Offensive Cartoons

The New York Times has a story on the continuing controversy involving twelve cartoons published in a Danish Newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, last September.

If you're interested in actually seeing the cartoons in question, go here. Unfortunately, not all of the captions and/or writing is translated.

For Muslims, it is blasphemous to create images of the Prophet Muhammad. Beyond that, some of the cartoons in question are rather harsh, but to really understand why these cartoons are so offensive, you have to understand the way in which they came to be published.

A childrens' book author wrote a book about Muhammad. She wasn't able to find any illustrators to provide depictions of the Prophet. They were all afraid of ending up like Theo van Gogh. The Jyllands-Posten asked illustrators from the Danish editorial cartoonists union to "draw Mohammed as they see him."

What might have been a commentary on the current geo-political landscape is now inflammatory images of the founder of Islam.

First, let's establish that this is NOT about freedom of expression. Or at least it shouldn't have become and issue of freedom of expression.

From a blogger in Denmark:
If "freedom of expression" means freedom from content-based governmental restrictions, then there is no question whatsoever that Jyllands-Posten's freedom of expression to print the cartoons has never been threatened, in even a minor way. So let's take that off the table. It simply isn't at issue and never has been.

The issue then becomes, should Jyllands-Posten have run the cartoons? This is a different issue altogether and does not implicate "freedom of expression" but something much different: good taste, promoting healthy dialogue, and the responsibility of people and non-governmental institutions to respect other cultures, viewpoints, religions, etc. Denmark is not a place that has a strong ethic of "strength through diversity." On the contrary, it is a place where, in practice, homogeneity is an obsession and foreigners, wherever from, are seen as a nuisance or a threat, depending on how much they diverge from the "Danish mold." (Did you know that the government of Denmark keeps an "approved list" of names you can give your children? I'm dead serious. Now how does that promote "freedom of expression" again?)

This feature of Danish society explains, in my view, why the government here so badly mishandled the situation. It could have easily come forward early on and stated that it viewed the drawings as being in poor taste and contrary to the values of diversity and mutual respect that the government, at least through lip service, pretends to believe in, and it would have lost absolutely nothing by agreeing to meet with Danish Muslims and Arab ambassadors to discuss the situation, all the while making clear that it would not and could not take any punitive action against the paper. This would have cost the government nothing and would have gone a long way, in my opinion, towards defusing the situation early on and avoiding the current crisis.

Instead, the prime minister, a conservative fool if there ever was one (and a great friend of W, by the way), refused to meet with any Muslim groups or ambassadors. Whatever he intended, his refusal came across as a clear message that the Danish government found Muslims' views of the situation completely unworthy of any attention or respect. Only after that refusal did the controversy gain traction with the "Arab street" and develop into protests, boycotts, threats and the rest. Now the government has a much, much bigger problem on its hands and is uttering apologies faster than you can say jihad. It still won't meet with anyone, however.

The French and German papers that have since republished the images have the ability to argue that if there is raging controversy that is causing boycotts costing companies millions of dollars, the people have a right to see the images that sparked the outrage. That's the reason I provided a link to the images here. I do not agree with the way the Prophet is portrayed in some of the images, but a person should not enter a debate without knowing the cause.

The root of my 'free speech' position is that every person and organization has the right to expect their speech not be punished by the government for its content. (The concept of yelling 'fire!' in a crowded theater, joking about bombs at an airport, etc. being a legitimate exceptions.) That does not protect a speaker, in this case a newspaper, from the consequences of its speech. If you don't like what a newspaper has written, don't buy that newspaper or the products advertised within it. If you don't like actions of a government (in this case the inaction of the Danish government) speak out against it.

That said, there is a line. Calling for bombings and killing Danes because of the actions of the Danish government or the contents of a Danish newspaper is not acceptable. Not only is it wrong, it does nothing to bring understanding. One Imam in England is calling for restraint but the situation seems to be getting worse.

This is a tough issue. I wasn't really sure how I would write this. In fact, my position has changed at least 3 times as I wrote this post. In essence, all sides are wrong. The paper had the right to publish whatever they wanted but should have realized that publishing the cartoons would be irresponsible. The Danish government should have reacted with more acceptance but didn't. Muslim people around the world should realize that freedom of speech means people will say things you find abhorrent. Most did and took the appropriate (peaceful) actions. Some didn't.

It is important to remember that this sort of outrage is not limited to Islam. Remember the outrage over Chris Ofili's The Virgin Mary painted with elephant dung? How about the American Family Association's campaign to have the TV show The Book of Daniel canceled for "Mocking Christianity"?

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The United States has now taken a position.

State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper had this to say: "These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims," ... "We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."

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