In her Washington Post op-ed, “Yale’s Misguided Retreat”, Mona Eltahawy describes how the fabricated controversy over a 2005 Danish cartoon was manipulated by “two right wings — a non-Muslim one that hijacked the issue to fuel racism against immigrants in Denmark, and a Muslim one that hijacked the issue to silence Muslims and fuel anti-Western rhetoric.” She also argues that the decision of the Yale University Press, now publishing a book on the controversy, to not publish the images in question promotes the cause of extremists.
Personally, I couldn’t care less whether the images were published or not. Nevertheless, I believe that
- Eltahawy’s conclusion that the images should be published, and
- the fact that the majority opinion in the Western media was that Muslims protesting the cartoon confirmed the inherent extremism of Islam and its incompatibility with freedom of speech
are both contrary to Western rhetoric on free speech as a free market tool to achieve the will of the people and the long history, especially in the U.S., of public outrage by Christian and Jewish groups about comparable religious satire.
Just today I read about the successful Israeli protests to remove a series of paintings (by an Israeli artist) that portray the mothers of Palestine suicide bombers as the Virgin Mary. What about the history of outrage by American Christian groups against The Last Temptation of Christ, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, Chris Ofili’s Madonna made out of cow dung (what Giuliani called “sick”)? Not to mention record and book burnings, intelligent design, the U.S. refusal – based solely on pressure from religious groups – to withhold funding to any U.N. program that promotes safe sex or family planning, even if doing so would save lives. (In Spain, it is actually illegal to poke fun at the royal family).
We are also educated to believe that instead of regulating or criminalizing certain corporate activities, we should let the free market intervene. In other words, instead of telling companies they should be environmentally-friendly or socially responsible, the free market will correct abuses through consumer demand. We celebrate the fact that people have the right to freely protest the government and industry to demand that their interests are taken into account. That is how, for example, Don Imus lost his talk show – not because he broke the law but because employees, listeners, and sponsors threatened to leave. And although Vick did his time, public pressure alone is what is keeping him from returning to pro football. This summer we had the gun-carrying Town Hall protesters and now the Republicans saying that Obama shouldn’t be allowed to speak to American school children. Furthermore, we have a foreign policy tradition of embargoes against countries – a comparable form of protest – that offend our notions of fairness (Cuba, Apartheid South Africa, Sadam’s Iraq and Iran).
So it is hard to argue, from a Western standpoint, that Muslims protesting — ironically, an exercise of free expression itself — breaks with what we commonly hail as the virtues of a free market democracy in practice.