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What's So Funny 'bout Political Correctness?

Everywhere I go, it seems, people are talking about the cartoon controversy. Even by European standards, the press coverage has been intense, and at times hysterical.

I was content to simply watch it all with detached amusement, as is my usual practice. However, so many people stated (or screamed) their opinion in my presence, and asked me for mine, that I found it necessary to develop an opinion on the matter.

An unpleasant task, but apparently unavoidable. I will now write my opinion in my blog, so that when the subject comes up again -- as it surely will -- I can just say "If you want to know what I think, go read my blog. And now, can we please talk about something different?"  That's why blogs are so handy!

So here is my humble opinion, for anyone who's interested.

  1. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten should not have published the caricatures of Mohammed, for reasons of taste and respect. Civilized people don't gratuitously insult others' religious beliefs.
  2. Boycotts and demonstrations against the publication are perfectly in order.
  3. Arson or death threats are -- duh -- not. Individuals who respond in such a way should be hunted down by the police and sentenced to long prison terms, or expelled from the country, if they are not citizens.
  4. To the extent the peaceful demonstrations and boycotts target Denmark in general, and not just Jyllands-Posten, they are probably too broad, since the Danish government's control over what gets published in Denmark is limited.
  5. I fully agree with the decision of all mainstream Canadian and U.S. publications not to publish the cartoons, and would make the same decision myself.
  6. To the extent that the publication of the cartoons exposes some of the bizarre attitudes toward Islamic immigrants in Europe, it's probably a good thing.
  7. No, this does not herald an impending "crisis" or "clash of civilizations."  In two weeks we'll all be talking about something else. Thank Allah God.

Let me explain a little.

I don't feel threatened by "Europe's Muslims." There's about 15 million of them here, academics, shop owners, taxi drivers, office drones. Among this group are a minority of religious fanatics, who pose a genuine danger and should be -- and generally are -- treated accordingly. These religious fanatics do not represent the majority of Islamic Europeans, who just want to be left alone and make a living, just like the rest of us.

The more observant European Muslims have religious beliefs I don't share. Some take those beliefs seriously, and act on those beliefs in their everyday lives by, for instance, wearing special clothing, or praying 5 times a day in the direction of Mecca. This does not bother me in the slightest, and should not bother anyone. To quote Thomas Jefferson, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." When I see a Muslim woman walking along the street in a headscarf, I think to myself: "nice headscarf." If it's nice.

I find stories of honor killings and other brutal acts within the Islamic community disturbing, but they don't make me ask myself the question "What should we do about 'the Muslims'?" That goes for all population groups. I recently watched a documentary (G) about an East German woman who locked her children in a room and let them die of thirst while she went out partying. Very disturbing. After watching the documentary, I felt no need to ask, or answer, the question: "What should we do about 'the East Germans?'" The reason I don't ask these questions is because these news stories are about unusual, exceptional cases. Newspapers don't run stories about Muslim girls who aren't killed by their family members to protect the family's honor, just as they don't run news stories about planes that land on time. And for exactly the same reasons.

Everything Germany needs to do about honor killings or death threats has already been done. It's called having a penal code and establishing prisons. When an individual breaks the law by murdering or beating someone, or threatening them with death, or causing public disorder, they should be punished accordingly. If they are not, that's a problem of the effectiveness of law enforcement, nothing more.

If Muslims don't break the law, I don't care what they do. I am aware that some Muslims tend to run their families in a way that I would not care to imitate. Perhaps they force their daughters to wear headscarves, or arrange marriages for their daughters. My response to that is: "So what?" If they work, pay their taxes, obey the law, and don't harm or threaten people, I don't care how they raise their children. It's not my role, or the State's role, to tell people how to run their private lives. Establishing standards of behavior for your children to obey -- and enforcing them through sanctions, if necessary -- is something all well-run families do. The fact that I wouldn't choose the same standards of behavior is irrelevant.

Yes, I am aware that some women in a small minority of traditional Islamic households complain of coercion, and are forced into a subordinate role. (Others, odd as it may seem to Europeans, don't seem to have a big problem (G) with it). There is a difference between things I disapprove of, and things I think the government should ban. Europeans cite this difference when they mock the United States for, for example, banning prostitution or cigarette smoking. If these traditional mores are enforced by threats or beating, the men doing the threatening and beating should be locked up. There should be social service agencies to provide women locked into abusive relationships with at least the possibility of a way out. There are, in Germany. Of course, these measures do not solve the problem completely, but that's the thing about social problems like unemployment, drug abuse, or abusive relationships. You can't solve them completely; you can only try.

