The Ayatollah Joke Book

So, the Prophet Mohammed walks into a bar …

Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the noted wit, expert on freedom, and unelected religious leader—the leader who counts—of Iran, observed the other day that in the West, “casting doubt or negating the genocide of the Jews is banned but insulting the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims is allowed.” He apparently thought this was a devastating point. Touché, Ayatollah Khamanei.

The worldwide fuss over 12 cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed (some mocking, some benign) that ran in a Danish newspaper has already killed at least 10 people. Many self-styled voices of Islam have made the bizarre comparison between showing pictures of the Prophet Mohammed and expressing doubt about the Holocaust. A government-controlled Tehran newspaper announced a contest for cartoons about the Holocaust, asking “whether freedom of expression” applies to “the crimes committed by the United States and Israel.” In a spirit of “see how you like it,” a European Muslim group posted on the Web a cartoon of Anne Frank in bed with Hitler.

Muslim complaints about a Western double standard would be more telling if the factual premise was accurate. But it is not. In fact, it is nearly the opposite of the truth. Nothing is easier and more common in the West, including the United States, than criticizing the United States—except for criticizing Israel. A few Western countries have stupid laws, erratically enforced, against denying the Holocaust, but that hasn’t stopped Holocaust denial from becoming a literary industry and cultural phenomenon. This is distressing to many Jews and others because making sure that the world remembers the Holocaust has become the main strategy for trying to prevent another one. The willingness of so many people to disbelieve the reality of a historical event as relatively recent and well-documented as the Holocaust leads you to despair of the human capacity for reason, along with more or less every advance in human affairs since the Dark Ages. Nevertheless, there has been no rioting about the historical reality of the Holocaust. No one has died over it.

Meanwhile, whatever point these European Muslims were making with their cartoon of Hitler and Anne Frank is more or less disproved by their very exercise. No one tried to stop them from putting the cartoon on the Web. The notion that jokes about Anne Frank are beyond the pale is provably false. There’s a play running in New York right now called “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother.” It’s a monologue written and acted by stand-up comic Judy Gold, who says on stage every night that her mother used to read to her from a pop-up version of Anne Frank’s diary and would say, “Pull the tab, Judith. Alive. Pull it again. Dead.” Maybe you had to be there. But the New York Times reviewer called the play “fiercely funny, honest and moving” and did not demand that the author be executed, or even admonished.

By contrast, in a spectacular exercise of self-censorship, almost every major newspaper in this country is refraining from publishing the controversial Danish cartoons, even though they are at the center of a major news story that these papers cover at length every day. The Danish paper that originally published the 12 cartoons has apologized and editors in France and Jordan who published some of them have been fired. In tomorrow’s paper, you’re more likely to see a picture of Anne Frank or Hitler or both in bed with Eleanor Roosevelt, all three of them naked and performing unconventional sex acts, than you are to see a perfectly respectful picture of the Prophet Mohammed. An editorial in the Times on Wednesday said that not publishing the cartoons was “a reasonable choice” since they would offend many people and “are so easy to describe in words.” I am looking at a front page photo in today’s Times (as I write on Thursday) of Mariah Carey singing into a microphone. Words do it justice, I think.

Of course it is not Western values that are trampling freedom of expression: It is the ayatollah’s own values, combined with the threat of violence. The other problem with his little joke about double standards, and with the whole supposedly mordant comparison between denying the Holocaust and portraying the prophet, is that the offended Muslims do not want a world where people are free to do both. They don’t even want a world where people are not free to do either, which would at least be consistent. They want a world where you may not portray the Prophet Mohammed (even flatteringly, slaying infidels or whatnot) but you may deny the Holocaust all day long.

The bewildered prime minister of Denmark, trying to calm the whirlwind that has descended on his innocent, unsuspecting country, gets it spectacularly wrong when he reassures disgruntled Muslims that Denmark supports “freedom of religion” and is “one of the world’s most tolerant and open societies.” Tolerance, openness, and freedom of religion are not what they have in mind.

A lively debate is going on about whether Islam really does forbid any portrayal of the prophet, however benign, or whether that is a recent innovation of some subset of the faithful with possible ulterior motives. This debate misses the point. Some Christians believe they are required to wear particular sorts of clothing. Some Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork. They don’t claim that their religion requires other people to wear special clothing or avoid eating pork. Tolerance and ecumenism can only do so much. They have nothing to offer a Muslim in Afghanistan who is personally insulted and enraged about an image that appears in a newspaper in Denmark.

The shameful American position on all this is boilerplate endorsement of free expression combined with denunciation of the cartoons as an “unacceptable” insult. When three protesters died this week in a confrontation at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, an American spokesman there said that Afghans “should judge us on what we’re doing here, not on what some cartoonist is doing somewhere else.” But the limits of free expression cannot be set by the sensitivities of people who don’t believe in it. How can President Bush continue to ask young Americans to sacrifice their lives for freedom in the Muslim world, if he won’t even defend freedom verbally when forces from that world are suppressing it in our own?