Secularism plays a crucial role in a certain moral narrative of modernity. This narrative tells a story of the liberation that is supposed to have emerged as people came to realize that the agency they had imputed to false gods, or to gods altogether, in fact belonged to them. Some familiar variations on the basic story date back at least to the 18th century. Perhaps less often noted is the semiotic ideology it tends to presuppose (for details, see my book Christian Moderns). A glance back at the debates that ensued after the notorious affair of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may help illuminate how this semiotic ideology is associated with secularism. It may also shed light on how that ideology helps sustain the common sense of secularism and its ties to ideas of freedom in general, and of the press and its publics more specifically.

In September 2005, the right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a number of political cartoons, most of which used the image of the Prophet Muhammad to lampoon Islam in one form or another. According to the newspaper’s editors, their purpose was to test the courage of Danes in standing up for their tradition of freedom of expression, in effect making press freedom a distinctive feature of Danish ethnonationalism. We are all aware of one result, the wave of sometimes violent anger that lasted several months (followed by a second wave in 2008), that extended across the Muslim world. In October both the editor and cultural editor of the Jyllands-Posten insisted they had done nothing wrong, and stressed that freedom of speech is at the heart of Danish democracy. A spokesman for the paper said there was no intention to provoke Muslims; “Instead we wanted to show how deeply entrenched self-censorship has already become” among Danes.

I revisit this by now quite familiar incident not in order to rehearse once again the many arguments about immigration, citizenship, Islam, or European politics. What I am interested in is how the European response to Muslim anger reveals some of the aporia of a semiotic ideology closely tied to secular and liberal thought. I want to ask what it was about the Danish denials that may have made them seem so persuasive to other observers across a fairly wide political spectrum. This means asking what the resulting debates about freedom and blasphemy might reveal about certain moral claims of the press, and the underlying assumptions those claims presuppose. I want to suggest that these claims involve semiotic ideologies whose genealogies reach back much earlier, and extend far wider, than the current politics of immigration, identity, and the current geo-political strife.

By focusing on freedom of the press rather than social relations, the defenders of the newspaper could count on a family of common sense views of what pictures and words are, and how they function in the world. They tapped into a widespread and habitual way of thinking that treats representational acts as referential and communicative in function. In this view, pictures and words are vehicles (and in the case of words, arbitrary social conventions) for information, itself a distinct entity that stands apart from persons and their actions.

This view is not the only one found in the Euro-American world, nor should we imagine that the sense of offence some Muslims expressed is fundamentally alien to “the West,” as American reactions to the “Piss Christ” artwork make clear. We should also not assume it arises from some sensitivity peculiar to religious faith, as American responses to flag-burning and Spanish laws against lèse majesté show. But it does have a privileged relationship to the moral narrative of modernity, in particular to those strands associated with liberal thought and the concepts of freedom associated with them. It is implicit in John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of press freedom, according to which the reader should evaluate the message and ask how well it fares in competition with the alternatives, which determines whether we should accept it as true. Expressions of truth should be set into free circulation to be sorted out by the invisible hand of their readership, as the aggregate outcome of so many individual judgments. Certainly, the European arguments are somewhat different from the American ones (as European Holocaust denial laws show), but they share a deep background. The classic defense of freedom of expression draws, in part, on a semiotic ideology that takes words and pictures to be vehicles for the transmission of opinion or information among otherwise autonomous and unengaged parties, and the information they bear to be itself so much inert content more or less independent of the activity of representation.

This assumption about words and pictures, or semiotic ideology, tends to place them in a domain apart from that of action and actors. Moreover, there is at least an affinity between this semiotic ideology and the view of action I have described, in which the action and the actor’s intentions remain relatively independent of the social relations into which they enter. (Notice that the classic exceptions to the referential and predicational model of speech that typify legitimate restrictions on free speech, “fighting words” and crying “Fire!” in a theater, retain this character of discrete actions on the part of autonomous subjects. To an extent, this also characterizes some of the more familiar portrayals of the so-called performative character of language.) That is, how one understands words or images can both express and reinforce one’s understanding of social action and its moral import, and therefore, its political consequences.

If it is disingenuous to overlook or misconstrue the ways in which expression can form an aggressive form of interaction, it can seem reasonable in part because of a prevalent model of communication that, in its most familiar forms, has roots in iconoclasm. The theological, institutional, and political history of this concept is complex. But even a simplified version can, I think, tell us something about the assumptions and habits that make the Danish position seem commonsensible to so many.

