In our imagined ideal worlds, our future is rosy with progress being achieved on all fronts. We expect our standards of living, our tolerance and understanding of others, and the extent of world peace, among many other societal yardsticks, to gradually improve as the years and decades roll by.
So, what is going wrong? While progress has appeared obvious by most markers in post WW2 history, since the middle of this decade, a large percentage of us are moving further away from each other, choosing a path of antagonism rather than compromise, with the overwhelming majority of us blind to any points of view not our own, owing to the entanglement of our own egos with a given position on any topic. We take an attack on an idea, as an attack on us.
Everyone Must Be Right
Unfortunately, especially when younger, having not had as much time for honest self reflection, the positions we hold so dear are often as a result of what social circle we were in as we came of age, and not thanks to their actual merits. If one end of a spectrum is communicated to you by a charming, inspiring and persuasive friend, while the other, which may have more merit, is presented in a disjointed way by someone whose company you do not enjoy, guess which position you will adopt? Lesser thoughtful people then build the rest of their world view on these shaky foundations laid down in their youth, without ever honestly questioning their validity. Sometimes there can be explosive consequences.
The stated intentions of most people anywhere on the political spectrum are generally noble; with the exception of deliberate trolls, most will claim to hold the position they do because they expect it will help usher in a better world. However, many are guilty of not fairly considering whether that will actually be the case, thanks to the subconsciously untenable consequence of that entangled ego becoming bruised.
Any defensive reader may at this point be reassured that the author considers these problems to apply to himself too. How could I not? Stephen Fry very accurately pointed out that it is a great shame that most of us would prefer to be right than to be effective.
Progress or Regress?
The big debate we have here then, is to what extent exercising the right to draw a picture of Mohammed, and the inevitable subsequent retaliatory atrocity, will either lead to a more tolerant, thick skinned global society (and would that end justify its means?), or to more carnage with the possibility of escalation into large scale needless bloodshed?
To be absolutely clear before we continue, I support the rights of the individual to engage in free speech, for the clear reason that if laws are put in place to prevent it, then we must somehow trust that those laws will never be abused by any current or future leaders. How could we be sure that we could trust them all and we wouldn’t see our societies slide into totalitarianism?
However, it is equally important that individuals and societies do their best to recognize when it is wiser to hold their breath and evaluate before opening their mouths. So, let’s look at the possible positive or negative real world outcomes to either drawing or deciding not to draw Mohammed, regardless of our personal opinions.
To Draw Mohammed
If he is publicly drawn, we can assume there will probably be at least one terrorist attack somewhere, with the further possibility that it will be visited upon innocent people likely unrelated in any way other than possibly by nationality, to the artist in question.
On the other hand, we might also consider that it may embolden and empower people living in fear of expressing themselves freely in religious totalitarian states, which might result in more democratic societies sooner than would be the case otherwise.
However, the alternative must also be considered; that it sets back that progress, giving more justification to any regime with significant enough percentages of their populace to back them in any violent state response against any of their citizens attempting to bring forward a more democratic society.
As a recent example, while during the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Egypt saw revolutions, Syria has born the brunt of a decade long war that has torn its country apart. Each state is different, with many interlocking factors determining how likely any change to the established order is likely to be successful, and that is without even considering whether or not the political order that fills a post revolutionary void is any better than the previous leaders. One size does not necessarily fit all.
With this in mind, it seems the logical way to look at this, is to try to understand whether or not there are large enough numbers of a country’s populace already desiring a more moderate political system, and to what extent they are empowered enough to overcome any challenges that may face them, should a catalyst for change suddenly appear.
This is where it gets complicated. There are many Islamic countries whose current position on a journey towards democracy vary, if they are even likely to reach that end. The trend generally worldwide seems to be a reduction in the amount of totalitarian states, but we can’t assume that is destined to continue. Like in democratic countries, plenty still support the stick rather than the carrot, and like all humanity, many of us are capable of getting violently defensive if we perceive we are being attacked, regardless of the merit of the attack.
