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Romantic Liberalism: An Alternative Perspective on Disrespect in The Danish Muhammad Cartoon Controversy

Gina Gustavsson
Uppsala Universitet
Gina Gustavsson
Uppsala Universitet
Open Panel

Abstract

The present paper offers an alternative reading of the defense of the Danish Muhammad cartoons from 2005. This exercise suggests we should search further than ‘Enlightenment liberalism’ and autonomy when looking for liberal traditions that invite disrespect of religious minorities in the name of freedom, something that risks hampering deliberation on equal terms. The paper engages with Christian Rostbøll’s reading of the cartoon controversy, according to whom the main argument of for example Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons, went along the lines of Galston’s ''Enlightenment liberalism''; a liberalism that invites the secular majority in Western democracies to promote autonomy among religious minorities – often at the cost of disrespecting diversity. By contrast, I show that a careful analysis of Rose’s argument instead requires us to go beyond the category of ‘Enlightenment liberalism’. For Rose, the cartoons had much less to do with promoting any character ideal among Muslims than with how the non-Muslim majority should behave. Most importantly, Rose’s concern was not mainly anyone’s purported lack of reflective autonomy, but of courage and dedication – ultimately romantic rather than enlightened ideals. This implies, I suggest, that when focusing exclusively on the evils of ‘Enlightenment liberalism’, political theorists who fear disrespect in the name of liberalism risk missing another equally sectarian strand that may spur disrespect in the name of liberty. This neglected strand is, I suggest, best conceptualized as Romantic liberalism; and its ultimate goal is to promote not the character ideal of autonomy – but that of heroic self-expression.