The fight between freedom and fundamentalism has taken a new turn with the burnings of Danish embassies around the world. Two signs in the London protests seem to illustrate the larger stakes: one poster held by a masked demonstrator read, “Freedom, Go to Hell”; while another sign warned the western audience to “Learn the Lessons of 9/11.”
In some ways, it is shocking that cartoons can provoke such geopolitical unrest. But the fifteen year old Iranian fatwa on author Salman Rushdie should have prepared us for Islamo-fascists’ lack of appreciation for satire or subtlety. There is still an impulse in the United States to want to suspend judgment over the violent protests in the name of cultural sensitivity. Even the White House took care to issue a statement condemning the cartoons, saying “we find them offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive.” Behind the so far unsuccessful attempts to pacify the protestors lies another, less sophisticated, emotion: fear.
There is an understandable reluctance to wade into this debate because of the violence and unreasonableness of the mob. But if we’ve really understood the lessons of 9/11, then we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated by threats of violence. We need to have the courage to speak freely in defense of common sense, especially when it seems under siege by sectarian violence. Fear-based self-censorship—denying the desirability of open discussion and debate—is a step towards totalitarianism.
Diverse Democracies cannot allow themselves to be held hostage by separatist groups that want to impose their views on the rest of society through the threat of violence. If we have the courage to stand up and speak out, we may find hopeful allies in the larger effort to secure the concept of peaceful coexistence in a multi-cultural civil society. One such hopeful voice belongs to a Palestinian-born member of the Danish Parliament named Nasser Khader, who is trying to take a stand against the violent tide on behalf of the embattled moderate Muslim majority. “The difference between me and the fundamentalists is that I am a Muslim in a dynamic way. Islam should be interpreted based on contemporary times we live in,” Mr. Khader says. “I will fight the people who think they can tell me and others how to be a good Muslim. That is a matter between Allah and individual Muslims.”
We cannot allow ourselves to accept the concept of mutual incomprehensibility, no matter how it is wrapped up and presented to us. Finding common ground requires courage, not cowardice. Mutual respect is essential in a multi-cultural world, but with those values goes an implied tolerance and not the desire to destroy those who disagree with you. We need to stand up alongside moderate Muslims to call for the restoration of reason. We need to build the biggest possible principled coalition against the tyranny that terrorism and its apologists represent. At a time like this, the concept of a free Civil Society needs strong defenders, not intimidated advocates.