Let us start by recalling what actually happened. The Muhammad cartoons were published at the end of September 2005 by a conservative Danish daily with the stated intention of proving that there are no limits to freedom of the press in Denmark. We should keep in mind the context: the Danish coalition government needed the support in parliament of the populist Danish People’s Party (DF) whose programme can be summed up by its anti-immigrant stance, particularly towards immigrants from Muslim countries.

Tzvetan Todorov's spread from New Humanist, November/December 2007Muslim community leaders, who felt offended by the cartoons, collected 17,000 signatures and delivered the petition to the prime minister, with no effect. They then turned to the ambassadors of Muslim countries in Denmark and asked them to speak to the prime minister on their behalf but he refused to see them too, explaining that he could not interfere with the laws protecting the freedom of the press in Denmark. Community leaders then turned to a slew of religious authorities in Muslim countries who organised or ignited violent demonstrations. During the demonstrations not only flags but buildings belonging to several European countries were set on fire and destroyed, and death threats were issued. Police crackdowns resulted in the death of several dozen protestors in various countries in Asia and Africa.

The first thing to say about this unpredictable sequence of events is that it shows the extent to which we are all living in the same space – I’d be tempted to say the same village – today. Who could have imagined that something published in some obscure newspaper in Copenhagen could provoke a riot in Nigeria? The instantaneous transmission of news and live TV images, which lends itself to immediate perception, is radically changing our relationship to the world. Our acts have many more consequences than we imagine and it is high time we internalised this new state of affairs.

Let’s examine the matter from the Danish and the European side. The principle of freedom of expression, with the consequent lack of governmental control over what newspapers publish, is one of the pillars of liberal democracy. It is not, however, the only one. Freedom is always restricted by other equally fundamental principles. For instance, depending on the legislation in different countries, stating publicly that all Jews are bankers who grow fat on other people’s backs, that all Arabs are thieves or that all Blacks are rapists may be against the law just as it may be forbidden to glorify terrorism, Nazism or rape.

Such restrictions on freedom of speech are grounded, like all restrictions on the freedom of the individual, in the need to safeguard public welfare and hence social stability, and to protect the dignity of other citizens – a requirement legitimated by the principle of equality. Between the right to act and the deed, there is a distance that one should traverse only after taking into account the eventual consequences of the act in a given context. This is why, as some said on the occasion of the cartoons, one should not throw a lighted match when there’s a barrel of gunpowder nearby, even if there’s no law against it.

What the Danish newspaper did was either stupid (not realising that running the cartoons in today’s context could have harmful effects) or provocative (setting a trap for the Muslim community to prove its obscurantism and intolerance, and thus reinforce its exclusion from Danish society). As for the reaction of the Danish government, it was basically tactless. Without resorting to legal measures (such as banning blasphemy as some Islamists were demanding), the government could have put to use whatever political latitude it had at its disposal. Since a sizeable number of individuals said they felt offended by the publication, the government should have met with them, shown them due respect and concern, and explained to them what legal form their protest could take.

A distinction should be drawn here between the different reasons for protest. Protesting against any representation of the Prophet Muhammad is a purely theological demand that the European media cannot take into consideration; on the other hand, the representation of Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban is not an offence to theology but to Muslims themselves because the insinuation is that they are all terrorists. Such a reaction on the part of the government, without compromising on principles, would have calmed inter-community tensions in Denmark and saved a number of lives elsewhere.

This is by no means a matter of instituting censorship or renouncing freedom of criticism but simply of realising that our public acts take place not in some abstract space but in a specific context that must be taken into account. There’s a difference between criticising a triumphant ideology and criticising a marginalised, persecuted group: the one is an act of courage, the other an act of hatred. There’s a difference between making fun of oneself and making fun of others, between doing so in pictures or in writing. The media today wield enormous power which, unlike other forms of power, does not originate with the will of the people. To gain legitimacy it must, as Montesquieu said, impose limits upon itself. To put it in the terms of Max Weber, it is not enough to act in the name of an ethics of conviction; it is an ethics of responsibility that is needed, one that considers the probable consequences of acts.

So European societies have not come out of this affair with increased stature, but the image that Muslim societies have given of themselves is even more worrisome. Such disturbing signs did not, of course, appear out of the blue with the cartoon affair: no other religion serves today to justify terrorist attacks, murders and persecutions. Demonstrators against Denmark trampled on several distinctions that seem essential to Europeans: between religious principles and civil laws, between the laws of one country and those of another, between the will of the government and the will of individuals. The death threats voiced during the demonstrations in London come under the heading of a crime and British authorities were right to take legal action against them. If Western societies needed a reminder that their values are not universally admired and that they have many enemies in the world, now they had it.

The ease with which religious or political agitators were able to incite such enormous crowds to join them also reveals the degree of frustration and abandonment in which masses of people are living in these countries. This state of dissatisfaction is due, to begin with, to appalling economic conditions, massive unemployment and a lack of education and of widespread transmission of knowledge. It is aggravated by a feeling of humiliation inflicted by the West, a feeling that becomes a powerful motive for violent acts. It is fuelled by the Western occupation of Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, by the injustice inflicted on Palestine and by the images of prison torture from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. I’m not saying that all the ills of Muslim countries are due to outside causes, that they are imported from the West and that these countries are merely victims of neo-colonialism. I believe, on the contrary, that they mainly have their own leaders to blame for their underdevelopment. Nonetheless, the injustices of which Western countries can be accused have become emblematic in Muslim countries and have made it possible to find an easy scapegoat, dissimulating in this way the other causes of distress.

This contrast between Muslim countries and liberal democracies has led some people to conclude that the problem comes from the Islamic religion itself. I have a hard time accepting generalisations about more than a billion people from all walks of life, all of whom are supposed to behave in the same way. The immense majority of Muslims, like all other populations, would like to live in peace; they are looking for personal happiness, not jihad and the victory of one religion over another. Religious determinism is never sufficient and the doctrines themselves authorise multiple interpretations. In my opinion, the source of current tensions is more political than theological; it is situated more on earth than in heaven. This does not mean that a new war between religions is inconceivable; all it would take is a fanatic influential minority, since the masses – that is, you and I – will follow passively.

What lessons can be drawn from the distressing affair? Vis-à-vis the Muslim countries, European countries should avoid lapsing into pacifism: we have enemies who will not hesitate to use force to make us renounce the values that we hold dear. To defend ourselves, we too must be ready to use force. But we must simultaneously ensure that our democratic principles do not look like a deceptive mask hiding selfish interests, related to land or energy. We must immediately close prisons where people are being tortured with impunity and even legally; and we must put an end to our military occupations as quickly as possible. Setting an example of freedom and justice – which is not the case right now – could well be more to our advantage than current military operations. If we do not do so, we will have significantly contributed to our own misfortunes.

At home, no compromising on principles: theology must not interfere with politics; the freedom and plurality of the media must be safeguarded and the right of women to free choice and dignity defended. At the same time, we must avoid pitting communities against one another, stigmatising them unduly and preferring one to the others. Tolerance towards others is easier to put into practice when it is underpinned by intransigence in the face of the intolerable. ■

This is an extract from a major interview with Tzvetan Todorov by Danny Postel to be published in Critical Inquiry (Winter 2007). With thanks to Danny Postel and Jay Williams