Ideas can hurt. The messy storm of upset, anger, protests and murderous violence unleashed over the past two weeks by Danish newspaper cartoons that Muslims find blasphemous has proved that once again. But in Europe, whatever one may think about the intelligence or taste of portraying Muhammad with a bomb on his head, people have found a reassuring port in the storm: their belief in the political miracle of free speech. In Western democracies, the right to express an idea, no matter how offensive, always trumps the impulse of the offended to censor. No government should be able to jail a cartoonist or newspaper editor for what they publish, or block the distribution of provocative material in advance. That's what Europeans believe, and their laws allow. Right?
Well, actually, no. In general, European law favors the right to say and publish unpopular, even hateful things. But not in every case or every country. In Germany, you can go to prison for up to three years for mass-producing Hitler's picture or displaying a single likeness in a way that glorifies him, or for denying the Holocaust. In France last year, the Roman Catholic Church got a judge to ban an advertisement modeled on Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper that depicted everyone but Judas as a woman; he ruled it was a "gratuitous and aggressive intrusion on people's innermost beliefs." France also denies students the right to show their religion, meaning Muslim schoolgirls can't wear head coverings an act, you might say, of symbolic speech. This week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will try once again to get Parliament to ban "direct or indirect encouragement of terrorism," including its "glorification." That's a notion his critics believe could snare not only those who groom teenage suicide bombers, but also a sincere, peaceful advocate of revolution in, say, Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe or Kim Jong Il's North Korea. Even in liberal Denmark, at the center of the row over the cartoons of the Prophet, you can do jail time for publicly "ridiculing or insulting" any recognized community's religious beliefs.
That's the problem with free speech: the principle is fine, the application is very tricky, and never more so than in the age of cultural rage. Statutes writ in black and white transmute to a fog of grays upon contact with the passions of competing groups and the difficulties of balancing individual conscience against social cohesion. Some limits, such as libel laws, are considered legitimate to protect individuals, while other restrictions, such as those that regulate obscenity, supposedly protect social standards. Even in the ultra-tolerant U.S., with its fiercely guarded tradition of First Amendment rights, the law restricts many forms of utterance: among other things, child pornography, language that incites criminal conduct and, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously stated, "falsely shouting fire in a theater." Yet few things have ever challenged accepted notions of free expression so much as the current controversy over religious tolerance and hate speech.
Britain last week was a good example of how democracies are struggling to find a proper balance between free speech and social order an acknowledged hard problem in Western jurisprudence since Socrates was given hemlock to relieve Athens of his irritating views. The cartoon flap suggested that at least some British Muslim citizens would like to upend the whole system. Yet there was widespread support, including among Muslims, for the conviction of Abu Hamza al-Masri, a hook-armed cleric who turned his mosque in Finsbury Park, London, into a recruiting
station for al-Qaeda. He was sentenced to seven years in jail for inciting murder and racial hatred, based on hours of videotaped sermons in which he advocated the killing of nonbelievers "for any reason, you can say it is O.K., even if there is no reason for it" and Jews. But a week earlier, two members of the far-right British National Party, on trial for slamming Islam as "vicious" and "wicked" to whip up racial hatred, were acquitted. And police made no arrests at an anticartoon demonstration by militant Islamists, despite slogans that called for the extermination of those who mock Islam.