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Bush Cabinet Member Condemns Anti-Christian Blasphemy, and Points to Laws Restricting Incitement to Hateful Expressions:

Here's the e-mail from the official

I am sorry that the publication of a few cartoons in a leading American newspaper has caused upset among Christians. I fully understand that these drawings are seen to give offense by Christians, because they depict Jesus Christ in a sacrilegious context. Christianity is a spiritual reference point for a large part of the world. Christianity has the right to be respected. Let it be clear that the American government condemns every expression or act which expresses contempt for people on the basis of their religion or ethnic origin.

Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of American society. This includes tolerance for opinions that not everyone shares. At the same time our laws and our international obligations enforce restrictions for incitement to hatred or hateful expressions.

Pretty appalling, no? Though the official makes a passing nod towards freedom of expression, surely the last sentence -- backed by the recent American trend towards restricting speech that's hostile to certain groups -- strongly suggests that the Administration is willing to suppress allegedly blasphemous speech.

Whoops, sorry, one important detail. This isn't the American government suggesting the possibility of suppressing speech that Christians find blasphemous; it's the Norwegian government suggesting the possibility of suppressing speech that Muslims find blasphemous, against the backdrop of a European trend towards restricting speech that's hostile to certain groups. Here's the BrusselsJournal report, which quotes (in translation) a Norwegian newspaper:

The left-wing government in Norway apologizes to Muslims worldwide for the publication of twelve Muhammad cartoons [see them here] in the Norwegian newspaper Magazinet. Oslo sent out instructions to all the Norwegian embassies on how to respond to queries about the cartoons. Unlike the Danish government, the Norwegian government is not concerned about safeguarding the right to freedom of expression. Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, a leading member of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s Workers’ Party, wrote the following e-mail to the Norwegian embassies:

I am sorry that the publication of a few cartoons in the Norwegian paper Magazinet has caused unrest among Muslims. I fully understand that these drawings are seen to give offence by Muslims worldwide. Islam is a spiritual reference point for a large part of the world. Your faith has the right to be respected by us.

The cartoons in the Christian paper Magazinet are not constructive in building the bridges which are necessary between people with different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Instead they contribute to suspicion and unnecessary conflict.

Let it be clear that the Norwegian government condemns every expression or act which expresses contempt for people on the basis of their religion or ethnic origin. Norway has always supported the fight of the UN against religious intolerance and racism, and believes that this fight is important in order to avoid suspicion and conflict. Tolerance, mutual respect and dialogue are the basis values of Norwegian society and of our foreign policy.

Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of Norwegian society. This includes tolerance for opinions that not everyone shares. At the same time our laws and our international obligations enforce restrictions for incitement to hatred or hateful expressions.

I've blogged more about this issue here; as I mentioned there, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has also recently publicly condemned a Danish newspaper for publishing the drawings. Arbour said that she "deplore[d] any statement or act showing a lack of respect towards other people's religion," and "appointed to UN experts in the areas of religious freedom and racism to investigate the matter." The High Commissioner's office has "asked Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen for "an official explanation," including asking "the Rasmussen government to respond to the question, 'Do the caricatures insult or discredit?'" As I argued, against the backdrop of the Commissioner for Human Rights' resolutions urging governments to legally suppress "xenophobic ideas and material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement to ... hostility," the call is even worse.

In any case, this puts me in mind of the quote attributed to French socialist Jean-Francois Revel, that the "dark night of fascism was forever descending upon America, but it touched ground only in Europe." Likewise, it seems to me, for the supposed suppression of dissent that people have been seeing, largely as mirage rather than reality, in modern America.

PersonFromPorlock:
You have to keep in mind that the European (not just the Norwegian) concept of enlightened government is that it allows as much freedom as is consistent with good order. Which is to say, none.
1.27.2006 2:04pm
Paddy O. (mail):
What is interesting to me is that while the governments of Europe seem eager to condemn such a thing, the artists of Europe seem to be willing to push the boundaries.

I cannot imagine a newspaper or magazine in America publishing such cartoons. Our artists seem eager to revel in free speech as long as they have safe targets for their attacks.

I can't even imagine a magazine like Newsweek or Time doing a respectful article on the beliefs of Islam, similar to those they have produced regularly on Christian holidays.

The leadership of Europe is discouraging. The people of Europe show they have a fair bit of courage yet still remaining. Indeed maybe a lot more than our journalists and creative types.
1.27.2006 2:13pm
SteveW:
I'm the guy who always has to ask to have a joke explained. I looked at the cartoons at the link inside the block quote. Why is the first one offensive? It shows a man in sandals standing under a setting (or rising) sun, holding a staff and leading a mule.
1.27.2006 2:17pm
JohnAnnArbor:
Why is the first one offensive?

Any depiction of Mohammed in a picture is considered blasphemous.

Given that, if Hollywood had ANY guts at all, we'd see a 3-hour epic of Mohammed's life. Just by having someone portray Mohammed, there'd be fatwas flying everywhere.
1.27.2006 2:20pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
My understanding is that many Muslims find all depictions of Mohammed to be blasphemous (a graven images sort of thing, I suppose). Thus, while some of the cartoons seem to condemn Mohammed or Islam, Muslims may be upset even by those that aren't hostile.
1.27.2006 2:20pm
Taimyoboi:
While the American official's memo is fake, the story is nonetheless accurate...
1.27.2006 2:39pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> I cannot imagine a newspaper or magazine in America publishing such cartoons.

