Weapons of Criticism, Criticism of Weapons

Most times, the words, he’s got a gun, will redirect the conversation pretty effectively. Not this time, it appears.

The uproar over the Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons of Muhammad has been framed as a free speech issue. The real issue is force. People have recalled the Salman Rushdie fatwa, from almost twenty years ago, and it’s worth recalling. Since Rushdie is still alive, many people think the fatwa never went beyond threat. But Ruhollah Khomeini’s death sentence extended to all those “involved in [Satanic Verses’] publication who were aware of its content.” The translators and others connected with the book who were killed all over the world were not killed as spillover, misunderstanding, rogue operations, frustration. These killings were exactly what the supreme law-giver for the Islamic Republic of Iran had ordered. The Rushdie fatwa was not a free-speech question. An Iranian in Iran shot for blasphemy by the government of Iran is a free-speech issue. A Salman Rushdie sent to prison under Tony Blair’s proposed blasphemy law, recently defeated by a hair, is a free-speech issue. The Rushdie fatwa was about sovereignty. Do subjects of the United Kingdom, resident there, get to live under the U.K.’s laws? Hundreds of millions answered no. To sentence a novelist, of all things, to death for a book you haven’t even read will strike us as small. In truth, the enemy was thinking big. And the enemy still stands uncorrected. People were killed because of the fatwa, that assertion of dominance over the entire world. Most of the dead, you’d think, would be Iranian officials. Their death toll stands at zero.

The earlier hostage crisis also involved a question of sovereignty. The exiled Shah was dying of cancer and was admitted to the United States for treatment. The new Iranian order was sure that there was a plot to restore the Shah, and so the American embassy was seized, and its staff kidnapped. It would have been prudent for the United States to say before the world,

There is no plot. It is as we say. We have no interest in restoring the Shah – we just got through ushering him out – and he’s too far gone for political aspirations. You may ask that he be extradited, but we, like every other country, will say no. He – or anyone – may face justice, but not in your Iran. He is here with our permission. Borders define countries. We, and not you, control our borders. Deny that, and you deny our sovereignty, you deny our right to a national existence. You are arrogant. You are intolerable. In the name of not only America, but all humanity, we will cut off this “Islamic Republic”, this chimera, at its birth.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the Shah left his American hospital – better for everybody, it was supposed – bounced briefly around among countries, and was soon dead. Iran, with its trademark absurdity, said, “The death of the Shah changes nothing,” and continued to threaten the hostages with death. The fact that Iran had gone to war against the United States and was in occupation of American soil was overlooked. The hostages’ release was bought, and the embassy building abandoned to the enemy. In war, soldiers taken prisoner are counted as casualties. It is expected that they will be protected by the applicable conventions. If they are not, any feasible attempt at rescue should be made, and failing that, the captors should be hunted down, at the end of hostilities, and killed. The lives of protected persons are not legitimate counters for the enemy’s political purposes. Iran’s atrocity was rewarded. And it paid no price, as it paid no price for the Rushdie affair.

Salman Rushdie was taken unawares. He was an adept of the Standard International Style. His writing was ordinarily transgressive – and then this. He had every right to wonder, with Nancy Kerrigan, “Why me?” The fatwa looked then like singularly bad luck. And where are we today? The Rushdie oddity has become the general rule. The sword is over everyone’s head. At the Durban Conference, the week leading up to 9/11, a sign held up by a participant said, ISLAM WILL DOMINATE THE EARTH. Will?, you wonder, how’d that weasely word get in there? (And then you realize, ah, this was a moderate Muslim.)

It’s not helpful to see the cartoons as just free speech, although they’re also that. Some–few–have championed them as free speech. (Honor to the staff of New York Press, who walked out as a group in solidarity with the Danish cartoonists.) Others have been grudging – “They’re not very good cartoons? (How many political cartoons are good?) But often, the talk has been of “provocation”, “offensiveness”, “responsibility”, “lit matches”. Bill Clinton – in Qatar! – called the cartoons “appalling” and “totally outrageous”. I write what I like? Not this day and time.

Let me add my two cents of criticism. Here’s how the cartoons came to be commissioned. A children’s book, a biography of Muhammad, was written by a Danish author, Kaare Bluitgen. He wanted pictures for this children’s book. Nobody could be found to do it. In a Europe so noisily proud of not having a death penalty, illustrators went in fear of their lives. Since the cartoon news has broken, we have seen that, for instance, pictures of Muhammad do exist, pretty uncontroversially, done by Muhammadan hands, and the twelve Danish cartoons were published without comment a few months ago in an Egyptian newspaper. It is not qur’anically forbidden to portray Muhammad [See note below]. For Europeans, and probably for Americans too, it is a capital offense. The sword is out, and there is blood on it. Against this regime of terror, with bodies piling up regularly, Jyllands-Posten commissioned a page of cartoons. Here, then, is my criticism: the cartoons are, for their purpose, inadequate. It’s not the cartoonists’ fault – they have no armies, and their call for support has gone largely unanswered. And apart from the nine deaths the cartoon war has – so far – produced, there are many people in Europe either in hiding or under heavy guard.

Blogger Hugh Hewitt, enamored of expediency as any Leninist, has condemned the cartoons. They are distinctly unhelpful. Where do they leave a Musharraf? Well, first, Musharraf is our “ally” only faute de mieux. Second, Musharraf had to be threatened into cooperation after 9/11, and any putatively worse alternative to Musharraf would be subject to Bush’s refusal to take no for an answer. And third, how does a Western hard line hurt Musharraf’s position? The plug uglies in Pakistan who want to take over have an idea of the world, that to yell a lot is to get your way. In the long run, that isn’t true. Musharraf knows that, but to convince them, he could use evidence, facts in the ground. Those who have so heedlessly drawn the sword should be shown, and quickly, the unfunny things that happen in the final panel.


1 To gauge the “pain” and “outrage” caused by the portrayals of the “Prophet”, we should recall Mel Gibson”s The Passion of the Christ. Before the movie could be shown in the Gulf States, it had to get past the censors. The problem was that it portrayed a prophet on screen. Such a portrayal is deemed shirk, kin to idolatry and polytheism. But if a film might add to the store of jew-hatred in the world, what’s a little polytheism? When the lights went down, the idol stayed in the picture. The justification offered was not the struggle against Zionism, but – free speech!

And of course, the notion of Jesus as one among the prophets strikes Christians as heretical at best, and the notion of Jesus as precursor to Muhammad is repugnant to them. But objections – let alone noisy demonstrations, burnings, lynchings – would be unseemly.

From February, 2006