TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

A Good European?

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is no Islamophobe. Initially criticized for being slow to comment on the controversy around the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, he was eventually able to muster a stalwart defense of freedom of speech and the right to publish the caricatures. At the same time, he tried to keep lines of dialogue open with the Muslim world: thus a New York Times report of February 15, 2006, culminates with Barroso’s comment that “Islam is part of Europe. . . . We have a very important Islamic heritage.”

That’s fine and indicates a nicely capacious understanding of the European cultural legacy. It is in any case more than standard multiculturalism because Barroso simultaneously gave an explicitly positive and ambitious description of a specifically European culture defined against its own repressive past:

 . . . the European Union’s chief executive said today that Europe had to fight for its core European values, including freedom of speech.

“We have to stick very much to these values,” said José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission. “If not, we are accepting fear in this society.”

Referring to his youth during a totalitarian regime in Portugal, Mr. Barroso, a former Portuguese prime minister, said in an interview that Europe had to defend its right to have in place a system that allowed the publication of the cartoons.

And, as if his point was to draw a line in the sand, or rather, through the Straits of Gibraltar, he reportedly added:

He said European society was based on principles that included equality of rights between men and women, freedom of speech and a clear distinction between politics and religion.

Where do they not hold?

The question of our day is whether these values are specifically European, or Western, with the validity of normative ideals solely within this context (as Barroso may be implying) or whether freedom and equality have some universal human pertinence (as George W. Bush suggests when he is most Wilsonian).

From the Danish cartoons to the papal address in Regensburg on September 12: in both cases the specific treatment of Mohammed was relatively moderate, but the response in the Islamic world grotesquely violent. The response in other words was enormously disproportionate to the act, which is surely an indication of ulterior motives. Exactly how did the Pope’s words legitimate those brave and heroic Somali men to shoot a nun in the back?

Yet whatever the explanation for pathological responses such as this, it is another matter altogether to watch the sorry spectacle of the political and intellectual leadership of the West seizing the opportunity to attack the Pope for his allegedly ill chosen words. It is here that Barroso has distinguished himself in identifying the issue at stake and standing up for a “European” value: free speech.

A Reuters report of September 23, published in the Washington Post, reports on comments by Barroso to the German Die Welt am Sonntag in which he criticizes the European political class for its (dare one say) sluggishness in the defense of liberty:

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was quoted as saying on Saturday that more European leaders should have spoken out in support of the Pope after he made his disputed comments on Islam.

“I was disappointed there were not more European leaders who said ‘naturally the Pope has the right to express his views’,” Barroso was quoted as saying to the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

“The problem is not the statements of the Pope but the reaction of the extremists,” the paper quoted him as saying. . . . 

And the President of the European Commission evidently believes that the European political class does not have the will to defend the European values, the current articulation of which—as we saw in Barroso’s reflections on the Danish cartoons—was a hard won product of overcoming twentieth-century totalitarianism. So why are European leaders so invertebrate?

Barroso said the caution on the part of European leaders was probably due to “worries about a possible confrontation” as well as a “certain form of political correctness.”

Venality and self-censorship, in other words, undermine the capacity to stand up for European values which, at least according to Barroso, need defending.

“We have to defend our values,” he said. “We should also encourage the moderate leaders in the Muslim world — and they’re the majority — to distance themselves from this extremism,”Barroso was quoted as saying.

Interestingly the position of this liberal President is effectively congruent with the concern articulated by Benedict in Regensburg—not the Mohammed quotation, but his analysis of the process of “dehellenization,” the separation of reason from religion in contemporary Europe. For “free speech” is ultimately a value not because of a particular European love of the larynx, but because it is the precondition of Kant’s “public use of reason,” and a commitment to the pursuit of truth. On this point at least, Benedict is the voice of Enlightenment, while his active critics in political and intellectual circles are the proponents of censorship and (again, Kantian) immaturity.

The failure of the West to defend Benedict’s right to speak is a repetition of the disappointing performance nearly twenty years ago when the West failed to defend one of its most celebrated writers, Salman Rushdie, facing Khomeini’s fatwa for the publication of Satanic Verses. It was a low point of western credibility, but it is clear, that for a certain liberalism (that lacks much understanding of genuine liberal values), Rushdie and Benedict did not deserve to be able to speak freely—but Khatami deserves a podium at Harvard and Ahmadenijad at the Council on Foreign Relations. That those appearances—or the aborted invitation of Ahmadenijad to speak at Columbia—were defended in terms of “free speech” is grotesque, since no such heroism was displayed when the Pope was under attack, or when Rushdie went into hiding.

It is worth clarifying that this European problem is not only European, in the narrow geographical sense. The New York Times editorials on the Regensburg address have been shameful. The first, on September 16, seems to have been written without even knowledge of the full papal text (and all the worse for the NYT if the editors had in fact bothered to read the speech). The unintentional irony is that the editorial is entitled “The Pope’s Words”—but the protests against the speech were uniformly directed toward a quotation he cited and from which, if subtly, he distanced himself in the original text. So it was exactly not “the Pope’s Words” which were the bone of contention.

If there is a verbal fault in the speech—delivered to an academic audience—it is that it could be excerpted, taken out of context and distorted, perhaps willfully, just as the Mohammed cartoons were willfully distorted in so far as they were circulated in the Muslim world along with some additional vicious caricatures which had never appeared in the Danish press, but which amplified the impact of the drawings. In this case, however, it seems that the source of the excerpting and distortion was the western press itself, especially the BBC.

The Regensburg address is in no way a discussion of Islam; it is an examination of the standing of religion and reason in Europe, in a philosophical language that rivals Jürgen Habermas for excitement and verve. However it also presented an opportunity for critics of Ratzinger to incite opinion in the Muslim world as a way to get back at the Pope. The problem of “sound bite culture” is not outside of the high journalism of the BBC and the Times: they are cut from the same cloth.

The NYT‘s second editorial on September 20 looks ahead unctuously in the hope that it will be able to steer Vatican policy in a multicultural direction, which is what this may have all been about. Yet there is a larger question here about the nature of public language as such. For the opinion-makers, the “new class” (to use Telos terminology), free speech belongs to Khatami, not to Benedict. This phenomenon of western self-hatred in elite circles requires further scrutiny. Bracketing that phenomenon however, we can focus on the NYT‘s judgment on papal language: “The world listens carefully to the words of any pope” (September 16). This claim is in fact not self-evident at all. The pope presumably wishes that he were listened to much more carefully. Yet what the NYT means is that it will scrutinize papal comments and judge their political correctness, even though it does not give similar attention to clerical statements in the Muslim world. It also means that it expects the public figures like the pope and the rest of the political class to refrain from addressing matters of substance which might elicit opposition. The Times‘s model of public discourse then is formally open but inherently biased—the “repressive tolerance” of the old critique of liberalism.

Politicians and popes should say nothing bold and imitate the style of tepid journalism. Only speak if you have something nice to say. It is a linguistic formula to avoid debate and controversy. The effect however is to push discussions of genuine concerns out of the official public sphere and into less rational contexts where they can germinate as prejudice. The abstract and empty reasoning of the NYT editorials is therefore implicated in the violence it pretends to condemn. The alternative—for which the backbone was evidently lacking—would have been an NYT editorial that would have condemned the violence (whatever the judgment on the speech) and insisted on the European and American value of free speech. Has the NYT ever heard of it? Barroso, the good European, has.

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