Sunday, March 19, 2006

 

Cartoons and Defending Freedom: the Debate Renewed

I’m not usually one to put long posts on my blog as I tend to think shorter ones have more impact. However, the exchange I had with author and journalist Andrew Anthony earlier in the week, I thought was worth putting up as it ranged far and wide and touched on a lot of topics concerning how we, the ‘west’ deal with the world of Islam, especially the more extreme, fundamentalist part of that world. Moreover, the topic is back in the news as some of the London demonstrators against the publication of the cartoons will soon appear in court to answer charges relating to their placard messages.

It began with a couple of posts I made in February(5th and 19th) on the cartoons in which I took the line that the Danish newspaper had acted too provocatively and that in these combustible times Islam had to be dealt with more sensitively. I checked my email late on Sunday night and found the first message from Andrew waiting. Then followed a rapid exchange of messages and replies, over the next day and a half which are essentially as copied below.

I’m sure we both could have carried on-as Andrew’s valedictory PS implies- but nearly 4000 words at the time seemed pretty substantial to me and I am supposed to be hitting a publisher’s deadline by the end of the month. So I resisted the temptation to keep at it; otherwise we’d still, I suspect, be furiously swapping messages. Anyway, for what it’s worth, here is our exchange.

Message 1, 12th March

Dear William Jones,

I was checking the response to the Danish cartoons piece I wrote in the Observer a few weeks ago – as you know, some of the best debates on these issues are seen on blogs – and I came across your blog. I was struck by how you were persuaded by the Leofranc Holford-Stevens letter, because I couldn't think of a sillier – or perhaps more revealing – analogy than the one he used. Let's think about it. Is he saying that Europe is now a sectarian environment – like Belfast – and that the divide is between literalist Muslims and advocates of free speech? If he is, then I think that's a little worrying, don't you? But let's, for argument's sake, give him the benefit of the doubt on his rather stark vision. Then sticking with his analogy, does that mean a Danish newspaper, by publishing some cartoons in Denmark, is going into Muslim territory? The Belfast Loyalist comparison only makes sense if Jyllands Posten published the cartoon in Saudi Arabia – unless, that is, he is saying that Europe is now Saudi Arabia and should be considered off-limits to free-thinkers. Now that really is worrying.

I would say this to you. When you speak of there being 'no purpose to upsetting volatile people unnecessarily' you are sending out a signal to the irrational and the violent that the limits of freedom will be set by their level of violence rather than by the law. I imagine fascist groups must look at the Islamic extremist example and think, 'Now why didn't we think of that?'

On that subject, you are right to say that Hizb ut-Tahrir should not be banned, but you are, I believe, gravely wrong if you believe that Hizb is anything but a fascist party. They are no different to the BNP.

Reply 12th March

Dear Andrew Anthony
Thanks very much for your email. We bloggers, as you will know, love to engage in debate so we love to have intelligent comments on what we say. In response I'd say:

1. I did not think the comparison was a direct one- the relevance of Ulster lay in the daggers -drawn state of community relations which makes even careless comments the possible cause of violence.
2. I quite agree with your excellently phrased comment about not allowing the violent and irrational to set the limits of freedom. We must do all we can to avoid this. If we can prevent madmen from commiting insane acts then, of course, we should.
3. But we cannot always control the behaviour of people who are literally beyond our control and we have to recognise this reality and act accordingly. In domestic situations we control the use of violence for law enforcement and, in practice as well as theory, we can usually do this. However, when international dimensions are concerned the writ of the law does not extend much beyond our own borders. For example the USSR broke many agreements during the Cold war but neither we nor the USA were prepared to use military force to defend the proper limits of freedoms violated. This was a typical piece of political decision-making : a recognition that such action would be futile and self defeating. We had to watch, wait and try other strategies which might bear fruit. It took forty years in the end but we can probably say worked. In the case of the Falklands, we could arguably do something to defend freedom and we did so but even then there were those who thought it too risky and too expensive in terms of lives lost.
4.To get to the point, it seems to me that in publishing those cartoons, Jyllands Posten was messing with forces they and we cannot control - the irreguar ranks of jihadi Islam and just like the example cited in the Leofranc letter, it was an act of considerable foolishness- tragically so if the several innocent lives lost are weighed in the balance.
5. I'm not well informed on Hizb so take your word they are neo-fascist. However their spokespeople whom I have heard have been remarkably more lucid and articulate than anyone the BNP could put up, including the Cambridge educated Nick Griffin.
best
Bill Jones

