David Thompson


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February 19, 2008


R. Sherman

Assuming there is a large generation of migrants who have not been integrated into Danish society, one must then ask "Why is this so?" After all, the Danes have opened their borders, provided freedom and social benefits, etc. What else should the Danes have done to facilitate this integration, short of declaring Denmark a part of the new Caliphate? Unfortunately, truthful answers to those questions would expose the bankruptcy of Western political philosophy underlying our dealings with Muslim immigrants.

John Miller

I came here via Mr E and , may I say, am very pleased to have arrived...

Reading your post, CiF and MR Hitchen's article, the following parable (oops! I am an atheist really)came to mind on the whole subject of religion.

I am a confirmed National Lotto participator. Every week I buy the numebers 1,2,3,4,5 and 6 on just the one ticket.

Everyone I know laughs at me and derides me. My friends joyfully point out how stupid I am, with no head for figures. The local newspaper publishes cartoons showing how simple I am.

But of course, since this is a parable, I win every week. Week in week out the numbers come up and I am becoming a multi-millionaire.

What is my reaction to my detractors? Well, I can't really envisage anyone in my position doing anything except laugh at them for their obvious stupidity. I know I am right and I am reaping my reward.

End of parable.

This perhaps facile thought leads me to believe that doubt, insecurity, fear, the lack of knowing are the real causes of the violence. Someone with absolute conviction in their faith would not act that way, for why should they?



“…leads me to believe that doubt, insecurity, fear, the lack of knowing are the real causes of the violence.”

Well, I’d add cognitive dissonance to the list. It was suggested here recently that such reactions may be related to the less than edifying qualities of Islam’s founder, and how those qualities have been sacralised and emulated. People who lie to themselves – say, about the nature of Muhammad - are often somewhat prickly and prone to overreact.


It’s hard not to marvel at the staggering wrong-headedness of Illeborg’s position, which is, unfortunately, repeated at regular intervals in the pages of the Guardian. A right one dare not use is scarcely a right at all. Though Mr Illeborg will apparently dance on pinheads while pretending otherwise. And he doesn’t seem to grasp that his own queasiness and moral unrealism is part of a larger picture. His arguments, such as they are, lend weight to the villains of the piece and undermine efforts to resist censorious thuggery. Meanwhile, the 73-year-old Kurt Westergaard faces homelessness because hotels are reluctant to accommodate him, for fear of being attacked by the thugs Illeborg ties himself in knots trying to excuse.


Matt M

If "it probably has little to do with religion", then wouldn't that make them "men" rather than "Muslim men"? After all, if religion isn't really a factor then the fact that they're all Muslim is just a huge coincidence and has little bearing on the matter. Also, as this isn't really a religious issue, and the cartoons deal with religion, then surely they cannot logically be the cause of it?


Ah, but you’re thinking a little too clearly about this. I think the idea is we’re all supposed to become stupid and pretend, and avoid saying anything that undermines that pretence.


Actually, Western racism _does_ play a huge role in this whole matter.

Far too many people in the West apparently think that Muslims are incapable of civilized behavior, and so ignore them when they act like barbarians. That's racism.

The same people apparently think that Muslims are not capable of moral choice, so put blame elsewhere when Muslims actively commit heinous crimes. That's racism.

The same people apparently think that Muslim women don't deserve the same rights and protections as Western women -- and that Western women give them up if they marry a non-Westerner. That's racism _and_ sexism.

It's time for the West to stand up and treat other people as our equals -- and hold them to the same standards we apply to ourselves!

Francis Sedgemore

I'm not going to defend Jakob Illeborg, whose portrayals of Danish politics tend to be overly simplistic. Even for the more lumpen readers of CiF. As for this latest piece, I imagine that it was commissioned rather than submitted on-spec, and it certainly plays to the gallery. No surprises there.

Fire starting? Well, yes, the cartoons were a deliberate provocation, as one of the cartoonists made clear with his drawing. Whether the provocation was justified is another matter. Personally, I (still) think it was unwise, and question the motives of the Jyllands Posten editors for publishing the original cartoons. We are after all talking about a newspaper that in some ways resembles the Daily Wail.

The violent reaction from a small section of Denmark's Muslim community can never be justified, but what we have in effect is a playground taunt that resulted in riots and arson. Just what Denmark needs. Not. Denmark is a not particularly open society, but having lived in the country for a few years, my impression is that it is more genuinely multicultural than Britain. We could learn a lot from the Danes about how to handle rapid demographic change.



