So having decided to remove the cartoons, I've been getting comments about being a coward. Err well no. Such commenters miss the point just as badly as the Muslims who sent me hatemail. Allow me to explain: I have received something like half a million visits to the cartoon page and probably had a lot more people try and see them; as far as I'm concerned that is plenty of freedom of speech. In particular, as people who tried visiting yesterday will have noticed, I have hit some fairly solid upper limits on bandwidth. Being approximately the number 5 hit on google for "cartoons Mohammed" or similar means that I have had literally millions people making attempts to visit as well as a fair few idiots attempting DoS attacks.
So since I don't particularly want to insult islam, now that the point has been well and truly made I'd like to move on to something else. Moreover, in addition to the hate mail I have had a lot of polite email requests from people asking me to stop showing the cartoons as well as some well written (especially from people who do not speak English as their first language) comments that make good points in their requests that I stop hosting the cartoons. I prefer to reward the people who feel very strongly and ask politely. I think this is the equivalent of the gallery owner deciding that he doesn't need to continue exhibiting a "Piss Christ".
However I will say that while I have mainly had polite emails, there has been plenty of evidence of what I would call unhinged behaviour in my inbox and comments. I'm not publishing the inbox but I'm leaving the comment threads up for posterity so that the world can see the threats, hate and bile that some so-called Muslims consider to be the appropriate response to these cartoons. This leads me to some other thoughts about Islam and I hope the thoughtful Islamic readers/commenters of this blog will accept these comments as an attempt to provide constructive criticism.
The Brittleness of Islam
The cartoon affair has thrown in to sharp relief the essential brittleness of Islam today and the immaturity of some of its believers. There is an English saying that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" however there is a significant minority of people who claim to be Muslims (if Islam is a religion of peace as it is frequently claimed then I'm not sure they are real Muslims) who seem to prefer killing as the answer to any perceived slight. This is not in fact a sign of strength or self-confidence it is a sign of extreme weakness. It is essentially the strategy of the spoiled child when his parents tell him to eat his spinach and he throws the plate on the floor.
As a number of what I call the real Moslem commenters have said, Allah and Mohammed can defend themselves. If there is an afterlife then Allah will no doubt punish those who deserve it. If Allah considers that a cartoon of his prophet is a sin then no doubt the sinner will go to hell for eternity. Allah does not need help from people on earth to make this choice. The same argument goes for those who indulge in other barbarities in the name of Allah. Consider so-called "honour killings": if your family's honour is so fragile that it is threatened by a sister or daughter deciding to leave then it is not honour but the wounded pride of a jailor who has seen his prisoner escape.
If Islam is so good then people will turn to it voluntarily as Allah will make it clear that Islam is best. If, on the other hand, you have to force them to do so then it is surely a sign that Islam is not so good. At the time of the Mongols the holy men of Islam convinced the Mongols to become Moslems in competition with representatives from a number of other religions, indeed it does so today with missios in various countries in the world. However if Islam is to be a religion not a prison then it has to allow people to leave and to be exposed to alternatives. An Islamic state like Saudi Arabia or Iran is not a sign of strength and the fact that both must employ special religious police to enforce the rules shows it. Islam, at least as practised in both nations (and yes I know one is Sunni and the other Shia), is a state religion and it will fall with the state.
Adapt Islam or Die
Despite my decision to remove the cartoons I certainly believe that the "clash of cultures" between the Secular/Christian West and the Muslim world is real and that the Muslim world must adapt or die. This is not a threat that they will be nuked or otherwise killed by military action, it is a statement about the long term durability of the religion.
When Islam was the leader of the civilized world it was more tolerant and open to the possibility that it could learn from others. Indeed at the time Christianity was the closed intolerant religion and the result was that Christian countries were backward and superstitions. Now Islam has become closed and it will whither away unless it can reform in the way the Christianity did. I think you can draw many parallels between the Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran today and Spain in the 1500s. Spain had enormous plunder from South America in the same way that oil provides enormous wealth to Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. today. The short term gain that Spain received from its empire allowed it to sit out the reformation and that gain has been overshadowed by the centuries of essential irrelevance that followed. Precisely the same fate will befall the Islamic oil producers as the world decides it can use other sources of energy.
When the oil money stops the heart of the Islamic world will need to find an alternative source of income. This will require either a war to conquer other countries and get them to pay tribute or finding something else that they want to buy. In either case the Islamic world will need to have a population that is educated in science and/or engineering and able to turn that education into usable product. In the war case, the events in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown clearly what should have been learned by the various attacks on Israel, and that is that superior technology beats superior numbers. An educational system that praises the memorization of the Koran is NOT an educational system that produces people who can invent things or even one that produces people who can operate compley modern technology. In a war with a literate well-trained army backed up by high technology weapons an untrained army is merely a large number of targets who will survive purely because their opponents get sick of killing them by the thousand.
As for peaceful means of gaining money they too require people who are literate, numerate and able to be creative. Islam, at least as practised in the oil rich parts, seems to actively punish those who seek to create new things. The result is that this part of the world is filled purely with consumers of high technology made by others as witness this photo. Compare with China, India or even Malaysia and the diffierence is clear. These countries may buy some high technology products from Europe or America but they also make many other high technology porducts that they sell to Europe and America. They can do this because their education and culture welcomes and rewards creative effort.
