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From Islam to Irving: A perfect moral storm

Roger Cohen
Filed on February 23, 2006

PERHAPS Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, put the issue in its starkest terms: "What about freedom of expression when anti-Semitism is concerned? Then it is not freedom of expression. It is a crime. Yet when Islam is insulted, certain powers raise the issue of freedom of expression."

Coming as violence rages over the publication in Denmark last September of a dozen cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the sentencing in Vienna of the British historian David Irving to three years in prison for the crime of Holocaust denial has created what might be called the perfect moral storm.

Perfect not least because, for Arabs and the entire Islamic world, it was precisely in the unjustifiable geographic displacement to the Middle East of Western and Jewish outrage over the Holocaust that lay the germ of much anger between Islam and the West. I refer, of course, to the outrage that fed the creation in 1948 of the state of Israel. Never truly accepted by Arabs, even by those Arab states that have made a formal peace with it, the modern Jewish state has been seen from Cairo to Riyadh as embodying the perpetuation of Western colonial intrusion, the cementing of injustice through force, the contempt of the West for Muslims, and the double standards of Western societies.

It is precisely such supposed double standards that irk Moussa. Irving, a historian with a screw loose who never hurt a fly, questioned the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz —the very gas chambers that drove surviving Jews from Europe to the Middle East —and was sentenced to prison by an Austrian court.

Yet Flemming Rose, the culture editor of a Danish newspaper, chooses to impugn the foundations of a global faith, Islam, through the publication of cartoon images of the Prophet —an act seen as sacrilegious by Muslims —and Europe moves to defend him in the name of freedom of speech as dozens are killed from Pakistan to Libya.

For many Muslims, who see themselves at some level as victims of a 61-year blowback from the great Nazi crime, or the innocent surrogates of Western shame, there could scarcely be a more succinct summation of the moral myopia of the West before the faith of 1.2 billion people.

Incensed by what he sees as Western insensitivity and hypocrisy, Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, wrote to me recently that:

"Muslims are convinced that the world, especially the West, shows no moral concern over their plight. The loss of innocent Muslims lives, whether in Iraq or Palestine, Afghanistan or Pakistan, does not stir the world. Nor has the West shown any real interest in supporting the development of Muslim societies. In short, the cartoons hurt Muslims badly because they add real insult to real injury."

Singapore, a state with a large Muslim Malay minority, is familiar with issues of religious understanding and Mahbubani is a thoughtful man. But his words illustrate the way narratives within and outside the West have diverged on the question of how Islam, at once religion and political movement, should be viewed.

The current acute phase in the clash between Islam and the West opened with the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States. But another geographic displacement of outrage has since taken place: from America to Europe, where about 15 million Muslims live and the confrontation of a secular West and a fervent Islam has become most intense.

Since 2001, Europeans have seen an artist, the Dutch movie director Theo Van Gogh, slain on an Amsterdam street for making a movie posing harsh questions about the treatment of women that Islam fosters. The movie has since disappeared from view.

They have seen trains blown up in Madrid, they have seen the Underground and a bus bombed in London, they have seen homosexuals attacked on Dutch streets, and now they see the embassies or offices of European countries in the Middle East attacked and burned —all in the name of an authentic or pure Islam standing in opposition to what is portrayed as the imperialism and moral debasement of the West.

Many moderate Muslims protest that the perpetrators of these crimes have hijacked a peaceful religion and do not represent it. They blame the West’s ignorance or complacency. They cite the tens of thousands of Muslims dying in Iraq who scarcely impinge on the West’s consciousness.

"Is it too much to understand what is different before imposing one’s own moral superiority on top of what is different?" asked Ozan Korman Tarman, a Turk living in London, in an e-mail message.

That is a fair question, but the fact is that Europe has been subjected to a campaign of fear undertaken in the name of a violent political Islam and, in its way, the publication of the cartoons was a response. It was Muslims, not Europeans, who ushered Islam into the very world of politics that is the subject par excellence of newspapers and their cartoonists.

As Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Union’s chief executive, has said, the freedom of those papers to publish must be defended or "we are accepting fear in this society."

Another form of fear —that of a neo-Nazi revival —lies behind the Austrian and German laws against Holocaust denial. Those fears, too, should not provoke legal curbs on free expression. Irving is a fool deserving of contempt but not of a prison sentence. His views are abhorrent, but by what standards are they criminal?

Liberal civilisation, for whose survival Europe lost tens of millions of lives during the 20th century, is based in large part on freedom of criticism, freedom of controversy and freedom to vote. Nazism was its antithesis. Autocratic Arab societies, and the notion under Islam of a law derived from God, stand in opposition to it.

The civilisation is worth defending, from fanaticism and from Irving, through the same essential means: freedom and especially the freedom to differ.

Roger Cohen writes his weekly column, Globalist, in The International Herald Tribune


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