisher based on the Danish Law? Yes, is the answer. All these offended Islam believers could have moved along this path within the Danish court system having confidence in their case.
Have they done that? What we see however is Saudi Imam saying that the time is past apologies and Iranian President exhorting American and European people to pay the heavy price. This is the second and more dangerous part of this controversy – those who offended are resorting to violent means and threatening maniacally certain way of life; the Western way of life. As it is Islamic Fundamentalism is on the rise, it surely threatens West and is intend on destroying West. True, it is not Islam as a religion which is on the collision course, but the minority of Islam believers – Fundamentalist. But can the nation states of West ignore this danger? They can only do so at their peril. There are many on Right who are arguing for more coherent, united and strong response from West to deal with these threatening reactions. As it stands Western Establishment has not effectively isolated advocates of violence nor has expressed a resolve to deal with these threats firmly. It is needed on part of Western leaders. Leaders in power as well as leaders in opposition of Western Democracies need to come forward and state their resolve in plain words. When you have an enemy nation like Iran shouting that America people, common people like you and me, have to pay the price; we are not far away from the war cry. It is the test of Western leadership – not to deny the ‘in dispute’ nature of the controversy, but to manifest the solidarity against advocates of violence and at the same time not to add any fuel to this whole violent situation.
As far as sane Muslims go, they need to pursue the cartoonist and the publisher on the basis of Danish Law. That is the right way to seek justice in this matter.
The third and last component of this controversy is what Tom Friedman referred obliquely in his NYT article – if we think current cartoon controversy is making the global system instable; think what would happen when prolonged Oil money would do to the insane leaders like Iranian President. Whichever way one cuts it, not being hostage to Middle East Oil is one of the preconditions of a stable global system in coming days. Many have been talking lot for long time about this dependency, time has come for Western Leaders and especially American Leaders to formulate economic policy which will achieve this precondition of going away from Middle East Oil. Thinking that doing so will only leave the field cheaply open to China and India to consume Middle East Oil is a short sighted way. In the grand theater of History, if India and China want to be labeled as primary money provider to anti-West stance of Middle East countries; it will not go well with their own history, their own people and their long term welfare. It will be naïve to think that controversy like Danish Cartoons would not happen in more liberal India and even China in future days. When that happens, these countries will also realize that being hostage to Middle East Oil is not something which gives them the space to pursue freely their independent foreign policy as well as economic policy. Hence, it will be very short sighted on the part of India and China to accommodate Middle East anti-West states simply for the reasons of Oil. With large population of Muslim in these countries as well as surrounding Islamic countries; any violent eruptions due to such controversies will be detrimental to these states. One Godhra (Gujarath riots of 2002) has weakened the Indian state so much, it will be truly damaging to have controversies like Danish Cartoons in those nations. Obviously such a danger is more in India since it has Hindu Nationalist forces as well as it is a liberal society with reasonable FOS. But as and when Chinese society opens, it is susceptible to these dangers too. The root of the trouble is not happenstance of such incidents within Open Societies which ‘test’ limits of FOS, but despotic and non-liberal structure of many Islamic nations of Middle East. Any oil money only helps to continue these oppressive forces. Every other nation in the world, Western or Asian, will need to be careful in cultivating any kind of economic dependency on Middle Eastern Oil. Since oil is a commodity sold in a truly global market, leadership in waning away the world from fossil fuel is long overdue. The question is whether it will be Brazil (who is invited to the G8 meeting in Moscow in order to reveal her success about sugarcane produced ethanol) who will lead the world or whether America and Europe will get back to the front in next few years.
Finally, when one understands the importance of getting away from Middle East Oil; one realizes that the Bush line of Democratization of these societies is of secondary importance. Again and again it is proved in History that indigenous struggles of people to remove suppressive regimes is the only workable solution in the long run. Artificially propped regime change at gun point is not cost effective, long lasting and it is way too risky for the interventionist. This is not to say that West should not use force when it is threatened. Iran and it’s nuclear weapon ambitions is the perfect case where in the end West may need to use the force; or how use of force in the case of Afghanistan was justified. But as far as regime change in order to remove non-democratic structures of these societies goes, helping local resistance and democratic forces is more effective. Cutting the life line of these oppressive regimes by reducing and removing dependencies on their saleable commodity oil will go a long way in shortening life spans of these Fundamentalists in power.
Any takers for the policy like Israeli Political Party ‘Kadima’ (separating unilaterally Israel from Palestine)? West needs to separate from Middle East. We need distance.
San Jose, CA 95111
February 12, 2006.