Western liberalism draws on some iconoclastic themes that are ultimately shared by the three major Abrahamic scriptural religions. One underpinning of this iconoclasm is the worry that people would be distracted by sounds or images at the expense of those spiritual things that transcend experience. They might even come to worship those sounds or images. The liberal tradition shows the more specific effects of the Protestant Reformation as a purification movement. In its religious form, the iconoclastic impulse led to the stripping of imagery from the churches. Pictures should only convey visual information; they should not inspire devotion and become objects of worship. Indeed, for some reformers, they should not even stir the feelings.

A similar purifying impulse ran through the Protestant Reformers’ treatment of language. The Latin liturgy and Bible seemed to them to verge both on pagan magic, and idolatry of the word. Protestant churches brought a new focus to the pulpit. Sermons, now central to the service, emphasized the communication of ideas over supplication, blessing, confession, or non-verbal ritual actions such as making the sign of the cross. Opposed to the treatment of Latin as a sacred language, the Protestants translated the Bible into vernaculars. In effect this desacralization of the words and images encouraged hearers and readers to treat them as vehicles for communicating information, and not as aspects of interactions among, and constitutive of, moral subjects. It also tended to treat the truth conveyed by words and images as lying in a realm distinct from the words and images themselves and from the relations among those who wield them. A long history produced an underlying understanding of verbal and visual signs as conduits, empty in themselves, for the conveyance of ideas between otherwise autonomous people.

The classic arguments for freedom of the press commonly rest on this by now habitual view of words and pictures as vehicles for information that are fundamentally independent of social relations and interactions, other than serving as ready-at-hand tools. This background is one reason why it has been so difficult for Danes, and indeed for Americans, to deal with verbal or visual expressions of hatred: to the extent that they are mere words, it is hard to see clearly how they are also forms of action in any serious way, beyond, say, making misleading truth claims or hurting another’s feelings. Even accepting that they are actions, they are actions understood as taking place between otherwise independent agents. Since those agents are independent, the response of the wounded is ultimately in their own hands (one might ask, for instance, why they can’t be less emotional, or what is it about religion that makes people so sensitive). These habits of thinking and action are very deep. Cartoonists, whose daily bread depends on having keen instincts for the potency of words and drawings, may themselves have trouble explaining why their work has the effects it does, for it runs against the grain of some habitual and ordinary ways of thinking and speaking in the world that liberalism created.

This is not to say important alternative views of words, things, and persons do not exist in western Christianity. Deep background includes the role of visual imagery in the imitatio Christi, the transubstantiation of matter in the Eucharist, potent language in the form of exorcisms, curses, oaths, the uses of scriptural texts in divination, the practices of votive offerings, and so forth. But these examples lie in the religious domains that are rather too easily dismissed as relics of a vanishingly “traditional” worldview. There was also a long tradition in rhetoric that stressed the interpersonal effects of speech. One could argue, however, that within the emergent public spheres of the liberal world, rhetorical, poetic, or performative action increasingly tended to remain confined within marked domains, as models based on communication, information, and the autonomy of social agents grew in dominance and generality.

To say the aggrieved feelings of Muslims are independent of the act of publishing caricatures of the Prophet is to say they misconstrue the real nature of action; to say that cartoons are only pictures is to say Muslims misconstrue the real nature of symbolic forms. Both assertions draw on the common sense of a particular semiotic ideology to cast doubt not just on the other’s respect for freedom, but more deeply yet, on the other’s grip on reality. Viewed in the light of the moral narrative of modernity, the semiotic failure of the offended Muslims is a symptom not only of difference, but more specifically, of an anachronistic ontology. They are, in this respect, like prosperity gospel preachers, faith healers, and other apparently magical thinkers. Their false grasp of the nature of signs is a manifest symptom of this, that, failing to grasp reality, they lie on the other side of a boundary between rational and irrational, modern and pre-modern.

Now, if the matter were to rest there, we would have nothing more than a familiar story about the clash of civilizations; they have their reality and their values, we have ours. But my point is somewhat different, for it rests on the observation that the defenders of the Danes are not merely asserting a different view of reality, or even of signs, from those of their critics. Rather, they are themselves as much in the grip of a selective semiotic ideology as are their antagonists, an ideology that leads them to misconstrue the nature of their own actions. The “otherness” lies not just between liberal secularists or Christians and conservative Muslims, or between Danes by genealogy and Danes by residence, but also between any given actors’ self-understandings and practices.