Christopher Hitchens on the Danish cartoon imbroglio

I'm not normally a big fan of Christopher Hitchens, but in discussing the recent crazed reaction of Muslim fundamentalists to some fairly mild cartoons lampooning Mohammed in Denmark he hits the nail right on the head for the most part:
Therefore there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general. And the Bush administration has no business at all expressing an opinion on that. If it is to say anything, it is constitutionally obliged to uphold the right and no more. You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and messianic Israeli settlers, and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken.

Which is what taboos are for. Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.

I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice, which as it happens I chance to find "offensive." (By the way, hasn't the word "offensive" become really offensive lately?) The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization. I am not asking for the right to slaughter a pig in a synagogue or mosque or to relieve myself on a "holy" book. But I will not be told I can't eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs, and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object.
Indeed. By asserting that they have a right not to be subjected to anything that insults their religion, radical Muslims are in essence trying to control those who do not share their religion, telling them that they cannot criticize Islam or the Prophet. And more:
Suppose that we all agreed to comport ourselves in order to avoid offending the believers? How could we ever be sure that we had taken enough precautions? On Saturday, I appeared on CNN, which was so terrified of reprisal that it "pixilated" the very cartoons that its viewers needed to see. And this ignoble fear in Atlanta, Ga., arose because of an illustration in a small Scandinavian newspaper of which nobody had ever heard before! Is it not clear, then, that those who are determined to be "offended" will discover a provocation somewhere? We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.
Well said.

ADDENDUM: While I'm quoting others on this controversy, I found this take on the issue by Tom D'Antoni pretty amusing:
Newspapers across Europe have has enraged those so very highly enrageable Muslims by cartooning Allah and causing those feeling blasphemed upon to think themselves sent by their lampooned Deity on a mission to take a variety of revenges including the always popular embassy burning.

Can the other Gods be far behind?

And there are so many to have to watch out for: Jesus and Moses along with Zoroaster, whoever Wiccans worship, Satan, Celtic Gods, Polynesian Gods, Aztec, Hindu Gods, Goddesses of the Near-East Realm, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Pilipino Deities, Lusitani Gods, Scandinavian, Tibetan, Norse Gods, Apotheothenai (humans made Gods by other Gods), African, Native American, Inca, Egyptian, Mayan, Phoenician, Persian, Slavic, Greek, Roman-Etruscan Gods and Demi-Gods are all standing by and waiting to be pissed at you for making fun of them.

They’re more than happy to send their followers around to kick your ass. Or perhaps those followers have made up their minds on their own. Or even worse, thought that their particular God was speaking to them, Mr. President.
This is more or less what Hitchens is saying, but in a much more humorous manner:
Best to make fun of Agunua the Serpent God of the Solomon Islands (and all this time I thought Solomon BURKE was the God of the Solomon Islands). All the other Salomon Island Gods are just one aspect of Agunua, so if you make a cartoon about Agunua, you’re taking on all the other SIG’s.

Taking on a God like Australia’s Daramulun is another thing, entirely. That boy is not only heroic, but is usually pictured with his mouth full of quartz (for some reason) and brandishing both a stone axe and a massive phallus. There’s a God you shouldn’t want to mess with.

One thing is certain; believers do not have a sense of humor.


  1. I disagree a bit with you. 11 of the cartoons were pretty harmless. 1 of them depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, obviously associating Islam with terrorism. Even George W. Bush wasn't stupid enough to make this generalization. Add to this that Jyllands-Posten is the largest newspaper in Denmark, and the one most supportive of the current government. If any Danish newspaper speaks on behalf of the current political majority, it's Jyllands-Posten. I feel that if this particular drawing is responsible for 90% of our national crisis, and 100% of the international.

    Rasmus, Denmark

  2. The association with Islam with terrorism is made not by cartoons but by Muslims killing people in the name of Allah, and by 'moderate' Muslims who do nothing to bring them to justice. Cartoonists reflect it; they didn't cause it.

  3. As I have said in other comments, freedom of speech means nothing if it does not protect offensive speech. One cannot defend freedom of speech with a qualification that it must not offend, or exclamations of how terrible it is that we must defend someone who says something offensive. The only defense of speech is this: freedom of speech is a value that we protect in the West.

  4. I think it is a mistake to characterise this 100% in terms of freedom of speech.

    The cartoons exist in a political context. The media is full of articles characterising Muslims as terrorists.

    Jyllands-Posten is a conservative right-wing Christian paper.

    This is also enlightening:
    Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today. The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny. In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten. Zieler received an email back from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."


    I don't think that Jyllands-Posten is concerned with "freedom of speech" as much as they are with selling papers.

    I personally think that extremists on both sides stoking the fires. The issue is not as simple as just people like Christopher Hitchens makes out. I heard Hitchens debating this on the radio and there seemed to be more arrogance than rational thought in his performance.

    Chris Noble

  5. I have no doubt that there are right wing extremists stoking this; but this pales in comparison to the rioting and threats of violence coming from the Muslim world, many stoked by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria.


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