Last month, on opposite sides of the globe, two assaults on the freedom of speech began.
In Afghanistan, the editor of "Women's Rights" magazine was convicted on "blasphemy" charges after a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai accused the editor of publishing two "un-Islamic" articles: one criticizing the Islamic practice of punishing adultery with 100 lashes; the other arguing that leaving Islam wasn't a crime.
Such charges may seem as far as the moon to anyone raised in a free-speech society where adultery is a matter of private grief, not public beatings, and where freedom of conscience is a founding liberty.
Speaking of liberty, wasn't it the Taliban, and not the democratically elected Karzai government, who punished people for being "un-Islamic"? Doesn't that new constitution Americans died to enable Afghans to write guarantee protections and freedoms against such totalitarian practices?
Indeed, it does, but that same constitution also guarantees that no law may contradict the law of Islam. And the law of Islam says no messing with Islam. And that's not all: Since March 2004, a new media law signed by President Karzai outlaws anything Islamically "insulting." In other words, hello totalitarian practices, goodbye protections and freedoms. And goodbye Ali Mohaqiq Nasab, the "blaspheming" editor sentenced to two years in jail. By all accounts, this was getting off easy: The prosecutor in the case was angling for a death sentence.
Has anyone heard ringing perorations from the White House on preserving Mr. Nasab's free speech let alone Mr. Nasab? Emergency deliberations at the international level? Nope; although a United Nations spokesman, when asked by a wire service, did obligingly express "concern." The only action if paper shuffling counts as action has come from media organizations that have lodged protests with the Afghan government. The powers that be, meanwhile, are out to lunch. It would be nice if they at least sent Mr. Nasab a file in a cake.
At about the same time Mr. Nasab's "un-Islamic" articles were getting the Sharia treatment in Islamic Afghanistan, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish daily newspaper, was taking it on itself to re-assert the venerable tradition of free speech in Lutheran Denmark. Why and how? Having learned that a Danish author couldn't find an illustrator to depict Mohammed for an upcoming children's book because Danish illustrators were intimidated by Muslim strictures against depicting the Islamic prophet, the newspaper challenged artists to submit drawings of Mohammed for publication. It was a test, said editor Carsten Juste, of whether the threat of Islamic terrorism and the influence of Sharia was encroaching on free speech in Denmark.
The paper ended up publishing twelve cartoons of Mohammed to make a liberty-affirming point: Denmark was not subject to the kind of thought control that had sent Ali Mohaqiq Nasab to jail half a world away. Besides, as Flemming Rose, the paper's culture editor put it, "In a democracy, one must from time to time accept criticism or become a laughingstock."
Such criticism is built into Western civilization, but as an institution it is about as "un-Islamic" as it gets. Without recourse to Sharia censorship, Danish Muslims rioted over successive nights in Arhus, Denmark's second largest city, even as their French co-religionists were burning France. Death threats sent several artists into hiding; bomb threats drove the paper to hire security guards. Jyllands-Posten, however, has refused to back down, which just might have something to do with the paper's appearance, according to Brusselsjournal.com, on an al Qaeda Web site listing potential targets.
This story takes another turn, off the streets and into the salons. Eleven Muslim ambassadors to Denmark (including representatives from Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina) have tried, unsuccessfully, to meet with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to protest the Mohammed cartoons, which they see, as they wrote in a letter to the prime minister, as a "smear campaign" against Islam.
"The Arab Muslim world must take a stand on this," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, who has announced that "this caricature affair," as one Egyptian diplomat called it, will be high on the agenda in December when the Organization of the Islamic Conference meets in Mecca.
Bless Mr. Rasmussen: "This is a matter of principle," he said. "I won't meet with [the ambassadors] because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so."
Crystal clear in Denmark. Crystal clear here. Not crystal clear in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the Islamic world. No one should need a crystal ball to see what this says about the future.