“Denmark is a not particularly open society…”

“…my impression is that it is more genuinely multicultural than Britain.”

The question, I suppose, is whether those two things are related.

Francis Sedgemore

David - if Denmark were more open, it would almost certainly be more successful and better integrated. Then not only could the Danes teach us how to organise a liberal European society, but also a thing or two about market economics. When we in "UK plc" are wringing our hands over an imagined breakdown in the social order, nationalising banks and lining the pockets of private businessmen with taxpayers' money, we could certainly do with such lessons.



“…we could certainly do with such lessons.”

Well, that’s a debate for another day. :)

We could speculate at length about the motives of any particular publisher at any given time, but it’s ultimately beside the point. They’re either free to publish the cartoons, in accord with secular law and current standards of freedom, or they aren’t. A right that daren’t be used is no right at all.

I suppose a lot of this hinges on whether you feel that avoiding publication of the cartoons (and, presumably, anything similarly “provocative” that might arise in the future) would result in a quiet life and respect all round; or whether you feel it would reward censorious thugs who will then have an obvious incentive to make further, bolder demands. This isn’t simply a matter of feelings and injured vanity. It’s a power struggle, and sooner or later someone will have to win.

Francis Sedgemore

David - there is no question (at least among rational human beings) that publishers should be free to publish cartoons such as those in Jyllands Posten, and that is our duty to defend Politikens Hus against those calling for the mass beheadings of infidels or whatever. This is not the same as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.

But I find it incredibly frustrating how polarised this debate has become. It's virtually impossible now to discuss the issue in terms of personal responsibility rather than the right of free speech without being accused of giving in to the forces of darkness. Not that I'm not accusing you personally of doing that.

You are quite right to say that a right that dare not be used is no right at all. But that does not mean that the right *must* be exercised. There are plenty of battles that should and can be fought and won. I just think that a little more discrimination is called for than we've seen so far in the Motoons debate (e.g., many of the comments following Illeborg's ill-informed article).



“But that does not mean that the right *must* be exercised.”

Obviously. Though once the violence began – two years ago and now – I think *everyone* should have published the cartoons to rebuff the attempt to intimidate. And I agree that some of the debate is a tad polarised. But, regarding the basic principle, it’s difficult to see how else one can manoeuvre without fudging the bones of it, as Illeborg and others have done, and done deliberately.

I suppose what I mean is, who’s to decide what constitutes a “legitimate” motive to publish something deemed “provocative”? The state? Someone else’s state? The Legion of Affronted Believers? Or can I decide? Go on, let me be in charge. I’ll be wise, I promise…

Francis Sedgemore

" Go on, let me be in charge."

Heaven forfend! :-)


">Personally, I (still) think it was unwise, and question the motives of the Jyllands Posten editors for publishing the original cartoons."

But, of course, you do not question the motives of the people who decide to express their alleged upset in such an unjustifable way.

Surprised you didn't add "and the cartoons weren't even particularly funny anyway".

Francis Sedgemore

David - That completely fuckwitted comment from dmatr proves my point.

John Miller

Umm, I may as well continue as I began, with my simple view of life.

I have to reduce social problems to "you" and "me". What would "your" reaction be to "me" in any given situation.

So I find debates about integration sometimes ingenuous. I do not wish to subjugate women, kill homosexuals or stone adulterers. So:-

You are having a party, but you have no security on the door. You are vegans, non smokers and teetotal.

I arrive. I enter your house and light a cigarette, bring out my hip flask and ask where the barby is.

When you and I integrate, where is the line drawn and who draws it?

Does your house possess any sanctity? Is it "yours" in any sense or is it merely a place that you occupy until I arrive to share it?

How far should your values impinge upon me?

Integration implies a sharing - can I force you to smoke, drink or share a burger? If I do not force you , but merely make a request which you decline, are we still sharing? or have you shunned my attempts at integration?

My view - jaded and sepia as it is - is that you play by the home rules. You stringently obey the rules of the country you are in. Well, fairly stringently. And then seepage occurs. I don't remember the USA issuing an edict in the 40's and 50's that all British youths should adopt the customs of East and Mid -West North America - but they did.

So although you may resist the temptation of a quick fag, or a drop of Macallan, the lure of the Millerburger may prove too much.


