Let me offer many thanks to the Divine Ms. M and young master Daniel Pulliam for doing so much in the past few days to keep us in touch with the tidal wave of stories about the Danish cartoons. I literally do not know where to begin and, during five days of travel, I have felt somewhat stunned and confused by what I am reading. I am home again and starting to catch up. What I am feeling is precisely what I felt in the weeks and months after the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a freethinker who would, under ordinary circumstances, be an icon in places like New York City and Hollywood.
Here is how I would state the question that is at the heart of my confusion: Why is it suddenly liberal for liberals to think that conservatives are out of line for defending the free speech rights of liberals?
Apparently I am not alone in my confusion.
Over at the Los Angeles Times, reporter Jeffrey Fleishman has written a news feature story about the waves of confusion -- mixed with some rage -- that are sweeping over Denmark. This is a good piece to read if you are wondering where this whole story began, because it does flashback to the beginning and offer timely background materials.
At one point, Fleishman pauses to paint the scene in broad strokes that verge on analysis. But I think his reporting backs it up. The key, if you read between the lines, is this: the future of the European Union is tied to this crisis. That is the political issue that is an obvious stalking horse for the larger clash of cultures.
Danes suspect that the furor over the cartoons has been co-opted by the wider anti-Western agenda of Middle East extremism. Yet they believe the media images of fury over the drawings have cracked the veneer of their nation and exacerbated a debate about immigration, freedom of expression, religious tolerance and a vaunted perception of racial harmony often disputed by immigrants.
Denmark is a small portrait of Europe's struggle to integrate a Muslim population that has doubled since the late-1980s and dotted the continent with head scarves and back-alley mosques. ... Recent polls reveal a country of torn emotions and doubt. The Danish People's Party has gained 3 percentage points, but so has its nemesis, the Radical Left Party. A newspaper headline this week blamed President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for not supporting Denmark through the ordeal. And nearly 80% of Danes believe a terrorist attack looms.
Or consider this reaction from Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons to make a point that journalists and artists were self-censoring themselves in their depictions of Islam and debates about Islam. He argues that Islam should not be treated differently than Christianity or other religions, when it comes to parody and satire. Under normal circumstances, this is a "liberal" statement.
"I think it's problematic when a religion tries to impose its taboos and rules on the larger society," he said. "When they ask me not to run those cartoons, they are not asking for my respect. They're asking for my submission. ... To me, those cartoons are saying that some individuals have hijacked, kidnapped and taken hostage the religion of Islam to commit terrorism."
Then again, the meaning of the word "Islam" is "submission," as in the statement that true peace is found through submission to the teachings of Islam.
What does this mean? That is one of the points of debate within Islam. Do the Danes want to submit to the laws of Islam? Does Europe? Stay tuned.