February 10, 2006


It’s time to get serious (Theodore Dalrymple, The Spectator, February 11th, 2006)

What does the episode tell us about ourselves? The first is that we are not morally serious people; in a word, that we are decadent. In this sense, the Muslim world is quite right about us. It correctly perceives cowardice, weakness and absence of any deep belief in the principles we supposedly espouse.

You would not have to be an acute psychologist, for example, to descry the insincerity and fear in the expressions of sympathy for Muslim outrage emanating from both British and American governments. It is abject nonsense to say that we understand and even share to some degree the primitive Muslim outrage expressed — belatedly, and often with state encouragement — at the Danish cartoons, in the unctuous Clintonian sense of feeling their pain. Perhaps we understand the outrage in the anthropological sense, as a symptom of injured pride and the thuggishness that injured pride generates. But that is not what Jack Straw, the Neville Chamberlain de nos jours, meant, or rather intended us to think he meant.

We do not, most of us, respect Islam any more than we respect people who speak in tongues. What we respect is the right of Muslims to practise their religion in perfect peace, in so far as it does not conflict with our laws. We also hope that we can find common ground with them in many other aspects of human existence: in business, in the professions, in literature and so forth. Tolerance is not a matter of respecting what is tolerated — if it were, tolerance would hardly be necessary. Tolerance is the willing, conscious suppression of distaste or disdain for other people’s ideas, habits and tastes for the sake of a wider social peace.

Surely Muslims in this country and elsewhere know perfectly well that we, most of us, do not respect their religion, in the sense of according it high intellectual, moral or artistic status in the modern world (the past is another matter, as a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum, for example, will quickly confirm). Some among them find this intolerable, and therefore demand the kind of respect that young men of Jamaican descent and criminal propensities demand, knowing full well that such respect is indistinguishable from fear.

Again, you would not have to be a very acute psychologist to detect the fear in Mr Straw’s craven remarks, in the abject apologies of the Danes (who have nothing to apologise for) and in the statements emanating from the American government. Our government evidently finds it easier, or more politically expedient, to bomb distant countries than to face up to thugs a few hundred yards away.

The reaction of Britain and the United States will have taught Muslim extremists that if they are thuggish enough, they can intimidate powerful states, and that professions of belief in freedom of expression are hollow; in other words, that the terrorist tactics of the weak can impose censorship on the strong. Muslim extremists will have come to the not altogether mistaken conclusion that the men who control Western governments don’t believe in anything strongly enough to risk their own skins; in short, that they are decadent.

Instead, Muslims should be told quite clearly that our citizens have the legal right to criticise, lampoon, ridicule and mock Mohammed to their heart’s content, in any way that they wish: that Islam and Muslims have no special claim to protection from the rough and tumble of post-Enlightenment intellectual, political and social life. If they cannot live in a society in which this is the case, they should go somewhere else; they are, after all, spoilt for choice, at least in theory.

Of course, a right does not imply a duty to exercise it, and there are many reasons for doing things, or for not doing them, other than that there is a right to do them or not do them. Surely we are all familiar with the duty to censor ourselves with a view to smoothing social relations and not causing unnecessary and pointless distress to others. I have long since given up arguing with people who hold beliefs that I consider ridiculous, provided only that they are not trying to impose them on me. There is much to be said for polite silence — indeed a truly tolerant society requires many such silences.

But the loss of tolerance in our society does not come entirely from malign outside forces. We have lost the appreciation that tolerance requires silence on many matters, and that our instinct to brush things under the carpet is often a sound and civilised one. We have also lost an appreciation that freedom requires restraint, if men are to live in society.

It is well that we should try to see ourselves as others see us. I have read some of the criticisms by Muslims of Western society, and many of them seem to me to be justified. The lack of public dignity, the licence, the open and triumphant vulgarity are indeed deeply unattractive, as any real conservative would surely understand, but our Conservative party is too cowardly ever to admit as much. It is scarcely any wonder that Muslim commentators see Western freedom as little more than a desire to incontinently enjoy ourselves in ever more gross and sensational ways: a desire that is self-defeating and leads to a great deal of misery, as well as social breakdown.

Of course, Islam has no answer to the problem beyond repression and theocratic tyranny, which are guarantees of a different kind of misery and social breakdown.

A nice encapsulation of the contemporary West—united and fully aware of the need to stand firm for what we believe in and hopelessly confused as to what that is.

