Quotes of the day

A Pakistani court has blocked Facebook amid a growing row over a competition on the social networking website to design cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Plans for the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” contest drew an angry reaction, provoking street demonstrations in the Muslim majority country.

On Wednesday, Lahore High Court responded to a petition by the Muslim Lawyers Movement, ordering Pakistan’s internet regulator to block the entire site

Rai Bashir, a lawyer involved in the case, said the site was blasphemous.

There comes a point in any society’s existence where it must ultimately, to paraphrase Martin Luther (who himself was more than happy to see opponents put to death), dig in its heels and say here we stand, we will do no other. We don’t need to be perfectly consistent philosophically or historically or theologically to assert what is special and unique not just about the United States, with its bizarre and wonderful articulation of the First Amendment, but the greater classical liberal project comprising not just the “West” (whatever that is) but human beings in whatever town, country, or planet they inhabit. And at the heart of the liberal project is ultimately a recognition that individuals, for no other reason than that they exist, have rights to continue to exist. Embedded in all that is the right to expression. No one has a right to an audience or even to a sympathetic hearing, much less an engaged audience. But no one should be beaten or killed or imprisoned simply for speaking their mind or praying to one god as opposed to the other or none at all or getting on with the small business of living their life in peaceful fashion. If we cannot or will not defend that principle with a full throat, then we deserve to choke on whatever jihadists of all stripes can force down our throats.

This completely misunderstands the dynamic of the recent half-decade of Muhammad controversies. It was primarily the contemporary, very Western culture of relativism, multiculturalism and risk-aversion that sustained those controversies, not any uniquely Eastern super-sensitivity to being insulted. From the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy (when European imams actually took the cartoons to the Islamic world to see if people felt offended by them) to the decision not to publish The Jewel of Medina (which Random House took on the basis of one academic’s warning, not Muslim threats), the driving force of the Muhammad controversies has been pre-emptive cautiousness in Western society itself rather than significant uprisings ‘over there’ against Enlightenment values…

However, presenting the undermining of freedom and Enlightenment as a result of a foreign ‘jihad against free speech’ is far easier than facing up to the reality – which is that it is not barbarians at the gates but institutions inside the gates that have denigrated Enlightenment values. The ‘jihad against free speech’ idea is more thrilling, too, giving the secular, liberal lobby a feeling that they’re involved in a life-and-death, cross-continent struggle to defend the soul of Western liberalism from baying gangs of religious types. When in fact all they’re doing is drawing pictures of Muhammad with his knob out.

Terrorism and self-censorship are both self-fulfilling prophecies. If you allow yourself to be terrorized, then everything looks scary, the ground is softened for restricting freedom, and the bad guys win. When nearly every respectable news outlet decides at the same time that a certain piece of content is just too offensive, too irresponsible, too dangerous to publish, then the next time around you can go ahead and take out the “nearly.” The always-booming anti-defamation industry is nothing if not hyper-attuned to tactical retreats by the target media. When squeaky wheels get grease, they squeak louder next time, ennobled by the self-censorious ways of what Reason contributor Jonathan Rauch famously described as the “kindly inquisitors.”

If, on the other hand, those of us committed to speech-expansion and the broader project of liberalism do not reward bullies, do not give in to the fear that crude cartooning is a dog whistle for suicide bombers, and instead spread the risk far beyond a handful of moderately spineful European newspapers and a couple of children’s-show animators, the prophecy loses traction in an instant, and maybe starts heading in the other direction. If people who threaten violence on cartoonists are treated not with fear but with outright mockery, and produce as a direct result of their actions not a cowed and silent respect for their fervor but an epidemic of giggling and a global WTF, maybe they’ll be less incentivized to repeat the threat next time around. Meanwhile, the rest of us, with our now-broader parameters of acceptable discourse, will be able to get on with the tasks of modernity and prosperity, a process that the great science writer Matt Ridley has described as relying above all else on “ideas having sex.”

“Kill these all KAFIR”

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