The Motoons were published following the murder of Theo van Gogh. This gave rise to a feeling that Islam was off limits to any critical enquiry. This is surely a matter of public concern. For the sake of argument I will concede that Jyllands Posten (or the Daily Mail) was an inappropriate venue for that discussion. That being so the question arises as to why a more responsible newspaper did not commence a serious discussion earlier. It is notable that whenever this issue has appeared in say the Guardian, it has been along the lines as quoted by David or as written by Madelaine Bunting, Karen Armstrong et al. I don't recall anything after Gogh's murder along these lines.

That there has been no serious attempt to examine these issues is why they were first raised by people like Theo van Gogh and Jyllands Posten and not by the Guardian. I think it disingenuous to claim that Jyllands Posten is inappropriate for the discussion when every "liberal" newspaper shirked the task.

"Acceptable" examinations seem to take one of two approaches. The first is to couch the language and the discussion in whatever way found to be necessary to avoid any offence. The implication being that other cultures are permanently out of bounds for any rational enquiry. The second approach, which I guess is the position of Francis, is that we must carry out the discussion in an extremely guarded way or completely avoid discussion until we reach a stage in the future when there is no risk of offence. ie there will come a time, maybe occasioned by "integration" or equality, or when the global Islamic revival falters, or perhaps even maturity, when such discussions can resume freely. Until then we must be polite or perhaps sensible.

The first approach doesn't merit any discussion.

The second has several problems. When will we reach the stage when atheists can talk and wrote about Islam like they talk and write about Christianity? It certainly won't be brought closer by giving in to intimidation. The assumption that there is a time and a place or an acceptable way to raise these issues seems to me to be code words to ensure that only the Buntings and the Armstrongs are actually permitted to discuss the issues. It also seems a way of avoiding actual consideration of the merits of the claim of offence. We know now that the cartoons were very serious, but it took three months and a tour of the middle east to get to the rent a mob stage. Reprinting in Egypt occasioned no disturbances whatsoever. When did they become provocative? The Egyptians didn't seem too upset in November. Are you judging the provocation based upon hindsight? I doubt in October anyone would have guessed the effect. I suggest that cartoons are pretty trivial and that they formed only a trigger for other forces.

Furthermore this kind of argument tends to treat all Muslims as being the same. Politeness is how I treat the local vicar, but I don't extend that courtesy to the Jehovah's witness when he ignores my initial "I'm not interested". In the same way, do you accept that some Muslims deserve ridicule? Should I be polite about MPACUK or Hizb ut-Tahrir? Or should Hitchens stop being beastly to Islamic Rage Boy? http://www.slate.com/id/2169020/ Given the ideological convergence of religion and politics within these groups, it would prove exceedingly difficult to actually argue with these people, if one has to consciously avoid the suggestion that the revealed truth that underlies their beliefs is false or ridiculous. Their politics are borne out of their religion. So any criticism risks offending not just the extremists but other Muslims too.

I don't see how your plea for politeness solves this dilemma. To me, it seems a plea to pretend there is no elephant in the room.


You mindlessly parrot the standard "well yes they should be able to publish the cartoons but.. erm... shouldn't" and "question the motives" of the newspaper. How nuanced. Your fatuous argument does not get any more convincing through repetition, or indeed, name-calling.

Francis Sedgemore

The world is full of lunatics, and I have better things to do than wage battle against all of them.

dmatr is an idiot, and as far as I'm concerned he can fuck off and boil his head. I have no interest in debating anything with him or others who grossly misrepresent what I say.

As for ridicule, my use of this rhetorical device has led to me being effectively blacklisted by Guardian Media Ltd, and as a freelance journalist that's rather inconvenient. I'm not calling for politeness, but rather for people to pick their fights with much greater care, and not allow themselves to be led by donkeys. Regarding hindsight, you have got it wrong, TDK. Within Denmark one could easily have seen what would happen given the previous behaviour of the Islamisk Trossamfund's leadership.

The best cartoon of the bunch was the one of a Valby schoolboy writing on the blackboard that the editors of Jyllands Posten are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.



