A protest in Gaza City against the Muhammad caricatures published recently in a Danish newspaper.
In Germany and the rest of free Europe, one likes to talk about the necessity of learning from the past, of helping newcomers to the democratic club and of supporting stable democracies. Over sixty years after the end of the Nazi regime, everyone is determined not to let such a group rise to power again.
But the reality is that our real options when confronted with such a force are somewhat modest. A dozen faux-Nazis being elected to the Saxony state parliament was enough to plunge the established parties into frenetic helplessness. The late German television personality Johannes Gross -- a political conservative who possessed an acute sense of history -- once said: "The resistance to Hitler and his kind will only grow the further the Third Reich recedes into the past."
One shudders to imagine how the political classes would react if the country were threatened -- from the right or the left -- by a real totalitarian movement.
What one can and must consider, however, is the reaction within Germany if a mainstream daily paper -- like the Frankfurter Rundschau or the Süddeutsche Zeitung, for example -- were to print a dozen or so caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in much the same way as such caricatures of Jesus, the Pope or other religious figures are published all the time. One only has to take a quick glance over Germany's northern border into Denmark, where Jyllands Posten allowed itself just such caricatures four months ago. A storm of indignation has been raging in the Muslim world since -- as though a second Abu Ghraib had been discovered in a suburb of Copenhagen.
11,000 jobs versus freedom of speech
Yesterday, Jyllands Posten gave in and apologized for the caricatures. The drawings, Editor-in-Chief Carsten Juste wrote on Tuesday, were not intended to be offensive to Muslims the world over and the paper "takes exception to symbolic acts suited to demonize specific nationalities, religions and ethnic groups."
The concern here, of course, is not to elevate cultural sensitivity above freedom of opinion. Denmark is already concerned about the potential loss of some 11,000 jobs resulting from boycotts against Danish products in the Islamic world. Earlier this week, a Danish dairy closed down its production in the Saudi Arabian capital Riad as a result of the boycott.
Obviously concerned about the threats against the Danes, the Norwegian government -- rich and not reliant on Arabian crude oil -- opted to take preventative action. A statement released by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry via the country's ambassadors stationed in Islamic countries indicated that Norway "understands the anger and dismay" that Muslims feel as a result of the drawings.
The impulse for the Norwegian statement was provided by an Oslo newspaper, which published the drawings out of solidarity with Jyllands Posten. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store criticized the decision as being "not positive for the dialogue between different cultures and people of different religions."
But what should one call such a statement? Preventative capitulation? Suicide out of fear of death? A contribution to a multicultural life in which one side acts insulted and the other side promptly takes distance from itself? Or perhaps simply: The interplay of extortion and opportunism.
Salman Rushdie as a precedent
It's not the first time that a democratic public has chickened out in the face of a totalitarian-religious disposition. More than 20 years ago, German television personality Rudi Carrell showed a short, satirical film involving the Ayatollah Khomeini and women's bras. The crisis that resulted could only be defused by an apology from Carrell.
When Salman Rushdie published his book "Satanic Verses" in 1988, the Muslim world was so angered that a "fatwa" was issued against him. Rushdie had to live in hiding for years, and even today he doesn't go out in public without the protection of body guards.
Back then, of course, the public was split. Whereas the liberal intellectuals expressed understanding for the reaction of the insulted Muslims and thought that the Muslim Rushdie should never have gone so far as to insult his own, a number of European publishing houses showed solidarity with Rushdie and brought out special editions of "Satanic Verses." The German daily Die Tageszeitung printed excerpts from the book on its front page and the Frankfurt Book Fair barred Iranian publishers from attending in 1989. In 1991, the Italian translator of "Satanic Verses" was seriously injured in an attack. His Japanese colleague was stabbed to death.
The apology by the editor in chief of the Danish paper hasn't been accepted. Instead, Muslims have been called on to overwhelm the paper's Web site with clicks.
Germany's leftist Die Tageszeitung went one dubious step further, opting to side with a totalitarian ideology rather than defend the right to free speech. A Tuesday editorial in the paper began with the sentence: "The Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten -- which is considered the mouthpiece of right-reactionaries in Denmark -- knew what it was getting itself into..." Whether the paper is right wing is beside the point. Either way, the sentence means that freedom of opinion is a privilege for left wing publications like Die Tageszeitung, but is restricted for those on the other side of the political spectrum.
Threaten one, intimidate 1 million
Jyllands Posten, the editorial in Die Tageszeitung continued, "can look back on an offensive history of outspoken anti-Semitism in the 1930s. ... Now its the Muslims' turn."
Leaving aside the piece's haughty tone, such an accusation appears especially frivolous when one remembers that the Danes managed to save almost their entire Jewish population during World War II. The Danish king even wore a yellow Jewish star on his suit during the occupation.
Apparently, the "outspoken anti-Semitism" practiced by Jyllands Posten in the 1930s didn't prevent the Danes from doing the right thing. Meanwhile, Die Tageszeitung, the same paper which defended Rushdie so energetically not so long ago, now expresses understanding for the Muslim reaction to the "unappetizing caricatures" -- caricatures that aren't even close to being as offensive as Monty Python's Jesus satire "The Life of Brian."
How would Die Tageszeitung react if Christian fundamentalists called for a boycott of English goods as a result of "Monty Python's Life of Brian?" Something has changed in the public awareness since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, since the numerous attacks from Ankara to Madrid, since the series of al-Jazeera images of beheaded hostages.
"Punish one to educate 100," Mao once said. Threaten one, intimidate 1 million would be today's version.