Pales Next to Politicians
February 17, 2006
An old anti-Soviet joke
tells how a mother was asked by her puzzled child to explain something
mysterious in her history book: what was a meat queue? Patiently she
explained that a queue was when people had to stand in line in order to
obtain some scarce product.
“Oh, don’t be silly, mommy,” interrupted the child. “I know what a queue
is. But what is meat?”
Events of recent weeks may well be listed in future history books under
the serio-comic title of “the cartoon war.” Our great-grand-children
will be amazed to learn that people were killed over the publication of
cartoons. But will they be amazed over the killings or over the
For the riots against the publication of twelve cartoons depicting the
Prophet Mohammed by the small Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, reveal
that a culture war is being waged by radical Islamists against a
post-Christian West largely disarmed by multiculturalism. Its purpose is
to compel the West to impose limits on free speech to protect the
religious sensibilities of Muslims communities in Europe and America.
And if it succeeds, it will gradually snuff out a long tradition of
irreverent caricature—and any other form of free expression that
significant numbers of radical Muslims oppose. This attack on such
cardinal European values as free speech and tolerance, however, has
evoked a very mixed response.
There has been a perceptible drift towards appeasement of the rioters
and the Islamist forces behind them by European governments and
politicians. Yet a number of European newspapers, including such
progressive ones as Le Monde, have re-published the cartoons to
demonstrate that they will not be intimidated by threats of murder.
In the U.S., on the other hand, politicians have been quite robust in
defense of free speech whereas media outlets have piously refused to
re-publish the Danish cartoons on pious grounds of not offending Muslims
even though they had published equally offensive illustrations in
earlier controversies over “obscene” art funded by the U.S. taxpayer.
But these journalistic sins pale into triviality in comparison with the
truly active cowardice of European politicians.
Since most of the cowards on this occasion were Europeans, it should be
stated up front that the first to step forward and abase himself was
former President Clinton. At an economic conference in Doha he described
the cartoons as "appalling" and "totally outrageous" and compared them
to the anti-Semitic prejudice harbored by Europeans until recently.
Had Clinton actually seen the cartoons? If not, he was irresponsible in
condemning them sight unseen. If had seen them, he was spreading the
exaggerated rumors about them that had caused actual to be murdered. In
either case, he was pandering to his largely Arab audience.
After Clinton spoke, a procession of European nabobs stepped forward to
condemn the cartoons and, worse, to suggest that expressions of free
speech that some consider blasphemy will not be permitted in future.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "I believe that the
republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been
insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong."
France's President Chirac said: "Freedom of expression must be exercised
in a spirit of responsibility. I condemn all manifest provocation that
might dangerously fan passions."
And at least one European Union high official, Spain's Javier Solana,
expressed some sympathy for the demand from the Organization of the
Islamic Conference's demand that international conventions on free
speech should not permit blasphemy.
These remarks might be dismissed as well-intentioned platitudes if there
were not already significant restrictions on free speech in Europe.
These include all the traditional ones--libel, incitement, national
security, etc., etc.—together with more recent restraints to protect
ethnic minorities against hate speech. If new restraints were now added
to protect religions against offense, free speech across Europe would be
Why are European governments so willing to appease radical Muslim
rioters in this way—much more so than the U.S. government? And why are
even leftist European news media prepared to defy both their governments
and the rioters—much more so than their timid American cousins?
The answer may lie less in the cartoon controversy than in another
matter entirely: a report from the OECD (drawn to my attention by Fareed
Zarkaria in Newsweek) that paints a very gloomy picture of Europe's
economic future. If current trends continue, then Europe's per capita
standard of living, already fifteen points behind America's, would fall
to about half the U.S. level in two decades. That decline would occur in
a world in which India and China are rising rapidly.
As Zakaria points out, though many Europeans believe U.S. capitalism to
be unregulated and harsh to the poor, Asian economies are less
regulated, less welfarist, and thus much more competitive. So Europeans
would soon lag behind almost everywhere except the stricken continent of
Africa and a Latin America walking backwards into neo-socialist
Whether they cope with these problems through protectionism or a bold
program of Thatcherite economic reforms, they would face enormous
internal social and economic strife as different groups sought to
protect their current privileges or to gain new competitive advantages.
Witness the 1980s in Britain or whenever serious market reforms are
tried in France.
Unlike other periods of upheaval, moreover, European countries now have
more diverse populations, in particular large and growing Muslim
minorities. What Europe faces is a gloomy future of economic
difficulties, political battles and ethnic hostility.
Radical Islamists see all these difficulties as an opportunity to spread
the own rules across Europe in order to give Islam something like a
privileged place in social discourse--the first time a minority religion
has ever enjoyed this status. And Middle East governments see the
cartoon riots as a chance to embarrass and weaken the West when it is
seeking to introduce some elements of liberalism and democracy into
their corrupt autocracies.
In order to keep these threatening social conflicts to a minimum,
European governments are now seeking to establish rules of conduct that
would prevent the different groups in a multicultural society insulting
each other. European media, on the other hand, see a long-term threat to
their own independence in exactly the same set of problems. For the very
first time media leftists are waking up to the fact that the
multiculturalism they have supported as a weapon against the Right may
now be used to restrict their own powers and liberties.
In the U.S. there are fewer Muslims, thus fewer radical Islamists, and a
much more favorable economic outlook. So the same groups take a much
more complacent view of the potential clashes between free expression,
multiculturalism and radical Islamism. Politicians are readier to
condemn the rioters and the media is still happy to enforce the pieties
of multiculturalism since they rather than the government is carrying
out the enforcement. The “cartoon war” seems far away and not very
In fact it is the first skirmish of a long and serious conflict in which
there will be many more deaths. Whether there will be many more cartoons
is altogether less certain.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times
where John O'Sullivan writes a weekly column.
is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of