“I'm not calling for politeness, but rather for people to pick their fights with much greater care…”

But irrespective of what you (or I, or anyone) thinks about the timing of the reprint or the motives of any particular publisher, the basic problem remains. Disapproving of a particular newspaper, or which battles its editors choose to fight, doesn’t seem to address the fundamental conflict of values. And, as I said, the predictability of the braying, threats and burning doesn’t make those things any less absurd or inexcusable. My own view echoes that of a Swedish commenter: “I predict that this will not be the last showing of the cartoons. The last showing will be the first one that no one reacts to.” Until such time, avoiding “provocative” material will be taken as submission to an irrational and supremacist urge.

And there’s still the issue of how your personal dislike for the timing or intent behind a perfectly legal act would translate into something practical. Again, who decides what constitutes the “right” kind of fight? Who gets to override the freedoms and reasons of law abiding publishers? Or cartoonists, or film makers, or authors, or scholars…?

Oh, and people,

Play nicely. Don’t make me use the Finger of Doom™.


Francis Sedgemore

All I'm calling for is for people to behave well and take personal responsibility for their actions. I'm most certainly not calling for third parties to make legal judgements. The law will never deal adequately with issues such as this.


Why can't we all just get along/behave well?

btw: I'm delighted to see I'm the first person ever in the history of the interweb to be told "he can fuck off and boil his head." I think this deserves a prize.

I'd be interested to hear what you mean by "take personal responsibility for their actions" wrt the cartoonists and/or editors. I assume you're not suggesting they were "asking for it" but perhaps that they should not be surprised at the reaction they have provoked?

Your comments to me have been offensive and provocative, would you take "personal responsibility" for them if I came round your house with a baseball bat? (I hasten to add I would never do this of course, such behaviour is completely unjustifiable, and anyway I'm a lover not a fighter. Plus I don't know where you live. To be clear: there is absolutely no need for you to live in hiding in fear of your life. Unlike the cartoonists.)


"I'm most certainly not calling for third parties to make legal judgements. The law will never deal adequately with issues such as this."

I think bringing the question of "law" is a bit of a straw man. You use the phrase "behave well". Well I think to be meaningful this has to be shared between various parties. A universal if you like. How do we determine whether people have behaved well?

I'm intrigued by your response to this. You are a key, if not the principle, writer on the Popinjays website. You are hardly civil about your opponents and you write forcefully and effectively. I suggest your site would be boring and ineffective if you "behaved well". "Jug-eared twat makes speech" only works because you are deliberately being rude.

Popinjays is famous for supporting the second Iraq war, led by Bush, a donkey if ever there was one. As a signer of the Euston manifesto, can I suggest that you are fully aware that fights develop frequently at the wrong time and under the wrong leader yet we still are obliged to support them.

Francis Sedgemore

The Popinjays site is a blog, and like this one is read by by (relatively) few middle-aged men, and maybe also their pet ferrets. Yes, I am often deliberately rude. But I take responsibility for my actions as an individual, and I also temper my behaviour when writing professionally as a journalist. (Though it only took a few lines of a mildly sarcastic Heine poem in a submitted but spiked Comment is Free piece to offend the inhabitants of Guardian Towers.)

Yes, the Popinjays supported, and still support, the second Iraq war, but we are hardly fanboys/girls of the undoubted donkeys George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. We make no apology for our support for military intervention in Iraq. It was the right thing to do, and it is right that we remain to complete the job.

dmatr - I would fart in your general direction if I knew roughly where you are (apologies to Monty Python).

The Thin Man

"middle-aged men, and maybe also their pet ferrets"

Now you listen to me, Colonel Bat Guano, if that is your real name!, many of us reading this site are in fact youthful slender limbed twinks with supermodel looks and full heads of luxuriant hair.

I also resent your implication that we have ever had contact with such prole-type animals as ferrets, other than perhaps fleetingly glimpsing "wife-beater" wearing council house dwellers betting their "dole" money on the outcome of ferret fights as we waft by, sipping Bolly in the rear seats of our Bentley Continental on the way to a super glamorous soiree.

KB Player

i think what Francis Sedgemore is requesting is more civility in debate, odd though that may sound from a contributor to the Drunk Pop Tarts. And if I'm wrong he will be the first to tell me in the strongest terms how wrong I am.

When the cartoons story broke my first reaction was why publish pictures of Mohammad? I understand that that is a taboo among many Muslims. Violating that taboo seemed to me pointlessly offensive. It's different from refraining from discussing/criticising a religion because its followers may find that offensive. Too bad if they do. And different again from offending or enraging head banging theocrats. Bring it on! I'm all for annoying Sir Iqbal Sacranie. But gratuitous offence to ordinary Muslims struck me as being ignorantly nasty. Like walking into a mosque with your shoes on. Art works that rely on upsetting Christian sensibilities disgust me as well.

