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The cartoon mania, the liberals and the death of Voltaire!

by Alamgir Hossain

22 Feb, 2006

Publication of a number of caricatures of the Prophet of Islam, initially in a Danish paper, has created an unprecedented media-hype and violent protests amongst the worldwide Muslim community. These protests turned deadly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Nigeria resulting in at least 100 deaths, which continues to rise by every passing day. Danish and other European embassies have been attacked, torched and even burned in countries like Syria, Iran, Indonesia and Lebanon. Churches have been burned in Pakistan and Nigeria. A Pakistani Cleric offered $1 million reward for killing each of the cartoonists. An Indian Muslim Minister offered $10 million bounty for the head of the cartoonists or their publishers, which got support from the Indian Islamic court and Islamic law board members. As protests across the Muslim world started catching momentum, many publications in Europe, Australia and New Zealand reprinted those caricatures in a show of solidarity with the Danish sister publication for the sake of defending their much prized right of freedom of expression.

It should be understood that Westerners value the right to free expression immensely, which was achieved through lot of blood of their ancestors more than 200 years ago. The right of freedom of expression was first codified in article 11 of the French constitution [The Right of Man] following the French Revolution in 1789 under the stewardship of Napoleon Bonaparte which read:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Every citizen can therefore speak, write and print freely; but may need to respond if freedom is abused in cases determined by law."

This article on freedom of expression has been included almost unaltered in all secular constitutions of Western secular democracies whilst the United Nation's included it in its International Declaration of Human Rights in 1946. This freedom of expression, however, does not come without responsibility and a person is liable to respond when one abuses it as determined by the law. It is now accepted that the right of freedom of expression must exclude incitement to violence or intent to physical harm and unjustified or untrue defamation.

The publication of the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad must have hurt the sensitivity of the worldwide Muslim community because of the alleged taboo against depicting the Prophet in any art form. But does this hurt constitute a violation or abuse of the right of free expression? Hurting the sensitivity of an individual, group or religious community does not constitute an abuse of the right of free expression. Indeed, the inclusion of man's right of free expression in the French constitution was meant for negating the sensitivity of an individual or racial and religious group - not to protect it. It was created to nurture tolerance and tolerance can be created only by blunting or desensitizing it through its negation and exposure to criticisms - so long such criticisms do not constitute incitement to violence or bodily injury or undeserved harm to one's reputation. Hence, if the West seeks to follow their constitutional right of freedom of expression, they cannot care about the sensitivity of the Muslims or any other individual or community.

In the backdrop of the hurtful publication of those cartoons, the only thing Muslim could consider is whether their publication constituted an incitement to violence or a case of baseless defamation to the person or community in question. Publishing some cartoons of an individual or group does not definitely constitute incitement to violence or bodily harm although that may hurt someone's feeling or sensitivity. Publication of caricatures and burning effigies of many leaders including those of US president Bush or UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, depicting them as terrorists and even as Hitler, is one of the most common form of protests around the world, especially in Muslims countries, these days. Those caricatures and effigy-burning have never been deemed an incitement to violence against those leaders, their citizens or party members although those hateful and degrading acts would definitely hurt the feeling of those leaders and of their millions of supporters. By the same bar, the caricatures of Islam's Prophet do not constitute incitement to violence in any consideration. More so when the Prophet in question is dead and these caricatures cannot cause any harm to his person or affect his reputation that would cause any distress to him.

The last thing that one must consider is whether these caricatures lead to baseless defamation to the person of Prophet Muhammad or his followers. Of course, this is a valid possibility but the verdict on such a possibility can only the determined in a forum or court of law after thorough examination and analysis of the historical recording about the Prophet Muhammad and in his preaching contained in the Koran and Sunnah. Thus, the best step for Muslim community was to take the Danish paper to court on the charge of baseless defamation of the Prophet of Islam through those cartoons, not on the charge of hurting their sensitivity. But instead, Muslims world yelled aloud and reacted violently with street protests, burned embassies, declared bounty for the heads of the cartoonists and the publishers. They torched, burned and vandalized the Danish and other Western diplomatic missions and business enterprises, sanctioned blockade against Danish businesses and attempted to violently attack the diplomats of those countries where these caricatures were published and reprinted. Violent protests and attacks caused at least 45 deaths. The Danish imam who lead protesters spelled his support for 9/11, the London protesters chanted 7/7 London bombings was on, whilst protesters from across the Muslim world urged Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda to strike the Western powers and yet other imams, including some in the West, urged suicide-bombing in revenge. In this controversy, every step taken by the Muslim community and most Muslims Governments constitute a flagrant violation of the article of freedom of expression because of the overt display of violent intent and incitements and acts of vandalism and damage to life and properties. 

