I have now read this obscurantist, condescending, self-indulgent essay several times, trying to find some sentence, which resolves its apparent, more than prominent contradictions.
Many other commenters have already pointed out that Zakaria never mentions Islamism, never speaks of the heterogeneity of opinion in the Muslim community regarding CH, regarding blasphemy, regarding religion and politics; instead she speaks of Muslim opinion and Muslim subjectivity as if there was only one. All while permanently lamenting the fact that Muslims are ‘otherized’ in Western society, i.e. viewed as monolithic group and represented in malevolent terms. The irony of this was of course not lost on me; and it struck me that ‘otherization’ is crucial for Zakaria’s argument. While she is certainly opposed to the malevolence against Muslims in Western society [let’s call it negative ‘negative otherization’], she fully buys into the [positive] ‘otherization’ of the ‘cultural studies’ variety, which is justified with the concepts of postmodern différence or contextual epistemology or contextual schemes or whatever. If you take away the idea of collective Muslim otherness and special treatment as a group, her essay would fall apart. Zakaria is self-orientalized.
Zakaria talks a lot about subjectivity and moral aversion/moral hurt (I see these terms as mutually redundant and also see a large congruence with Martha Nussbaum’s concept of moral disgust). She then uses the poststructuralist / postcolonialist commonplace that moral judgments – in these concepts the ones made by Western liberals regarding free speech, by Walzer regarding FGM and by Touraine regarding cultural rights – are always informed by subjective or cultural sensitivities and that our “universal moral values” are in consequence hegemonically Western. The main argument of the first half of the essay is then – in my view – that while Western liberals are allowed to present their “objective”, “rational” (a.k.a. subjective and affective) ideas about moral issues such as free speech, Muslims are not able to do so without being called irrational and illiberal.
A general critique of this idea was delivered elsewhere, e.g. by Jürgen Habermas in 1981. Specifically, the problem with the ‘Human rights / liberal ideas / universal values / objective ideas are imperialist/racist/hegemonic’ is that they are themselves based on universal normative sentiments (that imperialism, racism and hegemony are morally objectionable) and on objective truth claims and thus create a problem of self-reference. Why should I give a shit that Muslim subjectivity is branded as irrational while Western subjectivity is not? The answer to that question must necessarily be linked to some kind of universalized, moral “truth”.
While Walzer’s and Tourrain’s writing might be poisoned by the language of disgust, they provide arguments in the end. Walzer for instance invokes the harm principle (as Nussbaum did to contrast the morality of disgust). Zakaria on the other hand never even tries to argue beyond her call for the recognition of Muslim subjectivity.
The main point here is however, that even if Zakaria’s idea about the implicit subjectivity of moral statements would be true, the way that we treat Muslim interlocutors in this debate is not extraordinary all. Whenever we argue and strongly disagree with somebody, we tend to question their objectivity, the consistency of their ideas, and so on. The racist lady in the subway that Zakaria describes in the beginning was acting correctly according to her own subjective ideas (otherwise she simply would not have acted that way). When Zakaria criticizes the behavior of that lady, she deems the subjective opinion of that lady irrational. This is what happens in everyday discourse all the time – simple as that.
So when Zakaria laments that Muslims are treated like this, she is arguing in favor of a positive ‘othering’ – i.e. of a privileged treatment of Muslim subjectivity (the concept of which is absurd in itself) in discourse. Self-othering is central to Zakaria’s worldview. Accordingly, she is not even able to see this debate beyond the Hungtingtonian West vs. Muslim antagonism. She is not able to see Westerners and Muslims as heterogeneous political interlocutors who are defined by more than their religious identity. While she clearly realizes that the CH cartoonists and the many journalists in the MENA region were killed by the same political actors, she is unable to make a link between both because that would require a rearrangement of the political fault lines beyond her narrow conception of ‘otherized’ identity.