Sunday, February 05, 2006

Cartoons, Butt Plugs and Tolerance

It's been somewhat of a posting hiatus at kete were for a wee while now; things seem to go quiet when I go away, it would seem. Not to worry! There's nothing like a Graveyard shift in a very quiet call centre to allow for a nice long catch up post...

I've been quite bemused by the Danish Islamic cartoon furore that has erupted over the last week or so. Perhaps the most surreal aspect of the incident is the fact that it's the Danish that have incurred the wrath of Islam. If I had to predict the flash point of a global cultural conflict between fundamentalist jihadist Islamists and the Western Hegemon it probably wouldn't have involved a small country, essentially as offensive as vanilla icecream and puppy dogs. Even Danish Salami is boring.

Of course, Denmark represents something that is perhaps even more offensive to the hardened jihadist than The Great Satan: secularism. As evil GwB and the invasion of the Yanqui imperialists into The Holy Lands may be perceived to be, at least America believes in something, right? The stable, western, liberal, secular democracies of Continental Europe, and to some extent the United Kingdom, with their stubborn refusal to unite the power of faith with the power of the State surely represent more of an anathema to Islamism than the largest Christian Theocracy of all time.

The whole situation is incredibly worrying because it has illustrated two disturbing trends. Firstly, the absolutely vile, violent and visceral reaction of islamists to any commentary that questions, satirises, mocks and...shock horror...offends their religion. Even more worrying is the handwringing of supposed liberals and the spineless concessions to a paradigm that is alien to all things liberalism holds dear: pluralism, tolerance and freedom.

Below are four images. They depict a Baby Jesus Butt Plug, one of the offending Danish cartoons, a picture of Charles Darwin's head on a Monkey's body and the world with the baubles of the United States and Israel falling and shattering through an hourglass, produced by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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They are all, I'm sure, offensive to some people. As a student of evolutionary biology, I find the Darwin picture mildly offensive. But they are all acceptable images to produce and view in a secular democracy such as ours, or Denmark's or, at a stretch, the United States'. It is a right of a free individual to produce images or say what he or she pleases, as long as whatever is produced or spoken remains within the bounds of libel and/or defamation law. It is the right of a newspaper to publish them. It is the right of individuals to get angry and rant and froth when they see them, and it is the right of the rest of us to tell them to belt up and stop being so precious.

It all seems rather callous and uncaring, doesn't it? A bit of a free for all of ideas and offence being caused, left, right and centre. Well, what do you expect in a society where people exist with almost complete freedom to do and say as they please? Bunny rabbits and fluffy cuddles? Of course, with those rights come the responsibilities to use them wisely. It may not have been a very good idea of the Danish Newspaper to publish them. Similarly, the Dom Post today may not have exercised a great deal of wisdom in their decision to publish the Danish cartoons, but it was their right to do so, regardless of their motivation. I personally think it was just silly sensationalism, but it's their call, just as it is the call of a Muslim Dairy Owner not to sell the Dominion Post on that day. Kofi Annan has said that freedom of the press should not be an excuse for the press to offend religions. This in itself is true; the press should exercise discretion on whether or not what they're publishing, broadcasting or printing really is worth it - that's a responsibility that comes with the freedom to publish that material in the first place. But we also have a responsibility to accept that in a free democracy, where we have the right to say and do essentially what we please, somewhere along the line, someone is going to say something that offends us. It really is a small price to pay.

Chris Carter's response to the Dominion Post's decision was typical from such a feel good portfolio as Ethnic Affairs, labelling the move as "undermining the nation's reputation of tolerance". I personally don't think that that's a very logical interpretation. Tolerance is not censorship motivated solely by maintaining the illusion of a happy united nation Tolerance is more the measure of how we, and the Islamic community in New Zealand specifically, react to the publishing of these cartoons. Tolerance does not mean either forced acceptance of ideas as being equally valid as your own, nor does it mean banning things which might be offensive to some people. Tolerance means that, while you may not like what other people think or say, and you may rant and rave about it as much as you like, you have no right to stop them thinking or saying it. I personally can't stand what Brian Tamaki says or thinks, and I rail against his ignorant homophobia. But it's his right to say it, and I have to accept that as much as it pains me. Tolerance shouldn't be a pleasant experience, but it's a vital artefact of, and safeguard for individual freedoms.

The response of many Islamist groups around the world really does underscore how divorced these people (and by these people I mean fundamentalist islamists, not muslims in general) are from the ideas of democracy. Attacking embassies, chanting 'death to Denmark', threatening violence against western states - the hallmarks of those blinded by raw, unadulterated, self-righteous faith. They have all the respect for democracy as an abortion clinic bomber. This behaviour is not justified, it can not be tolerated, and it is important for secular democracies to make clear in no uncertain terms that they won't have a bar of it.

The response of hand-wringing apologists around the world also shows how perilous our grip on freedom could become. For too long, many secular states around the world have either pandered to foreign religious groups in order to appease and prevent unrest in their own countries - introducing (or at least trying to) hate speech laws that seriously undermine individual freedoms in the interests of 'racial harmony', or imposing dogmatic secular laws that do nothing more than foster resentment and militant fundamentalism among religious and ethnic communities. France, by a stroke of luck available only to the French, has the uncomfortable combination of both a law prohibiting inciting racial hatred and a law that prohibits the wearing of head-dresses in schools - both are anachronistic, dogmatic and don't do a great deal in securing what they intended to - a free, safe and tolerant France.

In our own country, the breath taking hypocritical nature of many Christian groups shows that it's not only hardline islamists that have yet to learn the nuances of a secular democracy.

So many Christian groups railed against the investigations of the 2002 Labour Administration into hate speech law in NZ, labelling it both 'PC Madness' (the phrase du jour) and an assault of free speech, religious freedoms and Christian values. In some ways, at least some of these arguments hold water - individuals have a right to associate and speak freely, even if they're saying that homosexuals shouldn't marry.

What doesn't hold water, though, was that at the very same time, many of these exact same groups were calling for the banning of films (that is, curtailing others' individual freedoms) such as Baise Moi and Irreversible, or more recently, calling for the banning of an exhibition featuring human bodies. According to these people, individual freedoms are only worth protecting if they protect your personal opinion. Other's opinions, it seems, (especially those you explicitly disagree with) are worth banning in the name of public good. The parallels are worrying.

We live in interesting times indeed.