This story meets all the clichés of journalistic self-aggrandizement: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”, “News is what someone doesn’t want you to put in the paper”. But it seems it’s one thing to “speak truth to power” when the power’s George Bush or John Ashcroft, quite another when it’s an Islamist mob coming to burn your building down. Needless to say, reflex blowhardism is so ingrained in the media class they couldn’t resist passing off their prioritizing of self-preservation as a bold principled stand. Or as Philip Lee, professor of journalism at St Thomas University in New Brunswick, put it:
Freedom of the press means you can publish, or not. Not publishing is also an expression of freedom.
Up to a point, Lord Jello. That’s a valid position if you’re the editor of, say, The Ottawa Citizen and some fellow mails you some cartoons about Mohammed and you say, “Interesting idea, old boy. Unfortunately, not quite our bag.” But that’s no longer tenable when the cartoons themselves are the story. Then it’s not even simple news judgment; it’s the headline and you’ve no choice in the matter. In Nigeria the other day, 15 Christians were killed by Muslims over these cartoons, because they’re “offensive”. Exercising Professor Lee’s “right to not publish” becomes, in effect, a way of supporting that proposition. It’s summed up by the CNN technique: whenever the story comes up, they show the cartoons but with the Prophet’s image pixilated. Watching, you wonder briefly if it’s not your own face that’s pixilated. Maybe you dozed off and fell face down in the blancmange and you’re not seeing it properly. But no, you grab a towel and wipe your eyes and, when you look again, they’re still doing it: the graphics department of a major news network is obscuring the features of a cartoon face. If you weren’t paying attention, you’d assume Mohammed must have entered the witness protection program.
But, of course, its meaning is the exact opposite: it’s CNN that’s entered the witness protection program, or hopes it has. The BBC, disgracefully, did the Islamists’ work for them, spreading around the world the canard that one of the cartoons showed Mohammed as a pig. No. That was one of the three fake cartoons added by the Danish imams – presumably because the original 12 were felt to be insufficiently incendiary. If it’s an outrage for an infidel to depict the Prophet, isn’t it an even greater one for a believer to do so? Who did those Danish Islamists hire to cook up the phoney cartoons and have they killed him yet?
Anyone who’s spent any time in the Muslim world cannot help but be struck by its profound ignorance. The famous United Nations statistic from a 2002 report – more books are translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic in the last thousand – suggests at the very minimum an extraordinarily closed society – which in turn explains its stunted political development. For example, the editor of The Yemen Observer, Mohammed al-Asadi, wrote a strong editorial denouncing the Danish cartoons, but, like this magazine’s editor, decided to show its readers what they actually looked like. As a result, he’s now in jail. The point about Islam is that it’s beyond discussion. Whether it’s good or bad is neither here nor there: It just is. There’s nothing to talk about. No corner of the earth would benefit more from the ability to debate ideas openly.
Yet what is Mr al-Asadi to conclude from his jail cell about freedom of expression in the western world? Out of “respect” for Islam, the BBC and CNN and The New York Times and Le Monde have shown less of those cartoons than his government-published Yemeni paper. If you’re a Toronto printer who’d rather pass on a job printing up gay propaganda, our oh-so-correct Human Rights Commission will fine you and sternly remind you that your religious beliefs are fine within the confines of your own home but they’ve got to be left inside the house when you close the front door behind you each morning. But, if you’re a Muslim, your particular conventions – many of them relatively recent and by no means universally observed – have now been extended throughout the public square.
In contrast to Professor Lee, the Boston Phoenix was admirably straightforward. It declined to publish the cartoons, it said, “out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do… Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at The Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy.”
I was the subject of an attack in The Phoenix a year or two back. As hit pieces go, it was a pretty feeble effort, and I didn’t feel it was worth driving all the way down to Boston just to kill a few members of staff and burn the building down. But it makes you think. In our multicultural society, the best way to get “respect” from others is to despise them; the surest way to have your views boundlessly “tolerated” is to be utterly intolerant of anybody else’s. Those who think Islam will apply these lessons only to op-ed cartoons or representations of Mohammed are very foolish.
Meanwhile, we prattle on about “moderate Muslims”, telling ourselves that the “vast majority” of Muslims aren’t terrorists, don’t support terrorists, etc.
Okay, then why don’t we hear from them?
Because they live in communities where the ideological bullies set the pace, where the price of speaking out is too high, and so they find it easier to say nothing, keep their heads down. And why would we expect them to do any differently when the mighty BBC and CNN do the same? If there is such a thing as a “moderate Muslim”, he’s surely thinking, “Well, if the CBC and The Toronto Star have to knuckle under to the imams, there’s no point me tossing in my two bits.”
It’s odd to hear so many eminent media mandarins patiently explaining that their principal role is deciding what we don’t need to know. Simply as a commercial proposition, for the press to trumpet its professional judgment in knowing when to withhold information seems a surefire way for the slide in circulation to turn into an avalanche: they’re going to need great recipe columns and film listings if that’s the basis on which they approach news reporting. But, beyond that, for the media to play the role of ceremonial maintainer of the multicultural illusions is to damage their credibility on the central issue of our time.
The Islamists picked the right fight. The Danish cartoonists are not Salman Rushdie; Jutland is not literary London. No modish metropolitan semi-celebrities are flocking to the cause of the latest faraway country of which we know little. Yet it was not an accidental target. Denmark was the first country to recognize the demographic and cultural challenge of Islam and to elect a government committed to do something about it. This is the imams’ way of warning Norway and Sweden and Belgium and all the rest not to follow in the footsteps of their neighbour. Judging from the formal statements of Continental politicians, they’ve got the message loud and clear.
It’s often observed that, when President Kennedy famously declared he was a Berliner, what he actually said in his imperfect German was: “I am a donut.” If ever there was a time to say “I am a Danish”, this is it. Shame on all of those whose cowardice will bring disaster.