Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Danish Cartoons: A Nuanced Perspective

The biggest story in the news today just so happens to be right up this blog's alley: radical Islamic protesters, angry at unflattering depictions of the prophet Muhammad that originated in a Danish newspaper and have been reprinted throughout Europe, have burned down Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria and Lebanon. The paper in which the cartoons were originally published received bomb threats even after apologizing; Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria have recalled their ambassadors from Denmark; Palestinians are threatening Danish citizens with bodily harm if they don't leave Gaza and the West Bank; and Muslim protesters in London have advocated beheading the artists responsible. Is all this sound and fury really the sole result of a few comics published five months ago? Don't believe it. Islamic fundamentalists are using the cartoons to solicit public support for a clash of civilizations, and they're taking full advantage of the fact that the caricatures are widely considered among Muslims to illustrate a general Western disdain for their beliefs. So, in a sense, Jyllands-Posten has abetted the radicals by publishing a convenient set of easily-transferrable anti-Western propaganda. Poor decisions have clearly been made on both sides, but I have to stand with the proponents of free speech on this issue.

It goes without saying that free speech is a bedrock Western value. I'm probably not well-educated enough to offer an adequate defense of the principle here, but as to its importance I'll merely say this: the defense of free expression helps ensure that neither the government nor any other constituency can force people to act against their will. Under this justification, free speech becomes identified with freedom itself—after all, how free can a nation possibly be if external forces control what, how, and to whom its people can express themselves? Free speech, like the overarching freedom it helps constitute, has its limits (shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, making death threats), but JP did not violate them.

And yet, the editorial decision to publish the cartoons was a poor one. Freedom without responsibility can be extremely destructive, and whoever approved the illustrations for publication demonstrated exactly that fact. Notwithstanding the fact that visually representing Muhammad in any way violates the Islamic faith, the worst and most frequently cited of the cartoons (the one in which he's drawn with a bomb for a turban) appears to directly equate Islam with terrorism. I don't think that's the message we want to send out to a global Muslim public that already mistrusts the West deeply. As I mentioned earlier, the bomb/turban image is already being employed by radicals as anti-European propaganda, just as the images of Abu Ghraib were used against the US. For this reason, I support those papers which have declined to reproduce the cartoons—they've exercised the discretion that JP should have in the first place.

And yet again, the paper's right to be wrong bears vigorous and unequivocal defense. It's completely tenable and consistent to condemn the images while affirming their right to exist and to be disseminated without fear of violent reprisal. Voltaire encapsulated the sentiment well in the 18th century, and it applies with just as much force today: wars of pure opinion should be fought across the printed page, the television screen, and the computer monitor; and never with guns and bombs. Any media organization that is willing to withstand the firestorm of criticism that generally accompanies the publication of potentially offensive material needs to feel free to move forward, but it's imperative that said firestorm remain metaphorical.

Unfortunately, it appears as though many in the Islamic world don't share our Western reverence of free speech. It may very well be that an inevitable clash between two irreconcilable worldviews is brewing, but that will depend on how many Muslims truly consider blasphemy a capital offense. If, as some have contended, the violence is predominantly a product of Islamists hoping to push their own radical agenda, there may be hope yet, and I sincerely want to believe this is the case. But if it turns out that most Muslims condone the murder of those who offend their faith through the media, I see no way to stave off a long, costly war of both ideas and bullets.