Is the iconoclast responsible for the reactions to their defiant acts? On this, as with so many contemporary issues, those who act with the greatest certainty are all too often the furthest from moral innocence.
Once again, the French press has used freedom of speech as their excuse for publishing racist cartoons. While it is true that freedom of speech allows people to promulgate bigotry, it is not the case (as sometimes seems to be presumed) that this freedom acts as an indemnity against responsibility. Nor is it true, as was claimed in the case of the reprinting of the Danish cartoons in France, that redistributing hateful material is somehow ‘defending’ freedom of speech. That particular freedom is not threatened in any way by people voicing their disgust. I’m particularly disappointed with French anti-racism group Licra who defend the magazine on the ground that the “crime of blasphemy” does not exist in France – a flippant remark that seems to suppose that images that defame Muslims are somehow excluded from consideration as racism, despite the UN’s stance on such matters.
The French government, expecting reprisals, closed a number of their embassies for fear of retaliation from those claiming to defend Islam. Attacks such as these, which certainly do occur, are themselves a great insult to the teachings of the prophet Mohammad, who expressly forbade harming innocents. Those sham Muslims who would dishonour their tradition are not far removed from the members of the French press who dishonour the tradition of free speech by using it as a cloak for their racism. The editor-in-chief of the magazine in question told the BBC: “These publications will not cost lives. Who killed people? We are not killing people, I’m sorry. We are not the violent ones. We are just journalists.” His attitude is like the Zookeeper who, fired from his job, leaves the animals unfed and then releases them from their cages before handing in his keys, claiming “I did not kill anyone.” Responsibility is not a matter of pointing to the last link in a causal chain: those who knowingly act in a manner that will incite violence are not indemnified from the consequences.
This entire incident is an example of what Bruno Latour terms iconoclash – the uncertainty of what transpires when images are destroyed or subverted, coupled with repudiation of the representation involved. Latour persuasively argues that it is no longer possible to understand iconoclasm as clear cut since the meaning of each act of destruction struggles with irresolvable ambiguities. The French magazines believe their ‘attack’ on the image of Mohammad is justified by free speech – how this act is viewed by others (not necessarily Muslim others) is far from likely to endorse their moral certainty in this regard. Latour also offers insightful commentary on the narrow manner in which iconoclash manifests. Artists, believing themselves iconoclasts, defame or insult the Catholic Pope or other religious figures, but will not (Latour confirms this through his own discussions with the artists) defame other cherished icons such as Martin Luther King or Salman Rushdie. Indeed, the only icons they will ‘smash’ are those they themselves do not respect – bringing into question just what the nature of these alleged acts of iconoclasm might be. Latour identifies many forms of iconoclash, and attempts to rescue one kind from among all the others, although this is a point I shall have to pursue at another time.
From the perspective of freedom of speech, a great irony of the French cartoons is that throughout history no religion has been a greater defender of freedom of speech than Islam. Such a freedom was originally claimed not only in both Athens and Rome, but also in the early Muslim world: freedom of speech was declared by both the caliph Umar in the Rashidun period (7th century), and again in the later Abbasid Caliphate period. In Christian-dominated Europe, this right was far slower to emerge. Fast forward to contemporary France, and the situation in respect of free speech is anything but clean cut: consider the recent furore over the topless photos of a future British queen, or the fact that anyone denying that the Turkish Army committed genocide against the Armenians in the twentieth century faces a find of 45,000 euros and a year in jail. As Seyed Ibrahim commented in this regard: “Ultimate and unconditional freedom of speech does not exist in any country in the world.”
Today, in this as in so many matters concerning contemporary Islam, we are still experiencing the consequences of a failure to respect the people of the Middle East during and after the two World Wars. The overthrowing of the Ottoman empire created power vacuums that were almost inevitably filled by dictatorships – often propped up by Western powers keener to secure oil exports than to secure the freedoms of the local populace. If the French iconoclasts really care about freedom of speech – and freedom in general – they should act to support the new Islamic cultures finding their feet after the Arab spring. But apparently they do not care – they are, it seems, merely another pocket of spoiled racists whose iconoclash should expect the condemnation it receives. In the words of White House spokesperson Jay Carney: “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published, we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”