The Mohammed Cartoons and the Broken Sky

John Zvesper

February 1, 2006

Politics has rarely been trouble-free on the continent where it was born, and today tyranny taints many European political affairs. As is now well-known, the Mohammed cartoon crisis began with a Danish author’s resistance to the tyranny of self-censorship. The cartoons challenged the widespread belief that it is unjustly intolerant as well as imprudent to poke fun at Islamic intolerance, or to question the accuracy of the assertion that “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Some commentators on the cartoon affair have compared the mild Danish cartoons to vicious, Hitler-era images of Jews. The enormous lunacy of such comparisons, and the lunatic reasoning that they rest on, were underlined on a recent visit to Amsterdam. While the cartoon affair was breaking into the headlines, I was visiting one of my sons, who, as a graduate student in Logic, spends his days considering with Olympian calm the promises and puzzles of human reason. Not far from his warm and comfortable room, one can see in Wertheim Park, in the formerly Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, an artist’s cold and discomforting monument to some of the victims of the most notorious tyranny against reason and right that modern Europe has inflicted on the world.

The numbers are sobering. At the outset of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, there were 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands. Registration and regulation of these Dutch citizens rapidly progressed to persecution, expropriation, deportation, enslavement and murder. Of the 107,000 Dutch Jews who were deported, only 5,200 survived. Of the 95,000 taken to the death camps (Auschwitz and Sobibor), only 500 survived. Asking about this history at the Dutch Resistance Museum just around the corner from Wertheim Park produces uneasy replies.

The ashes of some of the Dutch Jews who died at Auschwitz have been buried in an urn in the Park, where there is now an annual ceremony on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (27 January). A Dutch artist, Jan Wolkers, was commissioned to construct a memorial to mark this burial. His work, Nooit Meer Auschwitz (Never Again Auschwitz), consists of six large intentionally broken mirrors laid flat on the ground that contains the urn.

Wolkers explained the thinking behind his work. One fine day he asked himself how the unbroken blue sky above could have remained calm and unmoved as it looked down on the Nazis’ inhumanity. He decided that over these ashes the sky reflected in his mirror monument would always be broken.

This memorial is discomforting not only because, as it were, it holds the mirror up to the worst of human nature, but also because it suggests a too timid and fatalistic response. It suggests that it is not ourselves but our stars that are to blame. If, as Wolkers has said, Auschwitz shows that “the sky is wounded forever,” then, given the awful experience of Nazi tyranny, neither nature nor nature’s God can be trusted.

This timid fatalism suggests the dogmatic skepticism about the natural basis of human rights that, all too prominent in western politics, undermines the seriousness and confidence of liberal democrats. For all the lunacy surrounding the cartoon affair, it is serious insofar as it challenges the very common European assumption that the social and political integration of Islamic immigrants is either unnecessary (if they want to live differently, why not just keep them tidily segregated ?) or can be accomplished in a painless manner, without westernizing the political opinions of these immigrants (for instance, without teaching them the rationale of the separation of politics and religion). But is the proper understanding and assertion of human liberties not essential to the reception of immigrants in liberal democracies ? After the rioting in French suburbs last autumn, it was clear that one reason the French are not succeeding in making good French citizens out of immigrant populations is that French schools, intended to be the nurseries of republicanism, are full of teachers with little understanding or interest in defending the principles of liberty, many in fact more prepared to encourage rejection of the French tradition of liberal democracy.

Because the cartoon affair has been used (and was in fact partly fabricated) to inspire all Muslims everywhere to feel inimical to human liberty, it also challenges the American strategy of dividing Islamic warmongerers from Islam more generally. Thus the Bush administration’s attempt to deflate the cartoon affair, to avoid adding fuel to a clash of civilizations.

But is this apparent challenge to the strategy of distinguishing between Islamic friend and foe not in fact essential to the success of that strategy? The cartoon affair raises the question of how effectively Europeans—and their political descendants in the rest of the liberal democratic world—can and will clarify (to themselves as well as to their allies and their enemies) what they stand for. Is clarifying and upholding the principles of liberal democracy not essential to maintaining our self respect, and therefore of gaining and keeping the respect of allies? Is it not therefore necessary to the success of the Bush strategy of isolating Islamic warmongers from their peaceful co-religionists ?

If western politics is not—like the mirrors in Wertheim Park—broken beyond repair, liberal democrats will embrace a more confident response to religious intolerance. The dogmatic skepticism that says that neither nature nor heaven can help us—that liberal democratic politics has no natural, transcultural justification—is the basis of multicultural hypersensitivity and unwarranted censorship. It is not a basis for defeating political tyranny, but for surrendering to it.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American living in Southern France.