Not portraying Islam, but portraying Christians or Jews, sure.
1.27.2006 2:39pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
I think it's kind of silly to act like you can compare that situation with ours in America. Certainly we don't want to silence criticism of touchy subjects, but it makes sense that a Norwegian official would try to quell a situation in that way.

If I were them, I'd try to be diplomatic too. Consider what's at stake. It's an extremely touchy issue, with extreme violence always on the horizon. Just saying "Sorry, guys, free speech, can't help you," may feel principled, but I don't think it would be particularly responsible.

As to whether there is any freedom in Europe, PersonFromPorlock -- if they don't have any freedom, then we don't either. In any case, it seems the fetish with compromising civil liberties these days is at least as much in America these days as it is in Europe.
1.27.2006 2:57pm
DJ (mail):
Yeah, I think it's one thing to instruct diplomats to tell angry Islamic governments that hate crime laws could be used here. Anything to mollify what--based on recent demonstrations in Iraq should make plain--is a significant international issue. It's another thing, of course, to actually prosecute these cartoonists under hate crime laws. Until that happens, I'm unalarmed.
1.27.2006 3:55pm
JohnAnnArbor:
Just saying "Sorry, guys, free speech, can't help you," may feel principled, but I don't think it would be particularly responsible.

So, treat them as uninformed children that can't handle the concept of "free speech"?
1.27.2006 4:15pm
dk35 (mail):
I'm not quite certain, when you have a US President calling for a constitutional amendment removing the right of equal protection from gay Americans, that you can say that facism hasn't already touched our shores. (And I won't even get into the current practice of forcing small children to swear allegiance to "God").

P.S. Before you yell at me for using the word "fascism," note that EV used it first in his post.
1.27.2006 4:31pm
keypusher (mail):
No one is going to yell at you for using the word "fascism," dk35, but they might pity you a little for having no clue what it means.
1.27.2006 5:42pm
Richard Riley (mail):
Jean-Francois Revel is not a socialist. I don't know his background, maybe he was on the left at some point, but Revel is best known for his 1980s book "How Democracies Perish," which was very much a cry to the West to stand up to Communism and the Soviet Union. Revel was (is) much admired by the original neoconservatives like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. That's not a put-down; I admire him too. A "socialist" he is not.
1.27.2006 8:55pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
JohnAnnArbor

>So, treat them as uninformed children that can't handle the concept of "free speech"?<

That's not how I'd characterize it...

All I'm saying is, Scandinavians make for pretty peaceful societies. They may not be as principled and uncompromising in exacting retribution and that kind of thing, but you know what? It seems to work pretty well. I guess it's kind of the Mom's approach to resolving conflict as opposed to the Dad's. Take that for what you will.
1.27.2006 10:04pm
dk35 (mail):
keypusher,

I guess my comment flew over your head.
1.27.2006 11:08pm
Wintermute (www):
Either you believe in free speech, or you don't.

We have a few sons of Abraham here. What do you think of the post WW-II German laws re Nazi speech?
1.28.2006 2:10am
Noah Klein (mail):
Wintermute,

That is an interesting question. Should we reject these laws because of their limitation on free speech or should we praise them as an attempt for a nation to acknowledge its past and prevent a similiar fascist state from arising? I would have to say that I agree with the post-WW II laws in Germany regarding Nazis. They served a purpose to ensure that that state would not fall again to the extremes and failures of the Nazi regime. Having priniciples is excellent, but if those principles prevent a peaceful, democratic state from arising then they serve no purpose but to destroy an opportunity for freedom and democracy.
Having said that, I think that those laws should be repealed now. The state has demonstrated its respect and admiration for Judaism and Jews. In fact, many have now defined Germans attitude towards Jews today to be philo-semitism, or prejudice towards liking Jews. Obviously, there are neo-Nazis and other anti-semitic groups in Germany, but those exist here too. That is matter of education that will eventually wholly eliminate that attitude. Germans also have demonstrated that they remember and decry the holocaust. This does not mean that the Nazi party should be legal, but merely that the free speech regarding Nazis should be allowed.

Noah
1.28.2006 3:53am
Cornellian (mail):
would have to say that I agree with the post-WW II laws in Germany regarding Nazis. They served a purpose to ensure that that state would not fall again to the extremes and failures of the Nazi regime. Having priniciples is excellent, but if those principles prevent a peaceful, democratic state from arising then they serve no purpose but to destroy an opportunity for freedom and democracy.

One might say our constitution isn't their suicide pact.

I'm partial to free speech myself and so I consider it a fortunate coincidence that I was born in the USA instead of some country like China where freedom of speech doesn't exist. Nevertheless, I hestitate to leap to the conclusion that grafting the US constitutional structure (even just the first amendment) on a completely different society is necessarily a good idea, or that supression of speech in that society that would here be protected by the first amendment is automatically deplorable. There is a huge continuum between US First Amendment free speech and no free speech at all, and if some other democratic society draws the line a bit closer to the other end of the spectrum than we do, that's not automatically a bad thing anymore than the US standard would be bad if another country could be identified that allowed an even greater degree of freedom of speech.
1.28.2006 1:37pm