The European press and the blogosphere have been full of stories over the last few days about the controversy started by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. There’s enough material out there that readers of the Acton blog don’t need a full run-down here. (See, for example, the Brussels Journal and Michelle Malkin.)
But since the issue concerns both religion and liberty, how can we not address it?
Yes, there is a right to free speech, which certainly includes the right to examine and criticize religious opinions and beliefs.
Christians are certainly used to having their beliefs examined publicly, if not caricatured and mocked, and there are several Christian groups who organize letter-writing campaigns and boycotts in response to those who cross the line of decency and respect.
But the reaction of some Muslim groups has been much more violent and is intensifying. The cartoons of Mohammed that are causing all the uproar do not seem to me to be all that shocking, but it’s clear that many Muslims are offended by any portayal of their prophet.
What’s missing from this debate is some kind of normative standards for civil discourse, something which has been missing from the Western media for some time. The right to free speech is not absolute; recall Lord Acton’s definition of the proper use of liberty, doing what one ought. And religious believers have a special obligation to treat others charitably, even and sometimes especially those who disagree with us.
Now, I am NOT arguing for any kind of government control of what is or is not decent or respectful, and I refuse to put these words in ironic “smart quotes” because I believe that decency and respect actually do exist. But a free and virtuous society definitely requires citizens and media who are able to regulate and restrain themselves. I personally find it hard to pick a side in this controversy. Sometimes the civil libertarians can be just as fanatical as the Islamists.