An important trend in this decade is saying sorry – for nearly everything, it seems. Demanding apologies has become an important diplomatic tool, even for atrocities committed hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
Today, the new Australian government issued a formal apology for many years’ mistreatment of the indigenous population. Apartheid-like policies during much of the 20th century, including removing aboriginal children to raise them in proper white families, has been the one sore point in recent Australian history. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd represents the nation and dynasty that committed these crimes, and although generations have passed since then, the government is still heir to these decisions and their consequences. For this reason, the apology makes sense, and hopefully a new era of aboriginal relations can begin.
Apologising for the deeds of other people can be risky, though. In the Danish Mohammad controversy of 2005-2006, Muslim governments wanted Denmark to apologise for printing the cartoons. What they failed to grasp was the concept of freedom of speech and an independent press. Say sorry for what? Letting people think for themselves? Allowing independent media? Tolerating differences of opinion? Prime Minister Anders Fogh wisely avoided apologising for the cartoons themselves. He expressed his personal opinions. But had he intervened, he would be taking credit for the decision of Jyllands-Posten, and thus undermining free speech.
Comparing these two may be far-fetched. Almost everyone agrees that the treatment of aboriginals was shameful. The Mohammad cartoons, however, violated no Danish laws or international treaties. They may have indecently violated Sharia or Qu’ran rules; but these are hardly universal. Muslims may believe whatever they want; I reserve the right to believe they are wrong.
Yesterday morning, three men were arrested in Aarhus for plotting to murder the cartoonist behind one of the infamous drawing. Two, which are Tunisian, were immediately extradited. The intended victim is understandably shocked, and so are Danish politicians and media. There is fear the crisis may rise from the dead. Perhaps our response this time should be to demand public apologies from the government of Tunis (for allowing two of its citizens to consider such a crime) or the government of Syria (for not allowing free speech, which is very important in our ideology). Or perhaps everyone should just take a deep breath and mind their own business.
Previous posts on the Mohammad controversy:
Who Gets To Define Tolerance? (March 21, 2006)
Never Be Rude To An Arab (Feb 13, 2006)
The Culture Wars (Feb 8, 2006)
Da Vinci, Harry Potter, and Muhammad (Jan 7, 2006)