These events surrounding the cartoon controversy point to a grave future that West is going to face in the coming decades. Suppose a situation that these cartoons were being published at a time when Muslims have constituted ~20% of the population in Europe. Can we imagine the consequence? Of course we do, unless we are absolute idiots. Cities after cities would have been burned into ashes in Denmark and other countries that published and reprinted those cartoons; the editors of the papers that published those papers would have been given farewell from this world already. Massive vandalism would have left these countries and their business infrastructures in sheer disarray.

In this controversy, the Muslims have found the predictable and yet likely and formidable partners that include all the pious Christians and Jewish groups in Europe and elsewhere. Christian priests and Jewish Rabbis have joined voice with the Muslims against the publications of the said cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. The Vatican termed the cartoons an ``unacceptable provocation'' and that the right of freedom of expression "cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.'' Even the bigot American Evangelic Pat Buchanan, who is avidly hated by the Muslim community, has found strange bedfellows in the Muslims in the aftermath of this hysterical cartoon saga. 

The likelihood of the Western religious groups' joining voices with the Muslims needs an understanding in this discussion. It should be realized that the concept of freedom of expression was devised in the West as an affront to the extremely intolerant and overly sensitive religious sentiment of the Christians in the middle age. It was devised in the light of the terrible experience of the Christian clergy-ruled Europe that witnessed the days of inquisition, the burning of 9-10 million women charging them as witches as well as the burning of thousands of men and women for apostasy. In the backdrop of the horrible experience of the medieval Europe, there started the Enlightenment movement against the irrationality, superstition, intolerance, cruelty and tyranny of the Christian clergy. Prominent courageous Enlightenment philosophers, namely Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emmanuel Kant were vocal in attacking the religiously dominated Middle Age as a period of social decline and the existing system of Church and state. They advocated rationality as a means to establish an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics and knowledge. This movement had also provided a launching pad for the American and French Revolutions, as well as leading to the rise of "capitalism" and the birth of "socialism". The Enlightenment movement acted as the precursor for the separation of Church and state, leading to the emergence of modern secularism and democracy in the Western world.

It was the philosophy of Voltaire, who was most vocal in attacking the Christian Clergy for the intolerance, injustice and ills of the-then European society, who defined the modern-day concept of freedom of expression with the much acclaimed quote attributed to him, "I may disapprove of what you say but I will fight to death for your right to say it". This core idea of Voltaire's philosophy on man's right to expressing his views was codified in the French Constitution in 1789 under the patronage of the great freethinker Napoleon Bonaparte. The point one must pick from this discussion is that the right of freedom of expression emerged out of struggle against religious sensitivity, intolerance and tyranny of a religion - not of Islam but of Christianity - of the Medieval Europe. It was achieved in the backdrop of immense cruelty and atrocity and at the cost a lot of innocent lives and sufferings.

Thus the codification of the man's right of freedom of expression in French Constitution in 1789, was an unsavory and bitter defeat of the Christian clergy and devout Christians which thoroughly marginalized them in the affairs of the societal issues of Western society. This has made them digest all sorts of humiliation and vilification of their religion and religious symbols over the decades. Andres Serrano portrayed Jesus on a cross sunk in a bottle of urine called "Piss Christ", which was funded by the National Endowment of Arts and is being displayed in a New York Museum. A recent movie portrayed Jesus as a gay man. The Da Vinci Code portrays Jesus as a mere mortal who married and fathered children. A painting of Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung won the Turner's prize in 1999. Such humiliating and insulting depiction of the Christian religious symbols although cause displeasure and insult to the faithful, it never create any stir in Christian community who are being handicapped by the article of free expression in their constitution.

