The controversy that has erupted over various European newspapers publishing cartoons that have been deemed offensive by many Muslims contains some salutary lessons. Perhaps most obviously, it is a reminder to friends of liberty, self-styled latter-day Voltaires, that if they want to defend their cause, they ought to do it with a greater historical sense than most European newspapers displayed in running the cartoons. It is astonishing that many newspapers did not think of using a simple expedient: running a whole series of cartoons that might have given offense to a number of groups, particularly Christians. This would have at least underlined the point that the purpose in running cartoons was defending liberty, not giving offence only to Muslims.
But the manner in which the cartoons were run gave credence to the narrative which suggests that the point of this exercise was not defending free speech but offending Muslims. Those violent elements in places like Damascus and Beirut, who are reacting against this performance, have little interest in arguments about free speech, one way or the other. They do have an investment in taking offence and radicalizing anti-Western sentiment. Unfortunately, those who ran the cartoon fell squarely into the trap.
Second, the debate has been misleadingly portrayed as a debate about the balance between free speech on the one hand and respecting the sentiments of adherents of particular faiths on the other. This way of posing the question is conceptually misleading and politically na've. For if this is how we come to portray the issue, there is little doubt which side will win. It is a little too quick to suppose that freedom of expression should always triumph over things of sacred importance. If that is the choice, then we are in for trouble. Why should the believer care about this abstract right' Rather, the best argument for freedom of expression is one that acknowledges that a lot of speech will be odious and offensive. But the believer might still want to put up with it, not because freedom is privileged over faith. After all, that is not a choice that faith needs to make. Rather faith should put up with this odiousness because it is precisely this freedom that also guarantees safety for that faith.
In some ways, the fact that odious and hateful speech is protected is also a source of security for the faithful. I feel secure when I am able to say to myself, 'If a society allows odious expression to be protected, then it is also very unlikely that society will persecute me for my beliefs.' An argument for freedom that is addressed to the faithful cannot presume the priority of freedom. It rather has to show that this priority also gives security to the faithful. The fact that we protect insulting speech is not because we don't think faith can be important; rather, we protect insulting speech precisely so that every faith can be secure that it will also be allowed full expression. That is why each act of abridging freedom of expression breeds more insecurity rather than lessening it. The premises on which we need to argue for freedom should give a reason to the believer, not throw a reason at them. Therefore, the argument that poses it in terms of balancing is exactly the wrong one.
The third curious issue in this controversy is this. How should groups in society react when they find speech offensive to them' Clearly, the violent groups protesting all over the world are exploiting this issue to strengthen their own odious radical causes. These groups need to be resisted at all costs. But what avenues do others, who find the cartoons offensive, have for democratic protest and expressing their objections' This is where the freedom-of-expression rhetoric can be misplaced. Underlying that rhetoric is often the sense that all expression is roughly on the same plane, and therefore anybody objecting to any form of expression must, by definition, be an enemy of liberty. In a way, those who protest against what they think is objectionable take the power of expression more seriously than purported defenders of freedom do. It has been said, not entirely without justification, that liberal societies take the right to expression seriously, but only by not taking expression itself seriously. It does not follow from the doctrine of freedom of expression that any expression is as good as any other. Asking for legal restrictions on freedom of expression is, for reasons given above, an indefensible strategy. But short of that, cannot people who find certain expression offensive register their protest' Can they not even use instruments like boycotts to underline their point of view' Liberal societies should find ways of taking protest against odious expression seriously, rather than simply construe all such protest as a threat to freedom. This creates the vicious cycle where expression is used to offend people, and protest against offensive expression is found offensive.
The fourth interesting point raised by this debate is the subtle reversal taking place between Europe and America on the issue of Islam and freedom. Many observers have noted that while radical Islamism is demonizing America as the great Satan, Muslims within America seem not to have turned against the American state, or expressed as much of a disenchantment as European Muslims are expressing against their state. While America is engaged in a territorial battle with radical Islam that resents its actions in west Asia, the European battle with Islam seems altogether more home-grown and intimate. From London to Paris to Holland, Islam within Europe is being perceived as a more direct threat than Islam within America. In a way, this cartoon controversy simply underlines this fact, and will exacerbate Europe's image as the enemy of Islam.
But one possible way in which this paradox can be explained is this: America is altogether more hospitable ' some would argue, too hospitable ' towards religion. Religious discourse and religious associations are more widely accepted in American society than in Europe. This has the odd consequence that even though many Islamists hate America, that hate has taken less of a foothold inside America than in it has in Europe. This is because the war between the religious and the secular has not broken out quite the way it has in Europe.
Mark Twain once said, 'It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and the prudence never to practice either of them.' Perhaps it is the fundamental paradox of a liberal society that it can preserve freedom only by relying on a little self-restraint: having a right does not mean that you always have to use it.