The controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad shows no sign of abating, with a violent attack last night on the Danish consulate in Beirut – although there have also been many voices in the Middle East calling for calm.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the affair has been the
different responses in the English-speaking countries to that in
continental Europe. None of the leading British or American (or
Australian) papers have republished the cartoons; as Emma-Kate Symons puts it in this morning’s Australian, “Europe was abandoned by the British and US political and media elite.”
Even those Europeans who have criticised the decision to publish the cartoons, such as EU commissioner Franco Frattini
have defended the right of free speech in uncompromising terms. It
seems a complete reversal of the usual position of the Americans and
British accusing the French and Germans of appeasement.
A clue can be found in the terms in which the issue is framed in Europe. France Soir, which republished the cartoons
last week, headlined with “Yes, we have the right to caricature God,”
and explained that “no religious dogma can impose itself on a
democratic and secular society.”
On the continent, religion is seen as the enemy of freedom in a way
that is foreign to the American tradition. It was not surprising to
find the Vatican weighing in on the other side, arguing that freedom of
speech does not include the freedom to attack religion.
Also noteworthy is the tepid response from Europe’s large Muslim
population. There have been some protests, but nothing like the
violence of the Middle East. Where are the commentators who kept saying
that France’s Muslims are a fifth column threatening western
last year told us that French rioters were making “a defiant
declaration of their separate cultural identity,” but it actually looks
as if they care more about jobs and discrimination than about the
dignity of their Prophet.