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I think, therefore I am, said the philosopher. Fine. But I think, therefore I speak? No way.

Nobody has an absolute right to freedom. Civilization is the story of humans sacrificing freedom so as to live together in harmony. We do not need Hobbes to tell us that absolute freedom is for newborn savages. All else is compromise.

Should a right-wing Danish newspaper have carried the derisive images of Muhammad? No. Should other newspapers have repeated them and the BBC teasingly “flashed” them to prove its free-speech virility? No. Should governments apologize for them or ban them from repeating the offence? No, but that is not the issue.

A newspaper is not a monastery, its mind blind to the world and deaf to reaction. Every inch of published print reflects the views of its writers and the judgment of its editors. Every day newspapers decide on the balance of boldness, offence, taste, discretion and recklessness. They must decide who is to be allowed a voice and who not. They are curbed by libel laws, common decency and their own sense of what is acceptable to readers. Speech is free only on a mountain top; all else is editing.

Despite Britons’ robust attitude to religion, no newspaper would let a cartoonist depict Jesus Christ dropping cluster bombs, or lampoon the Holocaust. Pictures of bodies are not carried if they are likely to be seen by family members. Privacy and dignity are respected, even if such restraint is usually unknown to readers. Over every page hovers a censor, even if he is graced with the title of editor.

To imply that some great issue of censorship is raised by the Danish cartoons is nonsense. They were offensive and inflammatory. The best policy would have been to apologies and shut up. For Danish journalists to demand “Europe-wide solidarity” in the cause of free speech and to deride those who are offended as “fundamentalists . . . who have a problem with the entire western world” comes close to racial provocation. We do not go about punching people in the face to test their commitment to non-violence. To be a European should not involve initiation by religious insult.

Many people seem surprised that a multicultural crunch should have come over religion rather than race. Most incoming migrants from the Muslim world are in search of work and security. They have accepted racial discrimination and cultural subordination as the price of admission. Most Europeans, however surreptitiously, regard that subordination as reasonable.

What Muslims did not expect was that admission also required them to tolerate the ridicule of their faith and guilt by association with its wildest and most violent followers in the Middle East. Islam is an ancient and dignified religion. Like Christianity its teaching can be variously interpreted and used for bloodthirsty ends, but in itself Islam has purity and simplicity. Part of that purity lies in its abstraction and part of that abstraction is an aversion to icons.

The Danes must have known that a depiction of Allah as human or the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist would outrage Muslims. It is plain dumb to claim such blasphemy as just a joke concordant with the western way of life. Better claim it as intentionally savage, since that was how it was bound to seem. To adapt Shakespeare, what to a Christian “is but a choleric word”, to a Muslim is flat blasphemy.

Of all the casualties of globalism, religious sensibility is the most hurtful. I once noticed in Baghdad airport an otherwise respectable Iraqi woman go completely hysterical when an American guard set his sniffer dog, an “unclean” animal, on her copy of the Koran. The soldier swore at her: “Oh for Christ’s sake, shut up!” She was baffled that he cited Christ in defense of what he had done.

Likewise, to an American or British soldier, forcibly entering the women’s quarters of an Arab house at night is normal peacekeeping. To an Arab it is abhorrent, way beyond any pale. Nor do Muslims understand the West’s excusing such actions, as does Tony Blair, by comparing them favorably with those of Saddam Hussein, as if Saddam were the benchmark of international behavior.

It is clearly hard for westerners to comprehend the dismay these gestures cause Muslims. The question is not whether Muslims should or should not “grow up” or respect freedom of speech. It is whether we truly want to share a world in peace with those who have values and religious beliefs different from our own. The demand by foreign journalists that British newspapers compound their offence shows that moral arrogance is as alive in the editing rooms of northern Europe as in the streets of Falluja. That causing religious offence should be regarded a sign of western machismo is obscene.

The traditional balance between free speech and respect for the feelings of others is evidently becoming harder to sustain. The resulting turbulence can only feed the propaganda of the right to attack or expel immigrants and those of alien culture. And it can only feed the appetite of government to restrain free speech where it really matters, as in criticizing itself.

There is little doubt that had the Home Office’s original version of its religious hatred bill been enacted, publishing the cartoons would in Britain have been illegal. There was no need to prove intent to cause religious hatred, only “recklessness”. Even as amended by parliament the bill might allow a prosecution to portray the cartoons as insulting and abusive and to dismiss the allowed defense that the intention was to attack ideas rather than people.

The same zest for broad-sweep censorship was shown in Charles Clarke’s last anti-terrorism bill. Its bid (again curbed by parliament) was to outlaw the “negligent”, even if unintended, glorification of terrorism. It wanted to outlaw those whose utterances might have celebrated or glorified a violent change of government, whether or not they meant to do so. Clarke proposed to list “under order” those historical figures he regarded as terrorists and those he decided were “freedom fighters”. The latter, he intimated, might include Irish ones. This was historical censorship of truly Stalinist ambition. By such men are we now ruled.

That a modern home secretary should seek such powers illustrates the danger to which a collapse of media self-restraint might lead. Last week there were demands from some (not all) Muslim leaders for governments to “apologise” for the cartoons and somehow forbid their dissemination. It was a demand that Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, commendably rejected. It assumed that governments had in some sense allowed the cartoons and were thus in a position to atone for them. Many governments might be happy to fall into this trap and seek to control deeds for which they may have to apologize. The glib assumption of blame where none exists feeds ministerial folie de grandeur, as with Blair’s ludicrous 1997 apology for the Irish potato famine.

In all matters of self-regulation the danger is clear. If important institutions, in this case the press, will not practice self-discipline then governments will practice it for them. Ascribing evil consequences to religious faith is a sure way of causing offence. Banning such offence is an equally sure way for a politician to curry favor with a minority and thus advance the authoritarian tendency. The present Home Office needs no such encouragement.

Offending an opponent has long been a feature of polemics, just as challenging the boundaries of taste has been a feature of art. It is rightly surrounded by legal and ethical palisades. These include the laws of libel and slander and concepts such as fair comment, right of reply and not stirring racial hatred. None of them is absolute. All rely on the exercise of judgment by those in positions of power. All rely on that bulwark of democracy, tolerance of the feelings of others. This was encapsulated by Lord Clark in his defining quality of civilization: courtesy.

Too many politicians would rather not trust the self-restraint of others and would take the power of restraint onto themselves. Recent British legislation shows that a censor is waiting round every corner. This past week must have sent his hopes soaring because of the idiot antics of a few continental journalists.

The best defense of free speech can only be to curb its excess and respect its courtesy.

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Last Updated 03/07/2006