"History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." ~ Edward Gibbon
The Battle of Jutland
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It's a thumb of land, jutting out of the Northern coast of continental Europe in between the Southern flanks of Norway and Sweden, and at first sight, it's an odd place for the first round of a global culture clash. In 1916 there was a naval battle off its shores but both the British and German commanders counted it so close a draw that they kept their battleships apart from each other for the duration. Otherwise it's a peaceful, pastoral place.
Its people show that curiously Scandinavian blend of a strong work ethic with a socialist taste for a powerful welfare state, along with a considerable residue of Lutheran virtue. Fair skins, blond hair and blue eyes complete the picture of a society ill-prepared for the invasion by refugees from the Balkans in the past decade; swarthy foreigners, predominantly Muslim, speaking not a word of Danish but attracted by the State's benevolence with taxpayer money. And the Danes made them welcome.
It's not at all hard to see, however, that tensions could easily arise between natives and newcomers. I hear that the local paper, the Jutland Post, caters in large part to what we might call the Religious Right; and so it was not surprising when--echoing the remark of Jerry Falwell some years ago that Mohammed was a warrior, not at all a man of peace--it published a cartoon portraying that prophet with a bomb in his turban. The aftermath is reverberating worldwide as I write.
Have you ever seen a Muslim smile, or heard one laugh? I've known so very few, that I'm not a good person to generalize, but I don't believe I ever have. The one I got to know best--a young gentleman and scholar, at Cambridge--was the antithesis of the rioting, rocket-toting, illiterate slogan-chanting fanatic portrayed on TV; a truly gentle person, firm and unshakeable in his religious beliefs but courteous to a fault. Even he, though, had no visible sense of humor that I recall. I dare say that, on the whole, they are a pretty humorless bunch.
If I'm right there, it's even easier to see why, when Jyllands Posten poked fun at their founder, his fanatical followers failed to see the joke and instead, are setting the world on fire as literally as they can. The leftish anarchist Christopher Hitchens wrote a brilliant article on this Cartoon Debate, but even he leans over too far, in my view, in favor of good manners; yes, it's bad taste to set out to offend a peaceful religious person just because his beliefs are silly; but these religious people are very far from peaceful and a little fun-poking is the least they deserve.
Were one to write this tale as fiction, it surely would not sell; but there it is, taking place before our eyes. Religion can make men mad, and it's one of the obstacles in the way of a free world. Ironically of course, a free world would certainly include freedom to believe whatever mythical nonsense anyone wanted to believe, provided that belief was not thrust down the throat of any who said Thanks, but no thanks. The libertarian non-aggression axiom, based squarely as it is on the self-owning nature of human beings, allows nothing less and nothing more. In a free society, one would even be free to believe in the myth of government--so long as one never acted out the belief by imposing force on any non-volunteer.
So I see two grades of religion. One is the peaceful sort, that folk who want to can go ahead and believe and celebrate; the other is the kind involving coercion. The missionary is free to offer and persuade--but the moment he steps over the line and applies a thumbscrew or a tax, he has aggressed and has no place in a free society. In his persuasion he is of course free to criticize and ridicule opposing views, and those he ridicules are free to respond in kind; it's all part of the give and take of intellectual discourse. Only when a stick or stone is raised in anger do mere words turn into action that should trigger the intervention of a justice system.
I don't think that even the non-aggressive form of religion is conducive to the formation of a free society. I know some here disagree, but as I see it an over-riding belief in a supreme authority sits badly with a rigorous attempt to reason one's way from the present government-infested society towards one where each person is his or her own sole sovereign. And the aggressive form, obviously, is itself a form of government; when a well-indoctrinated young Muslim murders himself and passers-by in Tel Aviv, he is exercising ultimate governmental control over their lives. His, he is free to end; theirs belongs only to them. The same is true, of course, of a Bible-toting President who wages non-defensive war.
One rather pleasing aspect of the present brouhaha is that the major media are being obliged to think about basic principles of free speech. Will they continue to exercise it at the risk of escalating bloodshed where Muslim warriors rampage, or will they cave and conform? We have yet to see, but so far it's quite encouraging. Will it all lead to World War Three? Probably not, but that too remains to be seen. Either way, perhaps it will clear the air a bit.