In the Arena

On Tolerance

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In Memory of Doug Marlette…

When the case of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed arose, my reaction was pretty wimpy. I didn’t think they should be published in Time Magazine, lest we make a bad situation worse and get more people killed. But my pal, the brilliant cartoonist Doug Marlette, disagreed vehemently. Doug had gotten into trouble more than once, pushing the envelope (especially when he worked for papers down south and lacerated televangelists and other assorted charlatans). His position was that under no circumstances could we cede a bedrock western value, freedom of expression, to religious fanatics. I made a private vow, at Doug’s funeral, that I’d keep his cause alive.

As Christopher Caldwell writes–intelligently, as always–the Danish cartoonists have been subjected to a non-stop terror campaign since their cartoons were published, including a barbaric axe attack on 74-year-old Kurt Westergaard Christmas day with his 5-year-old granddaughter watching. Westergaard’s was the most controversial cartoon, of Mohammed with a turban in the shape of a bomb. I don’t like religious slurs, including that one, but I celebrate Westergaard’s right to be as obnoxious as he wants to be. And so should we all…

This raises an interesting question, though: I find many practices in Islamic countries intolerable, especially many of those pertaining to the treatment of women. If I’m demanding that Muslims respect our right to freedom of expression, do they have a right to demand that I respect their debasement of women–which is often brutal and disgusting, especially those who’ve been raped. Is my argument that these extreme attitudes are perversions of the Holy Quran good enough?

I can also argue that we’re talking about the difference between fanciful representations (cartoons) and the brutalization of actual human beings here, but I doubt I’d win that argument with a Wahhabi Muslim. And so, readers, a weekend assignment: How would you deal with this dilemma? Are western human rights–freedom of expression, gender equality–absolute? I can’t see it any other way…but how do we then explain ourselves to Muslims who consider us insensitive and intolerant?