It is safe to say today that if a teenager today wants to wear a death metal T shirt emblazoned with the words “Jesus is a C***” while walking through central London, UK society has progressed enough that while some people would be upset by this, most would not condone violence and would defend his freedom of expression.
However, would we make the same assumption had this happened in the 15th century? And especially had it been a member of another society?
Imagine a group of Mayans had arrived from Mexico during strongly Catholic periods in European history and worn that same T shirt. Would we see our march towards a more progressive society accelerate? Possibly. It may instead either be politically inconsequential, but with the Mayans in question being executed; or it could have led to a full scale war. We cant possibly know for sure.
Western societies, if we consider evolutionary timeframes, have only been a few steps ahead in terms of democracy and free speech for a small percentage of human history. Now we have a situation whereby other societies are on the same journey, but an outside force wants to throw a level of offense at them that they may not be ready for, if they ever will be. And if one Islamic country is ready for it, can we be anywhere near sure that they all are?
So what we have is a huge melting pot of variables where we cannot conclusively say that drawing Mohammed — arguable the single most provocative thing you can do to 24% of the world’s population — will lead to a better world for residents of Islamic countries.
If we can’t conclude that, we are left with what we can conclude with a reasonable degree of certainty: Somebody, somewhere will get killed or seriously injured. The people drawing these cartoons surely are aware of this, yet many still are itching to do so.
The threats could become far more disproportionate than we are ready for, with the founder of one political party in Pakistan declaring he would order a nuclear strike against the Netherlands should they fail to outlaw the Mohammed cartoon contest. Fortunately they do not hold power; however, their nation does possess a nuclear arsenal, and the next time this issue rears its ugly head, they may have their finger on the red button.
With the stakes so high, it pays for any living thing or society to consider the worst case scenario of their actions.
I would like to ask any Dutch cartoonist wanting to take up this challenge, to consider the feelings of Dutch workers living and working somewhere like Pakistan, where they would suddenly find themselves under threat of extreme violence entirely as a consequence of a politician trying to score political points by dragging his country into a potentially deadly game of provocation.
To Not Draw Mohammed
The consequences of keeping our crayons in our pockets are of course, global society continues as normal. There are concerns about levels of democracy in many states, particularly Islamic ones. Their journey (hopefully) towards democracy will likely continue at a similar pace, with gradual generational shifts in attitudes shaping their future; not westerners trying to force the issue with badly timed severe provocation.
Muslims living within western nations will not feel under as much attack. They are more likely to have more respect for the citizens of their adopted home. Fewer of that very small percentage who become radicalized will do so, owing to one less provocative action serving as a justification.
Some cartoonists will feel their freedom of speech to be affronted. In the big picture though, they are still freer — at least those in Western Europe — than almost all other living things ever, with more opportunities to freely pursue their hobbies and interests than >99% of people who ever existed. Their irritation at not displaying a picture of the one thing they ought not to, would soon disappear as new goals and achievements in their lives are pursued.
Regardless of potentially violent outcomes, do we want to deliberately upset a lot of people because we can? When provoking such a large amount of people, it is not the good people who will respond, it is the bad, dangerous ones, who often get angry and attack. This would likely happen whatever the provocation, whether religious or not.
Meanwhile, the feelings of 1.8 billion people not likely to attack anyone under any circumstances are hurt. Who benefits? Even if you were to empirically prove that their God couldn’t possibly exist, and subjectively determine that they should know better, still the fact remains: you have deliberately upset people just to make a point.
If you live in a treehouse in a garden, and a tiger lives in that garden with you, you’d better plan your actions around the fact that there is a tiger down there on the ground. You’d better hope that tiger is tame before you slap it round the head to amuse your friends. The tiger isn’t tame yet but in time, with patience, it may be soon, so watch your step in the meantime.
You don’t need to risk the lives of others just to prove your point. It makes no sense for any of us to further destabilize a very divided, heavily armed world.