Under the current violent hysteria unleashed by the Muslims over the Prophet's cartoons, the devout Christian groups in Europe - long felt humiliated and handicapped by the constitutional protocol of freedom of expression - have found a long-awaited ally in the fight against the freedom of expression. This alliance of the devout Christians and also Jews with the Muslims will produce a strong force in safeguarding their religious sensitivities and religious symbols from the tradition of regular mockery and humiliation which they have digested over the decades. With the Muslims, who have no regard for any laws of the land or articles of constitution of the State when it comes to the issues of their religion, will transform this alliance into a much more formidable and dangerous force for the Western secular democracy to reckon with - given the Lemming-like deadly and suicidal instinct Muslims possess. 

In this controversy, most Western Governments, except Denmark, France and Germany, have taken stand in favor of the Muslims by condemning the publication of those cartoons. The US State Department termed cartoons "offensive to the beliefs of Muslims" and their publication "not acceptable," warning that press freedom "must be coupled with press responsibility." British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the decision to republish the cartoons was "insensitive ... disrespectful ... and wrong." The Swedish Government shut down a paper for reprinting the cartoons, Norway Government quickly rushed to ban blasphemy whilst the EU moved to restrict reporting on Islam. The UN secretary general Kofi Annan pledged to rewrite the UN Human Rights Charter to "protect the sanctity of religions and the prophets." All major news media including BBC and CNN did not dare displaying the cartoons on their papers, TV screens and websites. 

Most astonishing reactions that have startled many are those of the many liberal thinkers, critiques, media men and politicians in the West. Former US president Bill Clinton, a liberal, condemned the publication of the cartoons as "appalling" and "totally outrageous." He further asserted that Muslims face Xenophobia like the Jews during the WWII. In Pakistan, he urged the EU to convict the publishers of the caricatures in sheer violation of constitutional right of the latter. An overwhelming majority of the Western politicians, commentators and media outlets from leftist, freethinker and liberal blocks have expressed similar disgust against the publication of the said cartoons. The most scathing remark came from the highly regarded German writer Nobel laureate Gunther Grass who compared the publication of the caricatures to Nazi caricature of the Jews. He further accused the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten of deliberate provocation for publishing the cartoons despite knowing the offense it would cause to Muslims. 

It begs to ask as how the publication of just a few caricatures of the Muslim prophet becomes so offensive and unacceptable to this latter group of people when more humiliating depiction of Christian religious icons like Jesus in bottle of urine, Jesus as a lustful gay and Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung become most acceptable and unoffending to them. For example, when New York mayor Giuliani threatened to cut public funding to the Museum for displaying the drawing of Virgin Mary covered in dung, which offended to the Christian taxpayers, Hillary Clinton took a staunch stand in favor of the museum's right to display the art piece. 

This intriguing double standards of the so-called progressive, liberal and freethinker camp of the Western thinkers and politician is not only unfathomable but also add a very dangerous dimension to the future health of free-speech in the West. Their confusing stand on the current cartoon controversy will have a two dimensional hazard to the health of freedom of expression. Firstly, it will embolden the hands of the taboo-ridden Islamist movements which will progressively destroy the right of freedom of expression and liberal lifestyle in the West one after another. Norway's introduction of medieval blasphemy law and EU's decision to censor reporting on Islam have already started the process of the death of free-speech in the West, which other Western nations are likely to follow suit one after another. 

The second hazard of this hypocritical stand is the increasing disenchantment and disillusion of the Western public with the so-called left, liberal and progressive camp. It does not need any great intelligence to identify the hypocrisy of this camp's stand of proactive vilification of Christian and Jewish religious sensitivities whilst taking exactly the opposite stand vis- -vis Islam on similar issues. It is a fact that many a believing Christians and Jews in the West, despite their respect and faith in religions, do not wish to hand over the political power to the religious groups. In other word, despite their belief in their respective religion, majority of the Westerners have stood behind the lefts and liberals in keeping the political power away from the religious group. As they continue to be intrigued and disillusioned by the most obvious double standard of lefts and liberals, they will definitely join hands with the devout Christian groups having political motivations. This process has already started with religious political groups becoming increasingly strong. Continued hypocritical stand of the liberals and lefts will continue to strengthen them, thus transforming the long-marginalized religious elements into a dominant force in the European politics in a not so far future. Muslims will unequivocally support these Christian groups who are more likely to respect their religious sensitivities and will sanitize the Western way of life as desired by the Muslims. Certain French political party's recent announcement of re-thinking the article of secularism in their manifesto in the hope of attracting the Muslim votes is just the beginning. We must also remember that Muslims had overwhelmingly voted for President Bush in the 2000 election because of his conservative and religious credentials. Let us also remember that about 50% of Muslims are in favor of Sharia Law in UK at a time when they form only ~3% of the population there. Muslims are seeking Sharia Law in many other Western countries. Ontario, which had naively introduced this medieval and oppressive Islamic law, recently repealed it amid vigorous campaign of a handful of human rights groups - much to the displeasure of the Muslims. The end result is: Europe is moving fast tract back to the pre-Enlightenment days.

