In the eternal battle between reason and regression there's never been a rallying cry as powerful as Voltaire's double-barrelled phrase: Ecrasez l'infame. It has been translated variously as "crush the infamous," "crush the horror" or - my preference - "smash the rogues".
Voltaire's targets, his recent biographer Ian Davidson writes, "included superstition, theological repression, Jesuits, monks, fanatical regicides, and the Inquisition in every shape and form; in short, all facets of the dark and regressive alliance between the Catholic Church and the French State".
By the 19th century, the phrase had done its job, and not just in France. In the West, church and state would be kept separate, for good reason: Absent a thick and uncompromising wall, the two cannot help but corrupt each other while tyrannising, in a “higher power’s” name, the people they're meant to serve.
It's a lesson the Islamic world has not yet learned. It's a lesson the Western world risks forgetting. If the contemptible war over the Mohammed cartoons suggests anything, it is that the 21st century mutant of l'infame is as virulent as its Catholic forebear. It has rich new strains of hatred to draw on, it has abettors and enthusiasts in the most liberal democracies, and globalism is its perfect means of propagation.
Ecrasez l'infame should again be the rallying cry of liberal democracies, or else l'infame will be doing the crushing of freedom as we know it. Muslim fanatics, including their Ebola strain marketing as al-Qaida, aren't the greatest threats. The threat to the West is as familiar as the reactionary next door.
So focusing on the violence triggered by cartoongate is a dodge convenient to both East and West. It helps the Muslim East continue to pretend that simply saying bromides like "Islam is a religion of peace" can make it so. It helps the West hide behind a facade of tolerance and enlightenment that hasn't kept its own demagogues from grabbing power by manufacturing fears and appealing to prejudice.
The joint appearance by George Bush and King Abdullah of Jordan recently gelled it: The lawless, lying, fear-baiting, warmongering president and the generic Arab despot, whose torture jails are a favourite CIA lay-over, preaching peace, respect for law and an end to violence. Mel Brooks couldn't write comedy like that.
"Islam," the king said, "like Christianity and Judaism, is a religion of peace, tolerance, moderation." Well, no. What a religion's founders say and what its followers do is as different as what Karl Marx wrote in the London Library and what Stalin did with Das Kapital in Siberia. Ideals are nice. Upholding them is nicer. The world of Islam is overwhelmingly not living up to its purported ideals. It is a world of tyrannies, intolerance, racism, of prideful bigotries that shame any Muslim's claim of having the prophet defiled when Jews and foreigners are the daily objects of defilement in many of these countries' media and official government pronouncements.
Are we forgetting that the Darfur genocide is primarily an Arab massacre of non-Arab, black Africans? Are we forgetting that Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, broadcast to the entire Middle East a 41-part series based on the revoltingly anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and did so during Ramadan, to maximise ratings? Don't just blame it on nondemocracies: Are we forgetting that the democratically elected representatives of Hamas, Iran and Iraq, both Sunni and Shiite, revel in destroy Israel rants?
Illiberal regimes at least have an excuse. Regression is part of their gross national product. The West has no such excuse, least of all in the world's self-appointed guardian of liberty. If l'infame's 21st century version is whatever replaces liberty, reason and the rule of law with dogma, faith-based bigotry and the lawless presumptions of a few arrogant men, then don't let the relative calm over cartoongate in America fool you.
L'infame is alive and well here, in small and broad ways: It is people holding up signs at gay funerals that say "No Fags in Heaven", and millions of people doing likewise in 11 states by voting to bar gays from marrying. It is columnist Ann Coulter calling Muslims "ragheads" at a conservative political conference and getting an ovation, or Jacksonville's Reverend Jerry Vines calling Mohammed a "demon-possessed pedophile" in an address to the Southern Baptist Conference, and getting alleluias.
L'infame is the National Cathedral service September 14, 2001, belting the wrathful and jingoist "Battle Hymn of the Republic" during a memorial service for the victims of the attacks three days earlier. Mostly, l'infame is President Bush, sworn to uphold the Constitution, saying he answers to a "higher power" while dragging the country's laws and liberties through a gutter dug by Osama bin Laden.
With advocates like these, liberty and democracy have about as much chance as the fugitive honesty in the Bush White House. But it worked in Voltaire's time. It'll work in ours: Ecrasez l'infame!