In some parts of the world there are sacred objects eg trees. You may think that it is silly superstition that they're sacred. But you wouldn't pee over one would you?

Anyway the only funny cartoon of the set was the one of the suicide bombers being told to leave off as heaven was running out of virgins.

Francis Sedgemore

Drunk Pop Tarts - pished and proud!


"In some part of the world there are sacred object eg tree. You may think that it is a silly superstition that they're sacred. But you wouldn't pee over one would you?"

If the trees hunted you and/or your family down for mentioning their propensity to do so, they would be asking too much.

BTW, commenting and discussing religious fundamentalism isn't the same as, say, pissing on a Shinto shrine.



“Like walking into a mosque with your shoes on.”

Or not. It’s probably helpful to bear in mind distinctions between private and public arenas. The issue does, after all, have a territorial aspect. No-one here has suggested striding into the nearest mosque, bare-footed or otherwise, and lecturing the occupants on the history of Islamic terrorism, its theological sanction, or the finer points of epistemology. Generally speaking, a person’s private beliefs are not my concern, or anyone else’s. However, when those beliefs enter the *public* realm - say, as demands for special treatment or death threats to illustrators, authors and scholars - then those ideas become fair game. If private taboos and assertions are used explicitly to justify demands on what others may say or do, then it’s difficult *not* to challenge those same assertions and taboos.

If someone publicly announces that he wants everyone else to do as he says based on his religious beliefs, then those of whom the demand is made are quite likely to make comments about those beliefs, some of which will be deemed insensitive or unflattering, especially if the beliefs in question are untenable and absurd. Political demands for censorship or submission require more than appeals to the alleged preferences of hypothetical deities and their homicidal prophets. And pointing out the homicidal leanings of Muhammad - as recorded by, among others, devout Muslims of the time - is only a “violation” if one is terribly dishonest and determined to remain so.

Matt M

I think that we can draw the distinction between believing that the paper had the right to publish whatever cartoons it wanted to and believing that those cartoons were a wise thing to do or not.

I probably would have advised against publishing them, as the debate about how we treat various taboos is an important one and - as Francis has pointed out - it's almost impossible to have it properly in the atmosphere that's been created. To draw a parallel, if I wanted to change my grandmother's opinion about taboo words I wouldn't start off by calling her a cunt. The best way forward probably would have been to simply draw Mohammed in a neutral manner - most likely causing some upset amongst Muslim communities without providing too much fuel for the extremists.



“I probably would have advised against publishing them, as the debate about how we treat various taboos is an important one and - as Francis has pointed out – it’s almost impossible to have it properly in the atmosphere that’s been created.”

The cartoons were, of course, a response to, and commentary on, an “atmosphere” that had already been created - in part by several murders and dozens of threats. I’m not too convinced there’s much of a debate to be had. And certainly no trade-off. We have nothing to put on the table. Ultimately, it’s a matter of explanation and then compliance with the law.

KB Player

"BTW, commenting and discussing religious fundamentalism isn't the same as, say, pissing on a Shinto shrine."

I'm all for commenting and discussing without fear or favour. I don't know if the cartoons were a comment and discussion in that sense and more like a piss.

However Inayat Bungawala, who once thought that a bunch of clerics should decide what books should be published has seen the light:-

"The truth is that the very same freedoms which allow Wilders to taunt Muslims so openly are also the ones which allow Muslims and others to spread the teachings of their faith without let or hindrance.

Muslim organisations should announce that despite the increasingly shrill Europe-wide efforts designed to vilify and bait Muslims, they will refuse to be provoked. . ."


Finally grasped the principles of free speech! And also, of not being provoked when others exercise it, however arsey they were when they exercised in it that particular way. I mean, I may have the right to put on Nazi regalia and stroll through Golders Green. But I'd still be an arse if I did so.

"To draw a parallel, if I wanted to change my grandmother's opinion about taboo words I wouldn't start off by calling her a cunt. "

Succinctly and beautifully expressed.


Discussing the “wisdom” or otherwise of the cartoons’ republication doesn’t address the basic problem. We can’t, and shouldn’t, police publishers’ motives in this way, and people are entitled to publish lawful material as they see fit. Tutting about those decisions to print doesn’t seem to achieve very much.