Message 2. 13th March

Dear Bill (to coin a phrase),

If the Belfast analogy had any meaning at all, it had to be one of context – ie, you don't go into a Republican bar and spout Loyalist propaganda without expecting dire consequences.
1. You must therefore take on board the context of the Jyllands Posten cartoons: in Denmark. Please think about that. It took five months of Islamic extremist agitation to get the mobs out.
2. You talk about people who are 'beyond our control'. Well, they are not beyond their own control. They are not babies. But rather than hold them responsible for their actions we blame a Danish newspaper. It's a terrible precedent and one we will all come to regret.
3. What 'international' dimension? The cartoons, I repeat, were published in Denmark.
4. Your definition of foolishness is anything that might excite the anger or violence of others. Take this thinking to its logical – and inevitable – conclusion and women would be deemed foolish for wearing skirts, indeed for showing their faces or going out on the street unaccompanied by a man. Does that sound familiar? There are countries in which such actions are not only deemed foolish but are illegal. Let the madman decide what freedom is and that's where you end up.
5. If you don't know about Hizb I urge you to find out. Just because someone is lucid it does not mean they are not sinister. There were plenty of lucid Nazis.
6. What bothers me – and it's the reason that I'm taking the time to write to you – is that you seem to be one of the good guys, with decent instincts. And if the good guys can't see evil when it approaches, then we are really in trouble.
Best
Andrew

Reply 13th March

On 13 Mar 2006, at 13:18, Bill Jones wrote:

Andrew
1.think we agree Islam is an illiberal and, to many of us in the west unwholesome creed which not only discriminates shamefully against women but also offers up a threat to other cultures which do not offer any reciprocal threat. But this is-and has been the case with other systems of ideas- and we have not taken pro-active steps to counter them. I think female circumcision is appalling but I wouldn't advocate the bombing of Khartoum because of it.

2 Surely we have to accept that other people think differently to us and respect that; all this in the hope they will eventually grow to respect us. My point about the 'international dimension' is that the cartoons caused little or no trouble at home- and even if they did the Danish police could probably cope- but have caused absurd amounts of trouble and deaths of innocent people in places abroad where no-one really has any control.

3. Bottom line remains that publishing the cartoons was a foolish move- and many, including Danish friends tell me the paper has a strong anti-immigrant agenda-which needlessly provoked a religious group currently experiencing fundamentalist extremism.

4. I think I can usually spot evil when it approaches but I'm also very worried about provoking avoidable and unnecessary conflict. A dead person is still dead whatever their religion or nationality.

To conclude the debate so far, I think we agree about ends but disagree about means. I'm for a more subtle diplomacy and management of Islam while it is so volatile and dangerous. And I think dealing with the problem at home is very different from dealing with it abroad.
best
Bill

Message 3 13th March

Bill,

1. OK, I will try once again to get you to acknowledge that the cartoons were published in Denmark not in Saudi Arabia or Syria. Your argument seems to be that all people in the non-Islamic world must be careful what they do and say lest it provoke Muslims in another part of the world. It's simply not good enough, has no intellectual merit, to keep repeating that it was foolish of the Jyllands Posten to publish the cartoons. What kind of 'bottom line' is that statement? Was it foolish of Salman Rushdie to publish The Satanic Verses? People have died as a result of that decision, too. But Rushdie is NOT responsible for their deaths and neither is Jyllands Posten. As I say, the killers will always determine the nature of our freedoms if they are able to exercise the blackmail of murder.

2. Surely we have to accept that other people think differently to us, you say. Well, Bill, we do. We take it in our stride every day that teenage girls are hanged in Iran (which is a civilized country with a long and rich cultural history) for the crime of sleeping with their boyfriends. We raise not so much as an eyebrow when an imam in the central Mecca mosque lectures his audience on the need to kill all Jews, and that the Nazis were right in their Final Solution. We are all pretty casual and understanding when Christians and Shia Muslims in Pakistan are blown up and terrorised on a regular basis. No, the people who surely have to accept that other people think differently are those who have sent the cartoonists into hiding, those who torched the embassies in Beirut and Damascus. That is the bottom line. And yet so many liberals prefer to focus their disapproval on the Danes.

