The continued controversy and violence over the Danish cartoon
depictions of Muhammad have made strange bedfellows of two
groups in the U.S. whose worldviews often clash: Liberals
support the right of people in Muslim countries to be self-governing;
conservatives support the right of the United States to bring
democracy to where it deems it is needed, and the uproar over
the cartoons is proof-positive that it is needed. These two
views are worlds apart.
But political conservatives and liberals alike are joined
in their rejection of the violence the cartoons have engendered.
And the rejection of that violence is based on the jointly-held
understanding that it is a grievous error to mistake journalistic
freedom for governmental policy.
In spite of quarrels over whether our own press actually promotes
this, both liberals and conservatives would endorse the need
for a free press as the cornerstone for the exchange of ideas
and the best defense against political hegemony.
And so people on both ends of the political spectrum have
found themselves ruefully concluding that “They don’t understand
the inherent value in having a free press.”
So what’s the answer to that?
In an interview published at Germany’s Spiegel online,
Europe’s leading advocate of liberal Islam, Tariq Ramadan,
observes, “People need to break out of their intellectual
ghettos, break out of their religious and cultural ghettos
and come to some common, universal values. And these values
do exist. . . . This needs to be a pre-emptive strategy based
on a true understanding of what pluralism requires.”
It seems like solid advice. But who decides what is a universal
value? Doesn’t our government see democracy as the means by
which universal values can be guaranteed? For those living
in theocracies, the universal values most sought after are
those related to religious doctrine and not civil codes of
This is the complicated question we can’t duck.
Literary theorist Stanley Fish, writing in The New York
Times, sees the free press as part of the problem, not
part of the solution, precisely because it is guided by the
first tenet of the “the religion we call liberalism.”
Sounding a little like someone James Dobson might welcome
as a guest on Focus on the Family, Fish says “The first
tenet of liberal religion is that everything (at least in
the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but
nothing is to be taken seriously.”
is itself a morality—the morality of withdrawal from morality
in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from
the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy
and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think is to the
credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of liberal
The innocence of the cartoons derives from their “relativizing
of ideologies and religions”—apparently a journalistic hallmark
and sure sign of liberalism.
In opposition to that relativism, Fish says that anti-Jewish
and anti-Christian cartoons are published in Arab countries
precisely because their content matters: “they believe that
Jews and Christians follow false religions and are proper
objects of hate and obloquy.”
Fish has a point—but criticizing the liberalism of the media
while also assuming an ossified religiosity in the Muslim
world is a dangerous cocktail.
Sitting at a safe distance and observing the rift doesn’t
heal it. And it’s a big, frightening rift. The debacle these
cartoons has sparked has made the need for healing that rift
even more clear, while at the same time making the means for
healing even more murky.
In response to the interviewer’s observation that there are
many people who listen to the radical voices of the Islamic
fringe, Ramadan shoots back: “But there are many who don’t.
The media should speak about these Muslims who are trying
to become active and committed citizens . . . They need to
be helped. Media pressure is undermining our work and we are
regressing. Every six months you have some new event which
ratchets up the pressure and focuses the attention on Muslims
Muslims and Europeans, as equal citizens living together in
a democracy, are not able to trust each other, if we are not
able to talk to each other, if we are not able to come to
a reasonable agreement about how to live together, we are
sending a signal to Islamic majority countries that there
is no way for Muslims and Westerners to live together. We
in Europe have a great responsibility.”
The same can be said of the United States, of course. We have
a great responsibility to stand in the gap between radical
Islam and colonizing westernization. But how?
That there is no easy answer doesn’t lessen the urgency of
the need for an answer, but Ramadan makes the mission clear:
“We need to stand between the people who are prophets of a
very dark tomorrow. If we end up with a clash of civilizations
we are both going to lose. If there is a dialogue of civilizations,
then we are both going to win. We have to realize that whether
we win or lose, we are going to do it together.”
And it is Ramadan, a Muslim living in Europe, whose words
seem to me to carry more authority—and certainly more of a
pre-emptive plan for healing—than Stanley Fish’s safe editorializing
from the United States. At least, I’m choosing to hope so.