America and the Muhammad cartoons

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Sullivan.jpegWinnie Sullivan, the enfante terrible of religion and legal theory, is at it again with a review of a new collection of essays on the Muhammad cartoons controversy over at Religion Dispatches. Applauding some of the authors at the expense of others, she takes up familiar cudgels against the Western understanding of its secular order as being somehow religiously neutral. No, she says, it’s a product of a specifically Western–especially Protestant–religious ideology that privileges the individual conscience and downgrades communal solidarities that define religion in other traditions.

Well, sure. But L’Affaire Cartoon is a singularly poor stone on which to grind this ax. In Western Europe, where the cartoons were published everywhere, it turned into a real Kulturkampf, drawing on a rich anticlerical tradition that has nothing to do with principles of religious neutrality. In the U.S., by contrast, where the shibboleth of neutrality is powerful and the First Amendment precludes criminalizing hate speech, the number of papers that published any of the cartoons can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Not to mention Yale University Press’s recent decision not to publish the cartoons in a book examining the episode.

The point is that Europeans embraced the cartoons as an act of their own cultural solidarity, while Americans shied away from them in order to respect the cultural solidarity of the Muslim minority. In the U.S., in short, Sullivanian principles prevailed. Indeed, it could be argued that Winnie’s book, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, has had such an impact precisely because Americans are so susceptible to arguments on behalf of religious freedom. It’s impossible? In America? OMG, that cannot be .