3. You say you're good at spotting approaching evil, well, with respect, you don't inspire confidence with your reading of Hizb. In recent years they have embarked on the same process as the BNP (only with more success), which is to clean up their media act, and present a more acceptable external face while retaining the same hate agenda for internal consumption. Please read the various former Hizb members who expose the true aims of the group. Hizb have taken the pages down from their website now (though you can still find them at Harry's Place) but there is plenty of anti-semitic and anti-infidel Hizb material if you care to look for it.

4. If you hope that Islamic extremists will grow to respect us then all I can say is that you are either an optimist of historic proportions or you are not listening to what they are saying. I may disagree with the jihadists but I acknowledge their sincerity and their determination. They demonstrate the same contempt for liberals as the Nazis showed, and they will be no more deterred by appeasement than were the Nazis.

5. I think there is an idea that we don't have to take Islamic extremism that seriously because it is merely the cry of the powerless and the oppressed. Thus it is melodramatic to compare it to 1930s fascism. First thing to say here is that the Nazis started out as a tiny group that appealed to the marginalised and the alienated in a country that thought it had been ill-treated by the Great Powers. The second is that in the global age, the ideological menace no longer requires specific state endorsement or support - ie it represents a new and distinct threat to life and liberty. Our first duty in combatting that threat is to recognise it when it shows its face. If we think that by shouting down Denmark we are dealing with the real problem then we have taken up residence in Cloud Cuckoo Land, and I'm not sure what atrocity or incursion on freedom will shake us to our senses.

Very best wishes,

Andrew

Reply, 13th March

Andrew
I can't promise my reply will be quite as impassioned as your own last but let me try again too. Rather than me making even more clear how much I abominate the recent terrorism and illiberal attitudes to free speech(plus hanged teenage girls) as well and wish to see every step taken to resist and punish it, let's use the analogy of the hostage situation to see if it shines any light.

Suppose a gunman has taken a hundred hostages and is making demands which, if unfulfilled, he threatens will lead to the death of hostages. At first the police try to reason with him. They cannot respond to his requests they say as they are unrealistic- he should lay down his arms and come out quietly. They suggest negotiations begin but the gunman refuses. He talks wildly and threatens to shoot people at random. He sets a deadline. The police allow it to pass. He shoots two hostages and throws out their bodies. He sets another deadline. The police allow it to pass. He shoots four hostages.

Now what do the police do? If they rush the building the gunman could kill everyone with his automatic weapon. Do they give in to his demands and damagingly prove such methods bear fruit? Do they try to keep him talking and hope for a softening of the gunman's resolve or something which will bring about a change of heart? It's a tough one but seems to me we are in something like this situation.

The Salmon Rushdie affair, using the same analogy, happened early on in the hostage situation- before the first killings which are like the terrorist acts, shall we say, of 9-11, Madrid and 7-7. Things have changed dramatically and we are now in the following stand-off. What is not needed at all in this situation is a sudden provocation which could trigger off the gunman's finger once again. I see the cartoons as like just such a provocation.

Now, I'm not going to pretend my 'wait and see- talk and be diplomatic' approach will produce success, but at least we won't have to send for any more body bags just yet. Cautious if you like, but no less committed than what appears to be your more gung ho approach. But maybe I'm misinterpreting your line: how would you deal with my analogous situation and how would you deal with the cartoon situation as well?
Best
Bill

Message 4 13th March

Bill,

Where to start? You have accepted a situation in which you see the defence of the publication of cartoons – of comic illustrations of the most timid nature – as 'gung ho'. In that respect, you are so far along the road to self-censorship – which ultimately becomes the denial of self – that I'm not sure that I can appeal to you in any language that you won't now instinctively see as inflammatory. But I'll try anyway. As with all such analogies, we have to look at what the constituent parts actually represent, otherwise the exercise is less than useless.

In your analogy, who are the hostages? It seems to me that you're saying all of us. Any one of us can be killed at any time by the hostage-holders so, you argue, we had better not do anything to provoke them. I'll come to how depressing I find your tolerance of that state of affairs. But, before that, what are the hostage-holders demands? First, that we, the hostages, don't do anything to annoy them. You seem to believe if we stick to that, they might let us all go – but presumably with the proviso that they can take us all hostage again whenever they like, in which case we've only gained an illusory liberty. If you listen to real hostage-holders, their aims are not limited to preventing anyone from offending them. So I'm not sure where you get the idea that giving into their demands will lead to peace and understanding. Call me gung-ho, but I can see no reason to believe that it will.

