It Takes Two To Clash

Angry demonstrators set ablaze the Danish embassy in Damascus 04 February 2006. Demonstrators angered over cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper broke into the Danish embassy in Damascus today, setting a fire that gutted it, an AFP correspondent said. Fire trucks had rushed to the scene to extinguish the fire. AFP PHOTO/LOUAI BESHARA (Photo credit should read LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images) AFP/Getty Images

This column was written by Lee Harris.
Does the so-called "cartoon war" represent the clash of civilizations?

I wish I could answer "yes," but I can't.

In order for there to be a clash of civilizations, it is necessary for there to be two civilizations, both of which are prepared to defend their deepest cultural values. Those in the Islamic world who are violently protesting the Danish cartoons clearly represent a civilization that is keen on maintaining its own deeply held traditions and convictions, as the Muslim rioters are prepared to do, even to the point of bloodshed. The Danish cartoons are an affront to their own religion and culture, and it is pointless for those in the West to wish that Muslims could learn to be less fanatic in their approach to their faith: What we call fanaticism is an essential element of their faith, and it is one of the reasons that Islam is still a living religion in a world where so many others are moribund.

But, again, to have a clash of civilizations, it is not enough simply to have one civilization that is prepared to fight tooth and nail to defend its own ethos; there must, in addition, be another civilization that is also prepared to defend, with the same depth of conviction, its own ethical principles. The evidence, unfortunately, is that the West is not even remotely interested in mounting a defense of its values in the face of Muslim fanaticism. Worse, there are signs that the West is even prepared to sacrifice some of its core values in order to appease those who have always despised these values — values such as the freedom of individual expression and the right of every man to hold views that others find offensive and even downright blasphemous.

Consider the reaction of the Danish government to the cartoon wars. Instead of taking a heroic stand and telling the Muslim world that in Denmark freedom of expression is every bit as sacred to them as Mohammed is to the Muslims, the Danish government has announced "that Danish courts will determine whether the newspaper [that] originally published the cartoons...is guilty of blasphemy."

Not so very long ago, the notion that a liberal Western nation, at the beginning of the 21st century, could threaten a newspaper on the charge of blasphemy would have seemed utterly ridiculous. It would have appeared unthinkable that any Western government would even consider using "the crime of blasphemy" as a method for censoring the freedom of expression that the West has struggled so ferociously to achieve. Indeed, every liberal Western nation would have immediately condemned the restitution of the charge of blasphemy as a throw back to a long superceded stage in the development of human freedom. Yet where in the West do you find any government attacking the Danes for having reintroduced a crime that the West ceased to take seriously since the age of the Enlightenment? If those who are trying to appease radical Muslims are prepared to bring back the Inquisition, all in the name of Islam, then where is the so-called clash between the Islam and the West?

The behavior of the Danish government does not suggest that we are in the midst of a clash of civilizations, but, rather, that we are watching a civilization that has lost its sense of purpose capitulating before a civilization that continues to believe, and to believe fanatically, in its own mission. A civilization that no longer believes in itself, and in its values and traditions, is no longer in a position to defend itself from the onslaught of a civilization that does. It is only in a position to appease.


Lee Harris is author of "Civilization and Its Enemies."
By Lee Harris
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online
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