The worldwide uproar over satirical cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed has exposed once again the disquieting ability of hateful politics and rhetoric to consume tolerance and understanding.
The responsible politicians and commentators who have waded into this sanguinary morass of bitterness and polemics have tried to reconcile the necessity of respecting the beliefs of others with humanity's inalienable right to free speech.
That this right has, in relation to human history, been a recent development that is protected by only a fraction of the world's governments all the more mandates its vigorous defense. The task is not impossible, although it may be daunting.
It is irrelevant whether one feels that the people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, whom the cartoons have offended are justified in their anger. The cartoons have offended many people, and it is incumbent on anyone with a conscience to understand and acknowledge the source of their anger. But that is only one part of the issue.
An equally salient point is how that anger is expressed.
It is one thing to vocally protest an unbearable affront, or to call for an apology or even an economic boycott to prove a point. These are reasonable responses. But it is not reasonable to call for bloodshed because someone has said something odious. People have called for the bombing of the offices of the newspaper responsible, for the beaheading of any who slander Islam and for other atrocities. Most people recognize this as deplorable.
A preferable approach to dealing with distasteful ideas was espoused many years ago by one of the Arab world's most prominent contemporary writers:
"Freedom of expression must be considered sacred and thought can only be corrected by counter thought," said the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.
In the crucible of open debate, ideas can be tested and values weighed. But the debate must first be permitted.
A company, a publication or any other private organization may choose to censor itself for any number of economic or ideological reasons. But no individual, organization, religion or government has a right to impose its proscriptions upon others.
Should a person go out of his or her way to knowingly provoke or offend others? Ultimately, only individuals can answer this question. Because whenever people demand the silencing of others, it is a form of tyranny. And when a person calls for violence against another because of something they have said, ultimately it is an expression of fear, exposing facile beliefs and a deficiency of reason.
Although today's battle is being fought largely in the Muslim world over Danish cartoons, free speech and individual liberty require constant defense all over the world.
The "War on Terror" and Western countries' attendant quest for security and safety -- which are ultimately unattainable in a world of fallible, mortal human beings -- are the latest in a series of setbacks to the cause of individual liberty.
The leaders of the world's advanced countries have, by and large, caved in to expressions of fear and intolerance because of the threat of violence by small bands of desperate men. Liberty has been curtailed as politicians capitalize on, and stoke, the irrational fear in their societies.
Even the self-styled "cradle of democracy," the US, has allowed itself to be terrorized by bad ideas. This is a country that has the right of individual dissent enshrined in law, yet a person can be ejected from a public hearing for passively advocating an opposing view; they can be relegated to an incongruously dubbed "free-speech zone" should they attempt to make their views known to publicly elected officials; they can be labeled unpatriotic if they do not agree with the prevailing political ideology; and they can be subjected to surveillance because they peacefully demonstrate against the government.
Some leaders would hold that these measures are necessary because of the "unique" threat their countries face.
But the world is not fighting a holy war between competing religions, or even undergoing what the US academic Samuel Huntington styled a "clash of civilizations."
Still, humanity is, and will perhaps always be, enduring a conflict between the aspirations of individual freedom and the necessity of collective cooperation.
Political leaders do not, as they call for the Muslim world to react rationally to the perceived affront of the Danish cartoons, see any hypocrisy in defending free speech and calling for people to respect others' beliefs, even as they limit free speech at home and try to curb expressions of opposition.
But their actions demonstrate that gun-wielding fundamentalists and Brooks-Brothers clad bureaucrats can share one thing in common: an intolerance for opposing ideas.
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties," wrote the English poet John Milton. "How many other things might be tolerated in peace, and left to conscience, had we but charity, and were it not the chief stronghold of our hypocrisy to be ever judging one another?"
"I fear yet this iron yoke of outward conformity hath left a slavish print upon our necks; the ghost of a linen decency yet haunts us," he wrote.
It is nearly 400 years since Milton penned those words in his landmark defense of free speech, the Areopagitica. Yet the iron shackle of unreason still leaves its mark on the throat of humanity.
Must it always be so?
Mac William Bishop is the deputy news editor of the Taipei Times. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.
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