I’m slightly embarrassed at not having weighed in on the Muslim cartoon controversy in any significant way. The Boston Globe and the MetroWest Daily News spoke with me, but if you read my comments, you will see that I — like a lot of people — am having a hard time figuring out just what to think.
So let me recommend two op-ed pieces from yesterday’s New York Times that are brilliant, nuanced and — best of all — freely available, and not hidden behind the TimesSelect wall.
The first, by Emran Qureshi, a fellow at Harvard Law School, takes his fellow Muslims to task for the violent protests that have broken out over the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. And he sees a motive, writing:
Within the Muslim world, the cartoon imbroglio has given ammunition to the two entrenched forces for censorship — namely, authoritarian regimes and their Islamic fundamentalist opposition. Both would prefer to silence their critics. By evincing outrage over the Danish cartoons, authoritarian regimes seek to divert attention from their own manifold failures and to bolster their religious credentials against the Islamists who seek to unseat them.
But Qureshi adds:
[T]he answer is not more censorship. But it would be nice if Western champions of freedom of speech didn’t trivialize it by deriving pleasure from their ability to gratuitously offend Muslims. They view freedom of speech much as Islamic fundamentalists do — simply as the ability to offend — rather than as the cornerstone of a liberal democratic polity that uses such freedoms wisely and responsibly. Worse, these advocates insist on handing Muslim radicals a platform from which to pose as defenders of the faith against an alleged Western assault on Islam.
The second, by law professor Stanley Fish, portrays the controversy as a clash between religions — with the West, and particularly Europeans, finding comfort and solace in the religion of liberalism. Fish writes:
Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism’s museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give — ask for deference rather than mere respect — it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country.
As a nominal member of the religion of liberalism, I found Fish’s analysis both counterintuitive and bracing.