Eli Sanders

[Originally published in The Stranger, Feb 9, 2006]
All the Righteousness
The West Needs to Realize This Is About More Than Free Speech

A point that keeps being made in the debate over the Danish cartoons is that other religious groups—Jews, Hindus, and Catholics—don’t resort to riots and violence when they feel their faith has been insulted. Setting aside the fact that members of all these groups have, at times, resorted to such tactics, it seems to me there’s a better comparison to be made here, one that might be more helpful, at least in this country.

In America, the group whose experience of economic discrimination and social subjugation most closely resembles that of Muslims in Europe (and, historically, that of Muslims in the Middle East vis-à-vis European colonial powers) is not a religious group. It is a racial group: African Americans.

This is far from a perfect comparison, I know, but I bring it up simply to illustrate what I see as a blind spot on the part of some Americans who want to make this debate into a simple referendum on free speech. Even in America, home of free speech, there are things we don’t joke about, things that editors are reluctant to publish cartoons about. These are things that touch on historical hurts and unresolved power relationships in a manner that’s so provocative it could result in violence.

For example, it’s not hard to imagine a cartoon that, had it been published to coincide with Coretta Scott King’s funeral yesterday, would have led to condemnation and boycotts, and perhaps violence. And it’s not hard to imagine most American editors refusing to publish such a cartoon, and most Americans supporting that refusal.

Or, for an example in a slightly different arena: If I, a well-dressed white guy, were to walk into certain black neighborhoods carrying offensive depictions of blacks and jokingly calling people niggers, I would almost certainly be hit, or worse. And the feeling of most Americans (and myself), would probably be that I deserved what I got for being so insensitive. It would not matter if I had only been joking, or if I had been trying to make some high-minded point about race being a social construct. The fact that I had trampled on the understandable sensitivities of black Americans in order to make a provocative statement would be seen as poor judgment, at best.

Does this reality restrain my free speech? I suppose so. Does it bother me? Not enough that I want to emphasize lectures about freedom of expression more than efforts to right historical wrongs.

There are always going to be negotiations about who can make fun of whom, and after what cultural changes have been accomplished. And it seems to me that people’s willingness to have their identity or beliefs mocked by outsiders is usually in direct proportion to the sense of power and safety they feel. We are familiar with this phenomenon in America, where blacks, Jews, and gays all made fun of themselves long before they found it acceptable for outsiders to make such jokes. I think something similar is at play in the cartoon debate, but on a global scale.

I’m not saying this to excuse the violence committed by Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons. It’s inexcusable. (But not without precedent and a certain familiarity.) What I’m saying is that the response from some Americans—essentially, that Muslims need to lighten up and be able to take a joke—feels a bit too simplistic.

It’s easy to say Muslims should calm down and get over the perceived slight, but harder to answer the question: How do you tell people they are wrong without humiliating them? Especially when you have had a hand in creating circumstances that already make them feel humiliated.

Bruce Bawer has a great piece in this week’s Stranger about the Danish cartoon controversy, and to The Stranger’s credit, it’s being published alongside some of the cartoons that have made certain Muslims so upset. One of the most interesting parts, to me, is when Bawer notes that Saudi Arabia, the “top funder of Europe’s radical mosques and Muslim schools,” has been stoking the Muslim backlash against the cartoons, in essence manipulating the sensitivities of Muslims to increase its geopolitical power.

But here’s a question Bawer fails to ask: Who is the top funder of Saudi Arabia? It’s the West, and in particular America. We finance and protect the repressive religious radicals who make up the Saudi regime, in order to maintain our global dominance and feed our dependence on cheap oil. In this sense, we are not quite the righteous defenders of free speech we now see ourselves to be. Rather, we are first defenders of our own comforts.