Speculating on publishers’ motives – and using words like “arsey” and “taunting” - also fails to address the key issue. Whatever freedoms and protections are extended to, say, Robert Redeker or scholars of Islamic history must, on principle, also be extended to newspaper editors of whatever hue. We can’t protect one without protecting the other. And the number of writers, artists and academics currently in hiding or under police protection isn’t getting any smaller.

And it seems to me that making dubious comparisons – say, with urinating on shrines or calling one’s grandmother a “cunt” – risks obscuring the issues even more and losing sight of what actually happened, in what order, and why.

Matt M

"Discussing the “wisdom” or otherwise of the cartoons’ republication doesn’t address the basic problem."

No-one's suggesting that it does - it's a sub-issue that, I think, also needs to be addressed at some point.

When it comes to the more important issue of religious groups trying to dictate what the rest of us can and cannot say/write/publish, there seems to be near unanimous agreement (here at least) that freedom of expression (where not directly inciting violence) is one of the foundations of liberal democracy, which most people agree is quite a Good Thing. The idea that we should legislate based on emotional reaction is both idiotic and unworkable.

We can - and in some cases should - assert this aggressively with the aim of showing as many people as possible the validity of the argument against censorship. Merely stating the principle as loudly and firmly as we can is fine up to a point, but we also need to look at the best way to persuade those who disagree. My worry is that the cartoons are actually getting in the way of making the argument by raising the emotional level of the debate to a point where rational thought seems to go out the window for most people. By *helping* to drown reasoned debate in violence and claims of offence they may be counter-productive - in the same way that calling someone a cunt is counterproductive to changing their mind about swearing.

Arguing that the cartoonists may be adopting ill-considered methods is entirely compatible with strongly asserting their right to do so.



“…We also need to look at the best way to persuade those who disagree. My worry is that the cartoons are actually getting in the way of making the argument by raising the emotional level of the debate to a point where rational thought seems to go out the window for most people.”

Well, the cartoons got *us* talking. I’m pretty sure those who wish to be rational will be, and those who don’t won’t. If a person sees the publication of a cartoon – and this one in particular - as a license to make death threats, or commit arson, or anything remotely similar, that person is hardly rational in the first place and is unlikely to become so irrespective of what is said. Hoping to “persuade” such a person of anything seems… well, futile.

There is, however, the law and effective prosecution.

Matt M

"Hoping to “persuade” such a person of anything seems… well, futile."

Again: I agree. But those aren't the people I have in mind. Between the secularists and the f*cktards are a whole range of people who, while not going so far as to want all unbelievers dead or submissive, believe there is a case for imposing the taboos of their group onto the world as a whole. It's these people who are probably capable of being brought around once tempers have settled and tears have dried. And I'd like to think that they outnumber the f*cktards.



I see what you’re saying. But, again, the taboo against depictions of Muhammad isn’t exactly rational, and, for those who observe it and feel that others should too, it doesn’t appear terribly amenable to some negotiated abandonment. And one can’t easily disentangle the cartoon controversy from the reactions to, say, Salman Rushdie, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasrin, Robert Redeker, Ibn Warraq, etc. It just strikes me as a little odd that many Europeans find themselves having to consider explaining their laws in this way. Or feel obliged to persuade, or negotiate, or justify, or win over.

Matt M

"It just strikes me as a little odd that many Europeans find themselves having to consider explaining their laws in this way. Or feel obliged to persuade, or negotiate, or justify, or win over."

It is odd. And annoying. Extremely annoying. But the sad fact is that there are plenty of people out there who want to see their religious taboos imposed onto everyone else. As much as I'm tempted to just shake my head in despair, I think we need to continually re-fight the battles for freedom of thought and expression in order to bring them around to our point-of-view and marginalise those who believe the appropriate response to disagreement involves matches or detonators.



I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. But I’m trying to compare the taboos about Muhammad (of which there are so many) with something more familiar and similarly contentious – say, abortion. Now people may have strong feelings about both subjects and, for some, there may be religious connotations to any argument on the issue. But in a debate about abortion there are still facts and evidential points of reference that can be argued rationally. It’s possible, at least in theory, to influence either side of the argument with evidence and reason.

However, in the case of the Muhammad cartoons, or many other Islamic taboos, there are few, if any, such points of mutual reference on which one can draw. This seems to limit the kind of discussion that’s likely to take place.

