The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend…Freedom of expression as it has developed in the democratic west is a value to be cherished, but not abused.
Guardian Leader Comment, 4 February 2006, on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy.
In September 2005, a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Protests and counter-protests were called all over the world, both by those who found the cartoons grievously offensive and wanted them suppressed, and by their opponents who viewed the first group as attempting to quash free speech. Of course, it wasn’t really as simple as that. There were also plenty of people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who didn’t see the issue as a simple conflict between the right not to be offended and the right to free speech, no matter how offensive. That Guardian editorial I’ve quoted is a good example, and one with which I broadly agree. Nothing justifies the actions of those who burned diplomatic missions or participated in violent riots in response to the cartoons’ publishing, but at the same time the decision to publish the cartoons in the first place seemed designed to provoke a reaction, and indeed to have little other purpose. It’s perfectly coherent to maintain that the decision to publish the cartoons was a stupid and gratuitously offensive act, and simultaneously to support the right of Jyllands-Posten and any other newspaper to freedom of expression. In short, having the right to do something does not entail that doing it is a good idea. I have the legal right to swear in front of my grandmother, and would consider any government that tried to take away that right to be worryingly authoritarian, but it doesn’t follow that me doing my best Malcolm Tucker impression the next time I see her can really be said to be an important contribution to the debate about offensiveness and the limits of free speech.
It’s interesting, given the above, to compare reactions to the Muhammad cartoons and to the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” The American Right has been frothing at the mouth about the latter on various fairly dubious grounds (aside from anything else, the plan is for an Islamic cultural centre, not a mosque, to be based two blocks from the Northern tip of the World Trade Centre site, not “at ground zero”). Some of the rhetoric from those opposed to the centre’s construction has been pretty ugly, and some of the people involved in the campaign against the centre’s construction are unambiguously batshit insane Islamophobes. But the response from the liberal left (such as it is in the US) seems to have principally been a rights-based argument, focusing on the Constitutional protection for freedom of religion (set out in the First Amendment) and the trouble is, that’s not really an adequate response. Many of those opposed to the centre’s construction are happy to acknowledge that Muslims have a right to build mosques and cultural centres wherever they like – their argument is that a Muslim cultural centre near Ground Zero is insensitive and in some way offensive (this is a line argued by a number of both Republican and Democratic politicians). This reasoning has been mocked as absurd, most notably on last Monday’s episode of the Daily Show (viewable here until Tuesday – sample quote “Who knew that the First Amendment had the same mantra as Century21 – location, location, location?”), but actually, it’s perfectly coherent. It’s pretty much identical in form to the view I argued for above on the Muhammad cartoons – the right to do something doesn’t entail that it’s a good idea.
The important feature of the “can but shouldn’t” argument in this case, however, in contrast to the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, is not that it’s incoherent but simply that it’s wrong. The idea that building a Muslim community centre near the site of the World Trade Centre is offensive just doesn’t hold up. There’s already a mosque (a real mosque, as opposed to a building with an area set aside for prayer) nearer to the ground zero site than the proposed centre, and it’s been there since before the World Trade Centre was even built. Plus the events of September 11 weren’t an attack by Islam on the West in any case – dozens of Muslims were among the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and, as can’t be repeated often enough, judging Islam by the actions of the September 11 hijackers is like judging Christianity by the groups which bomb abortion clinics. These are all good reasons for defending the construction of Park51 (to call it by its actual name), and they’re convincing enough without the need to accuse those who hold a different view of being mad or incoherent. There’s a difference between thinking something’s a bad idea and calling for it to be outlawed, and it’s just simplistic to imply otherwise.