The folly of debating free speech with an ayatollah

February 10, 2006|By MICHAEL KINSLEY

So the prophet Muhammad walks into a bar ...

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the noted wit, expert on freedom, and unelected religious leader - the leader who counts - of Iran, observed the other day that in the West, "casting doubt or negating the genocide of the Jews is banned but insulting the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims is allowed." He apparently thought that this was a devastating point.

Many self-styled voices of Islam have made the bizarre comparison between showing pictures of the prophet and expressing doubt about the Holocaust. In a spirit of "see how you like it," a European Muslim group posted on the Web a cartoon of Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler.

Muslim complaints about a Western double standard would be more telling if the factual premise was accurate. But it is not. In fact, it is nearly the opposite of the truth.

A few Western countries have stupid laws, erratically enforced, against denying the Holocaust, but that hasn't stopped Holocaust denial from becoming a literary industry and cultural phenomenon.

Nevertheless, there has been no rioting about the historical reality of the Holocaust. No one has died over it.

In a spectacular exercise of self-censorship, every major newspaper in this country is refraining from publishing the controversial Danish cartoons, even though they are at the center of a major news story that these papers cover at length every day.

Of course, it is not Western values that are trampling freedom of expression; it is the ayatollah's own values, combined with the threat of violence. The other problem with his little joke about double standards, and with the whole, supposedly mordant, comparison between denying the Holocaust and portraying the prophet, is that the offended Muslims do not want a world where people are free to do both.

They don't even want a world where people are not free to do either, which would at least be consistent. They want a world in which you may not portray the prophet Muhammad (even flatteringly, slaying infidels or whatnot) but you may deny the Holocaust all day long.

The bewildered prime minister of Denmark, trying to calm the whirlwind that has descended on his innocent, unsuspecting country, gets it spectacularly wrong when he reassures disgruntled Muslims that Denmark supports "freedom of religion" and is "one of the world's most tolerant and open societies." Tolerance, openness and freedom of religion are not what they have in mind.

A lively debate is going on about whether Islam really does forbid any portrayal of the prophet, however benign, or whether that is a recent innovation of some subset of the faithful with possible ulterior motives. This debate misses the point.

Some Christians believe they are required to wear particular sorts of clothing. Some Jews and Muslims don't eat pork. They don't claim that their religion requires other people to wear special clothing or avoid eating pork. Tolerance and ecumenism can only do so much. They have nothing to offer a Muslim in Afghanistan who is personally insulted and enraged about an image that appears in a newspaper in Denmark.

The shameful American position on all this is boilerplate endorsement of free expression combined with denunciation of the cartoons as an "unacceptable" insult. When three protesters died this week in a confrontation at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, an American spokesman there said that Afghans "should judge us on what we're doing here, not on what some cartoonist is doing somewhere else."

But the limits of free expression cannot be set by the sensitivities of people who don't believe in it. How can President Bush continue to ask young Americans to sacrifice their lives for freedom in the Muslim world if he won't even defend freedom verbally when forces from that world are suppressing it in our own?

Michael Kinsley is a social commentator who lives in Seattle. His e-mail is mike.kinsley@hotmail.com.

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