It should be considered here that the present-day liberal and progressive thinkers, commentators and politicians are the off-springs of the Enlightenment-age heroes like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emmanuel Kant and Voltaire et al. Given that, these modern-day progressive groups should have taken the mantle of the Enlightenment and lead the civilizational progress forward. Yet, the so-called modern-day Enlightenment heroes have consistently taken stands vis- -vis Islam, which are exactly the opposite ones that the Enlightenment-age thinkers had taken against Christianity centuries ago. Yet, most intriguingly, they have maintained consistency with the Enlightenment-age thinkers by taking the same stand vis- -vis Christianity and Judaism. Their glaringly opposite stands, vis- -vis Islam on one side and Christianity/Judaism on the other, will accelerate the strengthening of religious elements of both sides and push the world to the pit of religious cruelty and barbarity of the middle age Christian Europe, which is manifestly in existence in many Muslim countries even today. In stead of being the torch-bearers of civilizational progress - they are only hastening the race of the world towards darkness through their stupidly dubious stands in regard to Islam and Christianity/Judaism on parallel issues.

It should be understood that Voltaire might have left the world physically but he has been alive amongst us, especially in the West, through his priceless gift to mankind - the freedom of speech. Unfortunately his legal deputies of today are hell-bent on destroying this most precious gift and achievement of human civilization. Such intent was shockingly pronounced in explicit terms by liberal-left news media CNN's Jim Bitterman. In a CNN reporting on the cartoon issue, while quoting the famous attribution of Voltaire's ideal "I may disapprove of what you say but I will fight of death for your right to say it", he quickly opined that Voltaire's views was hugely controversial during his time and left an open-ended question whether his views should be suitable for today's world. 

Raising such a doubt about the great man's finest ideal, that too by the modern vanguards of the liberal and progressive thoughts, is not only incredible but also a damning insult to him. It should be understood that Voltaire's priceless gift to our civilization came at the cost of his own sufferings and persecution, including repeated incarcerations and exile, at the hands of the reactionary religious forces more than 2 centuries ago. Yet, shortly before his death in 1778 when Voltaire returned to Paris (from where he was driven out in 1726) to attend the premiere of his new play Irene, he was given an standing ovation by the large crowd as the "Grand old man" of French Enlightenment. It is thoroughly unacceptable that 228 years later today, the vanguards of modern-day Enlightenment are questioning whether his ideals should hold valid after all the civilizational progresses.

The standing ovation to Voltaire by the Parisians in 1778 and inclusions of his ideals in the French constitution 11 years later made Voltaire a living man, especially in the civilized West, forever since. But the legal torch-bearers of his ideals of today are spelling his death by questioning the suitability of his ideals to today's world. Voltaire is probably becoming motionless slowly in his grave.

The intriguing stand of the Western liberals and progressives on the cartoon controversy and other Muslim issues over recent years portends a dangerous threat to future of civilizational progress. At this trying time when Muslims are imposing increasing restrictions and constraints on the freedom and life-style of the Westerners, it is essential to go back to the mantra of Voltaire, "Ecrasez l'infame", which means "Stamp out the infamous thing". To Voltaire, "the infamous thing" meant religious bigotry and fanaticism. What is imperative today is that the liberals and progressives embrace this uncompromising mantra of Voltaire instead of condemning him to death by questioning his ideals. They have applied this mantra vis- -vis Christianity and Judaism consistently. What is needed is to apply exactly the same bar vis- -vis Islam. Else, the progress and prosperity of our civilization, since the beginning of Enlightenment movement 4 centuries ago, are on a fast track rush towards a certain doom.

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