The War of the Words

Nowadays, words are often seen as a source of instability. The violent reactions last year to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper saw a confused Western response, with governments tripping over their tongues trying to explain what the media should and should not be allowed to do in the name of political satire. Then Iran trumped the West by sponsoring a conference of Holocaust deniers, a form of speech punished as criminal almost everywhere in Europe.

As Turks well know, it is dangerous to take a position on the Armenian genocide of 1915. The most recent Nobel laureate in literature, Orhan Pamuk, was prosecuted in Istanbul for denying Turkey’s official history by saying that the Armenian genocide actually occurred. Other Turks have faced prosecution in Western Europe for saying that it did not.

So words are now clearly a battlefield in the cultural conflict between Islam and the West. The West has learned that, simply as a matter of self-censorship, not legal fiat, newspapers and other media outlets will not disseminate critical pictures of Muhammad, and the Pope will no longer make critical comments about Islam. But these gestures of cooperation with Muslim sensibilities have not been met by reciprocal gestures.