Of course, you are entirely at liberty to hand over your liberties to irrational homicidal madmen, but I would prefer not to. Just out of interest, what do you think the extremists will have taken from the cartoons crisis? Do you think they will conclude a) that these secular liberal Europeans are not to be messed with, they really stand together and defend their values of free speech and the rule of law or b) threaten these gutless infidels with murder and they acquiesce, turn on one another, and will accede to our every demand. My feeling is that it's b) and, I have to say, that concerns me.

What also concerns me is that in mustering all our 'tolerance' and 'restraint' – translation: fear and self-loathing – to accommodate the intolerable and the unrestrained, we are abandoning those poor souls from the 'Muslim community' who are attempting to combat the superstition, homophobia and oppression of women. My friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali now lives under 24-hour-police protection, her co-filmmaker Theo van Gogh having been practically decapitated on the daylight streets of Amsterdam. This woman should be a hero – she started out by bringing attention to the appalling level of domestic violence among Muslims living in Holland – but European liberals have by and large forsaken her. Our principled government refused to afford her police protection when she visited here a couple of months ago because they did not wish to offend or provoke the Muslim community! The liberal left looks at her, a brave, thoughtful, rational, caring woman, and it hurts their brains so they decide, ha ha, she must be a reactionary! That way they can maintain a clear conscience and leave her to her fate. It's the same trick they perform with the Danes.

What I find particularly depressing, as I mentioned earlier, is that people who might be expected to stand up and be counted in this debate – the people who stood up to Mary Whitehouse – have all gone missing. 'Ah,' they appear to say, 'if freedom involves sacrifice or danger, then I don't want to know. That's serious. I don't mind taking some old suburban dear to task and really laying into her but I draw the line at people who might turn violent.'

How can I put it, Bill. I refuse to be a hostage. I refuse to stay silent. I refuse to comply with the oppressive demands of a bunch of fascists thugs.

How would I deal with the cartoon situation? Well, for a start I would express my solidarity with the people of Denmark who have been threatened, traduced and made the subject of a vile and orchestrated international campaign. I would have published the cartoons with a warning to readers who might be offended that it was possible to not buy the newspaper or buy the newspaper and not look at that cartoons. I would have exposed all the talk of tolerance and restraint for the cant and claptrap that it is. And I would want as large a showing as possible of liberal, open-minded and rational people to stand up and make clear their commitment to free expression within the law.
The silence is deafening.
Best
Andrew

Reply 14th March

Dear Andrew
I think the point has been reached when neither of us is likely to change the others' basic position though I have learnt a great deal from an enjoyable exchange which has reached parts of the debate other discussions have not. It is for this reason that I'd like to put an edited version of yesterday's debate on my blog with the title 'The Cartoons and the Defence of Freedom' or some such. Would you be happy for that? I could edit, sending it to you for approval if you required this. It would add a useful additional element to the blogosphere's coverage of this issue.
best
Bill

Message 5, 14th March
Dear Bill,

I'm happy for you to put our exchange up, but if you're going to edit it, I'd like to see it first. Thanks.

Best wishes,

Andrew

PS I find it a great shame that while I specifically addressed your questions – for example, what would I have done about the cartoons, dealt with your hostage analogy, and answered your point about 'people thinking differently from us' – you never explained why the bottom line was the Danes were foolish (when the bottom line was surely that the Islamists were violently imposing their agenda and the Danes needed to be defended). You did not answer my question about what you thought the Islamists would take from cartoons crisis. You did not follow through on the logic of your hostage crisis – how and when and in what circumstances could the hostages gain liberty? Indeed, you say that we want the same end – I can't speak for you but the end I want is freedom of expression, rule of law, and rational debate – but that we differ on means. Well my means of getting to freedom of expression, rule of law and rational debate is by defending those things, maintaining them, by not going backwards. Yours, from everything you've said, is by restricting freedom of expression, giving into mob rule, and privileging the irrational. How you hope to get to your end by those means is something that you have never begun to address. By all means stick with your basic position but it does seem sensible that if you are going to have a basic position, you should at least ask yourself some basic questions and then, ideally, come up with some basic answers. I'm still waiting for yours.

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