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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

12 cartoons: Tim Blair + Andrew West « Previous | |Next »
February 7, 2006

I've commented on the publication of the 12 Muhammad cartoons under cartoon wars over at junk for code. Here I want to place them in the context of a multicultural Australia and the possibilities of liberal pluralism. Tim Dunlop over at Road to Surfdom raises the issue of conflicting goods--- when two "goods" of free speech and mutual respect collide-- in the cartoon wars.

CartoonEurope.jpg
Petar Pismestrovic

A key issue is that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute:---the right to say anything, in any way, against anybody--- as we have laws in Australia that address behaviour that incites hatred, serious contempt, revulsion and severe ridicule of others because of their race and religion. I presume that Tim Blair's publication of the 12 cartoons on his weblog was provocative in terms of the "clash of civilizations" and caused offence, but was it a villification of Australian-Muslims because of their race or religion? Probably not.

In the Australian multiculturalism context, Blair's rejection of any nurturing of a sense of civic responsibility through mutual respect of the cultural and religious sensitivities of Australian-Muslims, represents using the media as a weapon of war. He confirms his conception of the conservative journalist as an Republican-style attack dog for an anti-Islamic movement, whose tactics are designed to enrage and infuriate. These tactics are based on power, and the flaunting of power, and they aim to demonize Muslims as bloodthirsty--- sword-wielding, limb-choppers or suicide-bombers, and religious fanatics. Hence the movement's "call-to-arms" against "Islamism".

what was expressed by the cartoons was contempt for Muslims, then Blair continues with the conservative manufacture of the clash of civilisations that effectively silences the voices of moderate Muslims. The routine discrimination against Muslims on suspicion that they are terrorists in Australia means that these cartoons served only to compound such prejudice.

What of those who base their case on defending the Enlightenment in the face of religious and political extremism? Andrew West in his blog, The Contraran which is hosted by the Sydney Morning Herald, says that:

There is an uncompromising first principle at stake here: Muslims, and the adherents of any other faith, living in liberal societies must accept that, in such societies, a critique of religion, however juvenile and insulting, is not only permissible but intrinsic to democracy. You must have the right to tell me that what I believe is bunkum (as so many do on this site so often!).

West is right. The right to freedom of speech which allows newspapers to publish provocative cartoons has been hard won, is inextricably essential to liberty, and should be robustly defended. If free speech is to be sunstantive and meaningful, then the right to this freedom involves embracing views that a majority - or a minority - finds distasteful, offensive, or hurtful.

However, West's liberal assertion of the inalienable right to freedom of expression does downplays the measured exercise of this freedom in the context of the diverse religious sensitivities that compose our multicultural Australia. The cartoon of the prophet wearing a turban that conceals a fizzing bomb is offensive. It just isn't true to say that the teachings of Islam's founder---the prophet Muhammad --- bear responsibility for suicide bombers.

West's downplaying of respect for the values of Muslim-Australians has the effect of imposing liberal values on a pluralist society. Hence the sense of coercion that undercuts the claim of liberal pluralism.

In both cases the two goods---free speech and mutual respect---colliding are made to melt away. So we need to figure out a way to give equal weight to the conflicting goods.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:42 PM | | Comments (2)
Comments

Comments

On the surface the cartoons can be considered as insensitive and disrespectful to Islam as the Piss Christ was to Christianity. If the Piss Christ was doing a tour of the European capitals today, I wonder how much hostility and anger it would incite from Christian groups, particularly the Catholic Church.
I feel that the widespread publication of the cartoons in Europe were provocative and intended to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment. They should be seen in the greater context of the ongoing exchange of insults and threats between the leaders of Europe and Iran. ie. Berlusconi's remarks about the inferiority of Islamic civilisation, Chirac’s threat to nuke Iran, Merkel equating Ahmadinejad to Hitler, and so on. It’s all getting out of hand.

Steve,
The political effect of the cartoons is increasing.

One example. Brian Whitaker writing in The Guardian has some a few insights.He says:

The main offence of the cartoons, as far as I can see, is that several of them stereotype Muslims, portraying Islam as an inherently violent religion. The additional matter of insulting the prophet is more difficult for non-Muslims to understand.

He goes on to quote the opinion of a number of bloggers in the Middle East before arguing that the issue and demonstrations is being stirred and orchestrated by a some Arab states-Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iran. So it would seem that the protests are probably not mostly purely about religion.

Another example. Janet Albrechtson writing in The Australian says:

Not publishing the cartoons adds to the debate by suggesting we will walk on eggshells in appeasing Muslim sensibilities. The spontaneous reaction across the Middle East has morphed into planned intimidation of the West and its values. And it seems to be working. Those opposed to free speech are learning that the louder they shout, the faster we surrender.

She says that West has flunked the free speech test due to our feeble defence of those values and that the 'West's recreational appeasement of cultures diametrically opposed to Western values got us into this mess. '
The conservative battle cry is no surrender to the enemy within.

Double standards are involved in Australia. Whilst liberals like Andrew West argue that Muslims must be good secularists when it comes to free speech of cheap cartoons, he ignores that Australians can, and do, worry about the religious sensibilities of the adherents to our own Christian religion just as much. So it is not an issue of secularism versus Islam in liberal democracies.