Of course, there are lots of people who are now practically screaming at the screen: "How can he be so naive?  How can he not see the threat of Europe's Islamization that's staring him in the face?  Can't he see that they want to force us all to live like them?  He must be some sort of left-wing politically-correct wimp who will knuckle under to these fascists and thugs out of fear."

To that I say, calm down, my friend. I've read all those arguments, but I don't find them particularly convincing. Perhaps you've been reading the wrong kind of European newspaper. Especially these days, many of them are full of hysterical denunciations, vapid generalizations, and screamy phrase-making.

It's precisely this tone of barbed, bitter rhetoric that's caused a lot of the problems. If I were in charge of Jyllands-Posten, I would never have published those caricatures. People who needlessly mock the religious beliefs of a quarter-million of their fellow citizens are assholes. Note, I said mock, not "disagree with" or "criticize." A reasoned critique of Islamic extremism? Sure. An insulting caricature of Muhammad? Nope.

And before you accuse me of endorsing self-censorship, let me proudly admit my guilt. Yes, indeed, mainstream newspapers -- like ones in the U.S. and Canada have done -- should avoid publishing material specifically intended to mock people's religious beliefs, unless doing so it is necessary to illustrate some important public issue. Remember, these cartoons insulted all Muslims. Reza Aslan, a Muslim academic working in America, explains:

The fact is that Muslim anger over the caricatures derives not merely from their depiction of Mohammed. That may have upset more conservative Muslims, but it alone would not have engendered such a violent and widespread response. Rather, most Muslims have objected so strongly because these cartoons promote stereotypes of Muslims that are prevalent throughout Europe: Mohammed dressed as a terrorist, his turban a bomb with a lit fuse; Mohammed standing menacingly in front of two cowering, veiled women, unsheathing a long, curved sword; Mohammed on a cloud in heaven complaining that Paradise has run out of virgins. It is difficult to see how these drawings could have any purpose other than to offend. One cartoon goes so far as to brazenly call the prophet "daft and dumb."

A Muslim living in Canada -- a country in which freedom of speech coexists with laws that prohibit intentional race- and religion-baiting, writes:

Those, ... who speak out in favour of freedom of speech and press should also speak out against the raising tide in Denmark of racial and religious intolerance. The Danish cartoon affair is NOT just a test of basic freedoms, it is a concerted attack on a visible minority and that attack is being waged not only by incendiary cartoonists but also by government officials included the Queen of Denmark herself.

These are reasonable people, not despicable embassy-burning thugs. They don't want to "force us to live like them." They would just appreciate it if they didn't receive gratuitous insults to their religious faith delivered with their morning paper. Pretty reasonable, if you ask me. And an editor can respect this reasonable wish while fully exploring controversial issues.

That's exactly what Jyllands-Posten did three years earlier, when it rejected caricatures of Christ because they could "provoke an outcry." The editors claim the two situations are completely separate, because the Christ caricatures involved unsolicited submissions, and the Muhammad caricatures were commissioned by the newspaper.

Perhaps you're convinced by that distinction; I'm not. I think the explanation is much more simple. In Denmark, a leading national newspaper will take into account the religious sensitivities of Christians, but Muslims can be offended at will. They won't publish one drawing because it might "provoke an outcry" among Christians, but will hold an entire contest which was intended to "provoke an outcry" among Muslims. Perhaps Denmark's leading center-right newspaper once also held a "blaspheme Christianity" competition, and published the winning cartoon. Somehow I don't think so. The signal is clear: some Danes' religious beliefs are worthy of respect, others not. What a vicious message to send.

And they're not alone. Denmark's Queen recently announced that "we have to show our opposition to Islam." Not radicals or Islamists or extremists, mind you, but Islam itself. A prominent Danish right-wing party compares (G) Islam to a "cancerous tumor" and a "terrorist movement." Not just Islamic extremists, mind you, the whole religion. This party is part of the ruling coalition. Fortunately, these fools are still a minority in Denmark. Let's hope it stays that way, because otherwise, the white European nativists and the Islamic extremists will drag us all into the idiotic "clash of civilizations" they yearn for.

Sometimes a litte bit of "political correctness," -- that is, not mocking peope for things they were born with, like their skin color or their religion -- is just what the doctor ordered. To quote Aslan again:

[T]hat is why as a Muslim American I am enraged by the publication of these cartoons. Not because they offend my prophet or my religion, but because they fly in the face of the tireless efforts of so many civic and religious leaders—both Muslim and non-Muslim—to promote unity and assimilation rather than hatred and discord; because they play into the hands of those who preach extremism; because they are fodder for the clash-of-civilizations mentality that pits East against West. For all of that I blame Jyllands-Posten. We in the West want Muslim leaders to condemn the racial and religious prejudices that are so widespread in the Muslim world. Let us lead by example.

Couldn't have said it better myself.