There’s not much to laugh about in European op-ed sections just now. The decision by newspapers in Denmark, Norway, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and Spain to publish cartoons considered blasphemous by Muslims has the potential to turn into the first skirmishes of a renewed culture war, to morph into the clash of civilisations hoped for by extremists – but, insert hope contingent on the beneficence of any transrational belief system you fancy here, the mayhem seen yesterday and today may resolve into a relatively civilised spat over free speech.
What happens next largely depends on what the newspapers do next.
Germany’s right-leaning Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calls for “Europe-wide solidarity”:
Religious fundamentalists who do not respect the difference between satire and blasphemy have a problem not only with Denmark but with the entire western world.
– via the Guardian
However, rather than pushing the limits of freedom of speech, British newspapers urge a policy of restraint.
The right-leaning Daily Telegraph refuses to publish the cartoons “in keeping with British values of tolerance and respect for the feelings of others”. It doesn’t want to “cause gratuitous offence”.
However, it accepts that the “right to offend within the law” remains crucial to the free speech enjoyed in the UK. It notes:
Those Muslims who cannot tolerate the openness and robustness of intellectual debate in the West have perhaps chosen to live in the wrong culture.
– Daily Telegraph
Of course, this begs a number of questions: just how open and robust is intellectual debate in the West; what and where exactly is the “West” these days; isn’t culture dynamic, changing over time; and, crucially, how much of a danger are European Muslims really to the ongoing march of liberal reason? European Muslims hardly constitute a coherent bloc. They tend to come from weak and marginalised groups which lack any great material or normative powers. Their representatives have generally condemned terrorist attacks.
If there is a danger to liberty, it comes from those already loaded with power and ready to exploit that power to secure even more power, surely? Balancing liberty against security and finding security lacking, governments have grabbed as much power as possible since 9/11. Smile you’re on a CCTV camera now and forever.
Ben Macintyre in the Times suggests that context decides the limits of free speech. The cartoons may have been testing the limits of free speech originally; today, they may amount to “inflammatory provocation”. What’s happening now is an “unnecessary battle”:
… both sides deliberately whipping up the furore, one side issuing furious death threats and demanding apologies and censorship, the other fuelling the flame by publishing the images in a way designed to stoke maximum anger….
But was the battle ever necessary? Or is what’s going on in Europe an example of the darker side of democracy?
The Guardian agrees that freedom of speech is only absolute in theory, that the wider context determines its limits. In the case of the cartoons, what needs to be appreciated is the political situation in Denmark, the power of the anti-immigrant party backing Denmark’s centre-right government.
The Independent argues that while the editor of France Soir had the right to reprint the cartoons, “in doing so he was throwing petrol on the flames of a fire that shows every sign of turning into an international conflagration.”
The media have responsibilities as well as rights. There is a deceptive borderline between controversial and irresponsible journalism. Especially in these troubled times, we all must take care that it is not crossed.