If Islam remains in the form it is in the Arabic world then will become dependant on the charity of the rest of the world. If Islam persists in producing suicide bombers and other terrorists then that charity is going to be in short supply.
The truth behind the cartoons
One reason, it seems to me, why the cartoons were objected to with such fury is that they pointed to unpleasant truths within Islam. It is a fact that apart from some drug-related violence in Latin America and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka the worst terrorist attacks are produced by so-called Muslims. Unlike the Tamil Tigers or the drug violence so-called Islamic terrorsts have attacked people who have nothing to do with any perceived oppressor. Indeed these so-called Islamic terrorists seem as happy to kill their coreligionists (for example Darfur, the bombs in Morocco or many of the attacks recently in Iraq and Afghanistan) as they are to kill anyone else. When you have people who do this sort of thing then Allah and his religion have an image problem. This problem is compounded in the eyes of the West by the inequalities of Islam. If we are to treat the Koran with respect then Islamic countries need to stop mistreating the Bible. If we are to stop discrimination against Islam in the West then Islamic countries need to stop attacking churches, Christians and other non Muslims in their countries.
Also if Islam wants to be trated with religious respect then - to put it bluntly - it needs to stop being a mode of government. In the West we have found that censorship of government criticism and political satire are in the long run bad. The so-called Muslims who support Osama bin Laden and others like him wish to see the restoration of the Caliphate. This is a government and it makes as much sense therefore to criticise the founder of the school of thought that leads to this government as it does to criticise the founders of communism or Nazi-ism or any other -ism.
One frequent response to the cartoons has been that "we should have known better and expected threats for this sort of behaviour". It is possible that some Muslims think that having a reputation for such behaviour is a sign of strength but it is not. Firstly those who make that response are treating Muslims as if they are immature children or mentally ill. If Islam wants real respect then it does not want to benefit from people humouring them because they are considered to be disabled. Secondly having a reputation for attacking critics means that you are more likely to be discriminated against. No one is going to trust you to behave properly so you won't get a job, you will be hassled more by the police and so on. This is not racism it is simple common sense. The fact that Hamas and co attacked Israel via suicide bombers has directly influenced the economy of the Palestinian territories because Israel has very simply decided to respond to its security threat by stopping contact and hence jobs in Israel and exports through Israel have come to a halt.
Playing into the hands of the racists
The reaction of Muslims to these cartoons is of course a gift to those racist scum that want to rid the world of Arabs and other immigrants. In the UK these protests and particularly the outrageous Muslim placards saying "Behead those who Insult Islam" or "Britain you will pay - 7/7 is on its way", play right into the hands of the BNP. Perhaps worse Muslims who attempt to force silence on their moderate critics leave the field open to the extremists. Today's "Business" has an excellent editorial on the subject:
AFTER being acquitted of incitement to racial hatred last week, Nick Griffin proclaimed his trial to have been the best publicity for his far-right British National Party. He was wrong. A stronger advert was the protest outside the Danish embassy in London against a newspaper that ran cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Their chant – “UK you will pay, 7/7 is on its way” – made front-page news.
Anyone wishing to portray Islam as a fundamentalist religion that threatens British culture would have been delighted. But what would have pleased Griffin most was the silence from mainstream British political parties.
Last week, Muslims marched in the centre of London chanting "Freedom go to Hell!" There could be no more graphic illustration of the paradox at the heart of the cartoon row. These protesters were exercising - and in many cases abusing - the freedom of protest and freedom of assembly that are foundation stones of British democracy. Yet, even as they exploited these hard-won liberties, they were calling for them to be abolished.
This newspaper would not have published the cartoons of Mohammed at the centre of this controversy, images which we regard as vulgar and fatuously insulting. But - and this is the crucial point - we reserve absolutely our right to make our own decision, free of threat and intimidation. The difficulty is that what started as an issue of editorial judgment has become a question of public order. The protesters in London with their disgraceful slogans - "Behead those who Insult Islam", "Britain you will pay - 7/7 is on its way" - have made it all but impossible for a genuinely free debate on this issue to take place. All such debate is now being carried out in the shadow of murderous intimidation.
[...]The problem is that militant Islam is not seeking a level playing field - equality before the law, for instance - but special treatment. Muslims expect, as they should, the benefits and protections of British pluralism but, in too many cases, baulk at the duties that are their corollary. One of those duties is to accept that, in a free society, there are occasions when each of us is bound to be offended. "Everyone is in favour of free speech," remarked Churchill. "Hardly a day passes without its being extolled. But some people's idea of it is that they are free to say what they like - but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage." There is no excuse for gratuitous offence, of course. But some Muslims might like to consider how insulting their own views on women's rights, theocracy and Western practices are to many non-Muslims. The offensiveness of these views is no reason to close British mosques or Islamic newspapers.
If Muslims continue to over-react like this then they can expect that every racist who wants to cause a riot will run off a few of these pictures and start plastering them on street corners in Muslim areas. And when a riot occurs as a result sympathy will no longer be for the Muslims because it will be felt that they have brought it on themselves. In London on Friday the Muslim protestors were protected from their critics by the police. It would not take much for this situation to be reversed.