Seventeen years ago, when Salman Rushdie was under sentence of death from a foreign power for the crime of writing a novel, the US and UK governments responded feebly and grudgingly while continental Europe showed, in general, greater mettle. The same is true now. The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, rightly observes, of those cartoons: "We are talking about an issue with fundamental significance to how democracies work." The British Foreign Secretary lamentably sees the fault instead in the actions of the press: "I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been insulting, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong."
In 1990, a year after Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, Rushdie wrote: "I feel as if I have been plunged, like Alice, into a world beyond the looking glass, where nonsense is the only available sense. And I wonder if I'll ever be able to climb back through." What was most extraordinary about the episode was the nonsense - epistemological as well as political - spoken by statesmen and commentators. The first President Bush ventured boldly, a week after the fatwa was issued, that the threat of assassination was "deeply offensive". The Japanese government thought hard and declared: "Mentioning and encouraging murder is not something to be praised." The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Dr Immanuel Jakobovitz, remarked with callous stupidity: "Both Mr Rushdie and the Ayatollah have abused freedom of speech."
Surveying these judgements, the writer Jonathan Rauch, in a fine book (from which I have taken the quotations in the preceding paragraph) called Kindly Inquisitors, identified a tendency among Western intellectuals that would repudiate the sentence but not the notion that Rushdie had committed a crime:
If we follow this path, then we accept Khomeini's verdict, and we are merely haggling with him over the sentence. If we follow it, then we accept that in principle what is offensive should be suppressed, and we are fighting over what it is ... that is offensive.
Almost nobody in those parts of the British and American press that I have read over the past week has diverged from the path Rauch described in that earlier controversy. A common view is one attributed to the former BBC correspondent Martin Bell, who spoke at an Al-Jazeera forum last week (it is certainly a misquotation, incidentally, and I cite it only because I judge it is a widespread view even if not one held by Martin Bell):
Martin Bell, former BBC correspondent, when sought his view on the issue by a participant, said there should not be curbs on discussing [the] holocaust as well. In remarks to The Peninsula later, Martin said, freedom of expression and respecting others' religious beliefs are equally important.
In short, free speech is important, but it needs to be held in balance with the avoidance of offence. I profoundly, fiercely disagree. Free speech does cause hurt, and - other than in cases of incitement to crime (as with the disgraceful demonstrations outside the Danish embassy in London last Friday) - we should accept that there is nothing wrong in this. Those who find their religious beliefs offended may be offered sympathy on a personal level (though they will find none from me); they are entitled to no restitution whatsoever in public policy. The state of their sensibilities must be a matter of indifference to a free society. If they find they receive compensation for injured feelings, then mental hurt is what they will seek out. Of all commentators in the UK press, Matthew Parris in The Times has seen this best:
[A] conclusion some draw is that for the sake of a quiet life we might as well refrain from voicing criticisms we may feel towards any supersensitive group or cause, because our private thoughts, our private arguments, and those of our readers, remain our own, and uncensored. Others draw the conclusion that we should at least avoid gratuitous insults — the “damn your God” as opposed to the “I doubt His existence ” expressions — because they hurt real, decent people. I think this latter form of polite restraint is what [columnist] Ben Macintyre was proposing.
The approach is tempting. It avoids hurt. But it overlooks, in the evolution of belief, the key role played by mockery. Many faiths and ideologies achieve and maintain their predominance partly through fear. They, of course, would call it “respect”. But whatever you call it, it intimidates. The reverence, the awe — even the dread — that their gods, their KGB or their priesthoods demand and inspire among the laity are vital to the authority they wield.
Against reverence and awe the best argument is sometimes not logic, but mockery. Structures of oppression that may not be susceptible to rational debate may in the end yield to derision. When people see that a priest, rabbi, imam or uniformed official may be giggled at without lightning striking the impertinent, arguments may be won on a deeper level than logic.
There is a common view that, while publication of the original cartoons was justified, their emergence as a cause of friction entails that they should not be republished. As Parris notes, this has it the wrong way round. The cartoons are indifferent, crude and unfunny, and ought not to have found editorial space when submitted. Now that they have caused widespread offence, it is imperative that they be widely published and circulated. The defence of a free society is the defence of its procedures, not its output. Some of that output will be offensive and much will be valueless. We have a right to criticise it, and a moral obligation never, never to complain that our hurt feelings require its suppression. As one of few voices of reason in the last few days, Christopher Hitchens, has trenchantly put it, considering a pusillanimous White House statement on this miserable affair:
There can be no negotiation under duress or under the threat of blackmail and assassination. And civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient. It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts, and it is positively outrageous that the administration should have discarded them at the very first sign of a fight.