Friday, February 10, 2006


Is free speech the principle that divides courageous Europeans from Muslim protestors who have torched buildings in Damascus and Beirut because of a handful of cartoonish depictions of the prophet Muhammad? Is Europe the continent where freedom to speak one’s mind reigns supreme while Arab nations exhibit rabid intolerance for opinions that don’t conform to their cultural status quo? Well, not entirely.

According to European newspapers, freedom of the press was the sole issue that motivated their reprinting the (relatively mild) caricatures of Muhammad that were published last fall in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. It appears, however, that Europe’s devotion to free speech only applies to persons who embrace the deeply-held cultural convictions of post-modern Europe.

This conclusion is borne out by the verdict recently handed down by a French court against Christian Vanneste, a member of France’s parliament who dared to declare that “heterosexuality is morally superior to homosexuality.” For this breach of secular dogma Vanneste was fined 3,000 euro and ordered to pay the same amount in damages to the three gay organizations that took him to court. In addition, Vanneste had to pay for the verdict’s publication in Le Monde and two other French publications.

This judgment, designed to squelch debate about a critical moral issue, mirrors a case in Sweden where a Pentecostal minister was found guilty of making critical remarks about same-sex intercourse—a conviction that was subsequently overturned.

It is hard to think of Europe as a bastion of free speech when the mere expression of ideas that contradict elite opinion is subject to legal sanction. The real difference, it seems, between European sophisticates and Muslim protesters is that they have different beliefs about what one can and cannot say—and different ways of enforcing their respective creeds.

The German newspaper Die Welt argued in an editorial that a “right to blaspheme” exists in the West—a declaration about as impressive, given the state of European religiosity, as a Saudi journalist touting the “right” to venerate Muhammad in the desert kingdom.

More to the point, I think, is the comment in France Soir that the offending cartoons were published to show that “religious dogma” has no place in a secular society. This unguarded comment coincides with a statement issued by a Muslim official in Germany: “It was done not to defend freedom of the press but to spite the Muslims.”

What secular Europe is really grappling with isn’t how far freedom of the press extends. The same editors who are agonizing over the publication of these cartoons wouldn’t give a second thought about printing offensive parodies of Christian themes. Their real problem is how to deal with a group that doesn’t take blasphemy lightly—with believers who are eager to fight back with bombs and swords.

The Danish paper that initially published the “blasphemous” cartoons has already apologized for giving offense to Muslims—though they apologized while asserting their right to act as they did. A contrition-sated defense of press freedom was also proffered by the Prime Minister of Denmark.

More dramatic backpedaling took place at France Soir, where the paper’s owner fired his managing editor “as a powerful sign of respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual.” In the middle of this sensitivity orgy Bill Clinton was moved to throw in his two cents worth by labeling as “appalling…these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.”

It’s pretty clear that European secularists (like their soulmate, the ex-President) aren’t prepared to risk death for the sacred “right to blaspheme.” When it comes to facing real danger, cowardly decadence is their cup of tea—and freedom of speech an expediency to be invoked when skewering opponents who don’t pose a clear and present danger.

America’s Declaration of Independence concludes with these words: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

To the 56 patriots who signed this document, faith in a greater power buttressed their courage and shaped their understanding of honor. To individuals for whom the word “Providence” is a risible delusion, sacrificing everything for the “right to blaspheme” must seem like an act of stupidity.

In this judgment they are certainly correct.