Matt M

"But in a debate about abortion there are still facts and evidential points of reference that can be argued rationally."

I'm not sure that the two things are actually that different - If debate about abortion revolves around the existence of an immaterial soul and the opinion of a transcendental being then we're in pretty the same boat, aren't we?

My opinion is that if debate can bring around even just 3% of people who thought otherwise then it's a debate worth having, because the more people you have arguing your case the more people you stand a chance of bringing round in future. part of that will involve pushing boundaries, but it's best if this is done in a productive rather than arbitrary way. (Again, I'm thinking arguments rather than laws to help promote such ways). I have no idea whether any significant change in the outlook of the Muslim world on this issue can be achieved, but I think it's worth trying - because I really don't see what the alternative is.



“If debate about abortion revolves around the existence of an immaterial soul and the opinion of a transcendental being then we’re in pretty the same boat, aren't we?”

But the mainstream discussions I’ve followed almost never revolve around that. Metaphysics is, at best, an incidental feature. I’m sure debates of an irrational and metaphysical kind occur, generally overseas; but here in the UK such viewpoints are unlikely to taken terribly seriously on any significant scale. Generally speaking, a person who wants to stop others having abortions has to come up with something more convincing than “God says it’s bad”, or some variation on that theme.

“…it’s best if this is done in a productive rather than arbitrary way.”

But again – and I see I have to keep repeating this point – it’s of no practical consequence what you (or I, or anyone) thinks is a “productive” or “wise” way to make the point the cartoons were making. We (thankfully) have no control over what people lawfully publish, or say, or write, or make films about. Whatever your preferences, someone somewhere will say something, or write something, or publish something that “offends” some Islamic taboo. They may do this for high-minded reasons or not; either way, they can’t be silenced or excluded. They are part of the process.

Was Robert Redeker being “productive” or “wise” when he described Muhammad as a “pitiless war leader, pillager, butcher of Jews, and polygamous,” before adding pointedly, “this is how Muhammad is revealed by the Qur’an”? (At the time, surprisingly few of the columnists who denounced him as “provocative” were bothered by whether or not what he wrote was true. I doubt any of them had actually read the Islamic sources he referred to.) If you don’t feel Redeker’s comments were wise, does it matter that they were true? If it doesn’t matter, who gets to police what cannot be mentioned even if factually accurate or at the very least arguable? Because unless these things are going to be policed, with all that would entail, it seems to make no difference whether you or I approve or think any given statement wise.


Why hasn't anyone suggested that the Muslims instigated the reprinting of the cartoons by trying to whack Kurt Westergaard? Does that make any less sense than saying that the Danish newspapers instigated the rioting?



Well, quite. It seems to me that’s a more logical formulation, and one that happens to fit the facts. As Jyllands Posten editor, Flemming Rose, told Spiegel Online:

“This is a global struggle for the right to free speech, which is going on every day in different parts of the world where people are trying to intimidate and silence those who are critical of religion… The cartoons didn’t create a new reality, but they revealed a reality. That reality was already there, but not everybody was willing to see it.”


If large numbers of white-skinned Christians or Scientologists were torching schools, making death threats or demanding the death penalty over a cartoon, I suspect the tenor of the discussion would be somewhat different, and much less deferential.



Matt M

"Because unless these things are going to be policed, with all that would entail, it seems to make no difference whether you or I approve or think any given statement wise."

Not to what's already been published or said - but any arguments made now can hopefully influence future events and steer them in a more productive direction.

I seriously doubt that this will be the end of the debate about religious taboos. When I say that we need to figure out the best way(s) of getting the argument across I'm concerned with what will be said, not what has been. The cartoons brought the issue to wider attention than it had previously enjoyed, but are they really the best we can do?


I'm old enough to remember the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which the KKK murdered four little girls and injured about 2 dozen more people for the crime of being "uppity". No liberals or leftists were calling for "restraint" on the part of editorial writers and cartoonists in the aftermath of that atrocity or the many other shocking incidents. On the contrary, it was commonplace for liberals to point out that the violence for which "Bombingham" became an eponym was not perpetrated by a few nuts with no relation to the larger culture, but rather was symptomatic of a moral disease that pervaded Southern society and which needed to be opposed everywhere and at all times. The idea that such criticism should be muted or even silenced, lest moderate Southerners be offended, would have been laughed at.

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