Posted by Peter Burnet at February 10, 2006 7:55 AM

What's confusing? The sentence below says it all.

What we respect is the right of Muslims to practise their religion in perfect peace, in so far as it does not conflict with our laws.

Rioting, bombing, looting, burning, murdering, raping, etc. even if sanctioned by mullahs and imams and Allah himself, conflict with our laws, so the perps needs to be removed from society, tried and sentenced for nice long jail sentences so we can law abiding citizens can safely go about living our lives.

Posted by: erp at February 10, 2006 8:15 AM

Peter, most of us are not confused. We are the free speechers. You may like to believe that anti-blasphemy was one of our founding principles, but you would not know that by reading many of the writings of our founders. They were full of reverence for their own beliefs, but had little sympathy for the beliefs of others. Tolerance, maybe, but not sympathy or reverence. How much reverence did our founders hold for Papism?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 10, 2006 8:37 AM


Read the article, please. Dalrymple is not talking about a problem of free speech. I realize you and some others here can't argue this issue without pretending those who disagree with you are closet Islamicists who want to outlaw anti-Muslim cartoons, but repeating that endlessly doesn't make it any truer than it ever was.

Posted by: Peter B at February 10, 2006 8:45 AM

Robert can't even get the history right. The Founders passed sedition laws, we criminalized flag burning, we required prayer and pledges in public schools, we repressed anarchists, nazis, communism, white separatists, etc.. Such "free speech" as he wants is an artificial imposition of the Court that won't survive the swing back to the Right.

Posted by: oj at February 10, 2006 9:41 AM

We repressed Catholics, Mormons, Jews and athiests as well. That's the point. We had no problem ridiculing, blaspheming or oppressing religion. This call to respect Muslim blasphemy laws is so out of whack with our founding principles as to be ludicrous.

Peter, I can't read the full article until my registration is complete later tonight, but besides bemoaning the decadent aspects of modern culture, which isn't the issue of the current flap, I don't see what we in the West are confused about from this article. Blaspheming Islam is not a sign of decadence, it is a sign of non-Muslimhood.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 10, 2006 10:34 AM

We should treat Muslims as we do a racial minority.

It's ok to criticise aspects or failings in black culture, but it is not ok to lampoon or demean black people because they are black.

We can all appreciate that. Robert: you wouldn't approve the publication of a bunch of golliwog caricatures, even if it did test the boundaries of freedom of speech.

Likewise, it is ok to criticise Islamic fundamentalism or aspects of Islam - as indeed most newspapers did criticise Islamic over-sensitivity - but it is not ok to demean or dehumanise people just because they are Muslim.

I don't to dwell too long on whether these particular cartoons are like the valid criticisms or like the golliwogs. Some people think they are legit, I think some of them cross the line.

But the picture is broader than that.

Those who argue that the kind of anti-Islamic propaganda spouted by, for example, the BNP, is not racism because Islam is not a race are letting the racists off on a technicality. We have a paradigm already there in 1930s European Anti-Semitism. Judaism is not a race either.

Posted by: Brit at February 10, 2006 11:37 AM

Depicting Mohammed as a terrorist no more paints all Muslims as golliwogs or terrorists as depicting Martin Luther as an antisemite paints all Lutherans as anti-semitic. Mohammed and Martin Luther are not just the prophets of their respective religions - they are historical figures whose words and teachings had real, historical consequences.

I don't accept the racial caricature notion that you are applying to the cartoons. To me they are clearly reflecting an image of Islam that is borne out by the real actions of many Muslims, not acting out of racial character but acting on a theological tradition within their faith. It is a negative image, no doubt, but if it is dishonest to paint an image of a faith by the actions of a portion of the adherents of that faith, then it is likewise dishonest for anyone to depict Islam as a religion of peace.

Like I said on the DD, Islam has a huge image problem. I feel sorry for those Muslims for whon this image is undeserved, but to deny that the image is negative is to lie to them. Their faith is at stake, and if they do nothing to counter the negative image, then they will have to live with that negative image.

One thing they could do is separate themselves from their fellow Muslims who are not interested in peace. Form a new sect within Islam with a clear statement of principles and values, and force all adherents to both publicly affirm and live by those principles and values. The American Baptists split over slavery. It is time for good Muslims to separate themselves from their bad brethren.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 10, 2006 12:35 PM

The extremists are the sect.

Posted by: Brit at February 13, 2006 4:30 AM