The Cartoon Jihad: Free Speech in the Balance
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The Cartoon Jihad: Free Speech in the Balance

by Christian Beenfeldt and Onkar Ghate | February 10, 2006

A battle for Western freedom is being fought overseas. The specific object of the battle is merely a handful of cartoons. The outcome of the struggle, however, will reverberate for years.

The conflict began when the leading Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed twelve cartoons of Mohammed to expose and challenge the country’s existing climate of fear of criticizing Islam. Confirming the newspaper’s nightmares, the response was the deluge of Islamic rage, death threats and violence now sweeping the world.

The issue at stake is the right to speak one’s mind.

Recognizing this, many European newspapers reprinted the cartoons. Echoing the story of the defiant slaves, who, when the Romans came for Spartacus, the leader of their rebellion, each proclaimed “I am Spartacus” — this was a clear show of support for the Danish paper and a symbolic affirmation of the right to free speech.

In the United States, however, fear of Muslim anger has suppressed a similar show of support. Indeed, the Bush administration and the mainstream media have generally sided with the raging religionists; while dutifully paying lip service to the First Amendment, their main concern has been for the “hurt feelings” of Muslims. Bush cautioned that we have “a responsibility to be thoughtful about others.” Offering similar reasons, major U.S. newspapers like the New York Times refuse to print the cartoons. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the world that “of course freedom of speech is never absolute.”

Well, is freedom of speech absolute?

Absolutely.

The right to free speech means the right to express one’s ideas without danger of coercion, of physical suppression or interference, by anyone. This freedom includes the right to make movies, write books, draw pictures, voice political opinions — and satirize religion. This right flows from the right to think: the right to observe, to follow the evidence, to reach the conclusions you judge the facts warrant — and then to convey your thoughts to others.

To demand special status for any idea or ideology — to declare Judaism or Christianity or Marxism or Islam off-limits, above public criticism — is to negate these rights. No rational mind can function under the order: Follow the evidence wherever you think it leads, but don’t you dare come to a negative conclusion about the philosophy of Marxism or the religion of Islam.

The consequence of making submission to authority and not thought — faith, not reason — the sacred value of a society can be observed throughout the Middle East, where censorship, state propaganda, intellectual stagnation, forced compliance with religious edicts and medieval punishments for religious offences are part of everyday life.

Unlike the Muslims now raging across the world, however, many Americans do cherish free speech — yet may be wondering, when so many other Muslims appear to be offended, is this really the issue on which to make an intransigent stand? The answer to this question is unequivocally yes.

Even if it were true that many Muslims are angered by the specific nature of the cartoons, not by the mere fact that Islam was criticized, their anger is irrelevant. Is a Jew to be silenced because Christians find it offensive that he refuses to accept the divinity of Jesus? Or are the Christians to be silenced, because the Jew finds the Trinity offensive? Is the atheist to be silenced, because Jew, Christian and Muslim alike find his ideas offensive? Maybe all the scientific heirs to Galileo should be silenced, as Galileo himself was by the Church, since those who take the Bible literally are angered by the claim that the earth moves?

If we allow anyone’s feelings to reign, we destroy freedom of thought and speech.

In a free society, anyone angered by someone else’s ideas has a simple and powerful recourse: don’t buy his books, watch his movies, read his newspapers. If one judges his ideas dangerous, argue against them. The purveyor of evil ideas is no threat to those who remain free to counter them with rational ones.

(Note that many European nations have laws limiting free speech, all of which should be repealed; to protest these, however, one does not demand “equal censorship.”)

The moment someone decides to answer those he finds offensive with a gun, not an argument — as many Muslims have by demanding that European governments censor the newspapers or by issuing calls for beheadings and other violence against Europeans — he removes himself from civilized society and any rational consideration.

And against this kind of threat to free speech, every free man must stand up. We must vociferously condemn the attempt by religionists to impose censorship in the West. We must extol — without apology or qualifications — the indispensable pillar of a free society: freedom of thought and speech.

The U.S. press should do so by immediately publishing the cartoons, declaring that “I, too, am Spartacus.”

About The Authors

Christian Beenfeldt

Christian Beenfeldt is a Doctor of Philosophy at University of Oxford and a guest writer for the Ayn Rand Institute.

Onkar Ghate

Chief Philosophy Officer and Senior Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute