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Danish Cartoon Controversy Pits Pen vs. Sword

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Much ink and, unfortunately, some blood has already been spilled over the Danish cartoon controversy. Defenders of free expression are lining up opposite defenders of the faith and the situation is devolving into an unpleasant test of whether the pen is, in fact, mightier than the sword.

Stalwarts on both sides would like us to believe that what’s at issue here is nothing less than a clash of civilizations. While there is certainly a cultural clash going on, it has the air of something manufactured about it. Murder and mob violence, it should go without saying, are never appropriate reactions to a slight, whether real or perceived. In a free society, the right to free expression should always supersede the right not to be offended. That said, it is vitally important to look at the context of the cartoon dustup if we have any hope of moving beyond the lines drawn in the sand by fanatics on either side.

Wikipedia has a good overview of the cartoon controversy (the actual cartoons can be seen here). Included in their account is what strikes me as a vital piece of information about the context in which the cartoons were printed:

The drawings, which include a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb on his head, were purportedly meant as satirical illustrations accompanying an article on self-censorship and freedom of speech. Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, commissioned twelve cartoonists to draw them and published the cartoons in response to the difficulty that Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen had finding artists to illustrate his children’s book about Muhammad, because the artists feared violent attacks by extremist Muslims.

They were not, as some have suggested, drawn with the sole purpose of insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The Danish editors should have known—in fact did know—that the drawings would provoke an outcry in the Muslim world. That in and of itself does not mean it was irresponsible for them to print the cartoons and it was certainly not inappropriate of them to broach the subject of intellectual intolerance within Islamic societies. The fact that the cartoons they chose were so sophomoric –some of them patently offensive — doesn’t help, but editorial and artistic ineptitude can not, and should not, be a crime.

Of course, there are many articulate defenders of the freedom of the press, and their right to print things that might offend some people is hardly controversial. It is also important to look at the Muslim response to the cartoons in its proper context, and that side has far fewer defenders in the “Western world.” It is by now common knowledge that pictorial representation of Muhammad and his disciples is haram, or forbidden. It doesn’t matter why, or whether it’s “normal” (there are plenty of aspects of Christianity, such as the Trinity or the communion rite, that baffle non-believers). It is sufficient to know that it is so. This religious stricture, however, is only part of the story. The outrage over the Muhammad cartoons cannot be appropriately discussed without dealing with certain realities of European society.

Europe is notoriously hostile to immigrants, and to none more so than Muslims. Xenophobia and Islamophobia are far stronger forces in Western Europe than they are here in the United States and, in Europe the Muslim populations are generally far larger, and much poorer, than they are in the US. (Of course, the problem of Islamic extremism is also a far bigger problem in Europe on a day-to-day basis, as the Dutch experience has shown.) Taken in this context, many Muslims saw the cartoons not only as a desecration of their prophet, but as a concrete and blatant expression of European hostility toward Muslims in general—a hostility that many Muslims have direct or indirect experience with. The glee with which other European newspapers have reprinted the cartoons to “show solidarity” with the ideal of free expression does little to quell these suspicions.

This is a contentious debate to being with. Add in the religious extremists who are always ready to hijack Islam to further their own bloody ends and you have the recipe for disaster. Again, there is no excuse for violence and mayhem because of cartoons (or any other form of expression, for that matter), no matter how offensive they might be to certain segments of the population. There is also no reason that outrage should not be expressed in the form of angry letters to the editor, protests and boycotts. This is also freedom of speech and it is inalienable.

The sad fact of the matter is that the cartoons, and the European response, appears to pander to the lowest common denominator – both in Muslim societies and in their own. The whole European response to the controversy appears to be designed to prove a point about Islam: that it is incompatible with Western ideals of freedom. Unfortunately for the vast majority of peaceful Muslims, there are all too many Muslim extremists willing to prove just that point. What’s lost in the shuffle is a commitment to civil society that should be at the center of any enlightened nation.

In an article defending free speech in no uncertain terms (and defending the right to mock religion), Christopher Hitchens takes the State Department to task for issuing a statement calling anti-religious images “unacceptable.” How, he wonders, could the home of the First Amendment release such a statement? And how could this administration in particular give credence to people who would hijack Islam for political gain – the very people they are at war with in Iraq?

Of course there are many millions of Muslims who do worry about [having their religion hijacked], and another reason for condemning the idiots at Foggy Bottom is their assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people. There’s an insult to Islam, if you like.

The solution is not to tell press to “watch what they say.” Never. There can never be this kind of capitulation to intolerance. But it is vital to remember that those who speak first and speak loudest, no matter what side they’re on, don’t necessarily speak the public will. One firebomb, sadly, speaks louder than a thousand voices, but it does not speak the truth.

Originally published as The Pen vs. the Sword

(parenthetical remarks)

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  • Well Pete Blackwell, freedom of speech is freedom of speech. It does not matter what the European situation is or anything else. You either respect it, especially when it is pushing the boundaries of “good taste” politicallly, culturally, or in a religious context or you don’t. The only times it really matters is when it is on, or exceeds, the boundaries of appropriateness, like this. And as to the question of clash of cultures, I think that is what we have. On the one side is a totalitarian, dictatorial, close minded, sexist, religion vs. a culture that attempts to respect an individual’s right to free speech, expression and life style, which includes making fun of other people.(Sticks and stones may break my bones…..) Your argument is not too clear to me, what is the point? Are you saying that we should all be more considerate and thoughtful? The cartoonists were making fun of a religion. Many cartoonists make fun of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. Some of them made a few cartoons about Islam and the place goes nuts. The moderate Muslims have to stop this or they will all eventually suffer the consequences. I doubt that ultimately we will be forbidden to make fun of Muslims. One of the most important things about cartoons, comedy and satire is to do the things that you aren’t supposed to do, like make fun of religion, or sex, or Presidents, or dumb blondes, or Poles, or red-necks, or liberals, or whatever. This is an either/or situation. You either believe in free speech, with all its warts, or you don’t. They don’t.

  • Cynthia Gutteridge

    If only the world would realize what the terrorist are trying to do.This is not a war against USA.This people are against humanity PERIOD.What people think is a war for freedom at this point is wrong,this is a religious war.Everything is written in the bible;I urge every one of you to get close to God in this End of Times.God bless you

  • Thanks for the review. Indeed this is a storm over a “few cartoons”

  • Chip, your comment is banal. Of course you either believe in free speech or you don’t (I obviously do). As I’m sure you are well aware, most Americans when polled consistently say there should be limits to free speech. But you don’t consider Americans to be anti-free speech, do you?

    However, you quite easily paint over one billion people as part of “a totalitarian, dictatorial, close minded, sexist religion” and assume that Muslims speak in a single voice on this subject. Perhaps you didn’t get the point of my article because you didn’t read it?

    This unfortunate issue is being used as a smokescreen by bigots and extremists on both sides. People like you.

  • anders

    God does not exist.

    Legally speaking. No courts in any advanced and civilized society base their rulings on the pretense that god exists.
    God is a personal matter. No science has ever proved that any god exists.

    All major religions try to influence and/or dictate rules and laws in the societies in which they exists.

    Alas they become a political actor and therfore part of the democratic and political proces.

    It is perfectly acceptable and witin all moral and ethical standards to make satire and even ridicule your opponents in politics. In the world of free speech, that is. Thats democracy in its essence.

    Muhammed and islam has very strong opinions and taboos that might offend, and threaten a lot of people in the west.

    Homosexuals just being a very obvious group, htat has no reasons to respect muhammed or islam. They would even have the moral and legal right to attack islam verbally for discrimination. Western women has a lot to take offence from in islam. There are lots of people that have justified issues with islam and muhammed. But muslims extremists has instilled a fear and angst in most of its adversraies. Only the very brave critise islam. Ayan Hirsii Ali and van Gogh PBOH……..and Denmark

    The shariah is probably disgusting for most westerners, to say the least. Why do muslims expect respect as a natural thing. Their religions teachings offend a lot of people.

    Muslims most realize that it is a democratic right to be critical and question institutionalized religion in any form. Islam and the prophet, alleged prophet, that is, included.

    Many european contries are operating with the shariah in their dealings with muslims. It is used in civil lawsuits and in divorce matters. It has an impact in most schoolsystems. The food must be halal. Boy and girls can no longer have PT or swim togehter. Sex education is taken of the agendea. Muslim parent get permission to exempt their children from learning about other religions so they can respect them.

    Europe has probably reached their limitations as to their acceptance of islams impact on daily life. Many people live in fear of Islamic terrorists striking again. They are amazed that muslimss rage over some primitive drawings that proved to right on point.

    When brits gets ripped apart in a bus or the tube….well muslims shrug their shoulders and say well the west are ourselves guilty by association. I have never seen arab protests for any terror deed done by muslims in the name of their holy and peaceful prophet.

    How many terrorists are screaming Jesus is great when they kill in his name.

    If muslims want to live in europe then they should accept that people have a right to have an opinion of their faith and everything else.

    If muslims expects submissiom from europe then they are in for a very nasty and evil fight. Freedom of speach may be one thing that a lot of europeans actually are willing to die in defense of. The danes wont give an inch. No matter how violent and deadly the blackmail gets from the muslims.

  • God does not exist.

    You bring up an interesting point.

    What should be more offensive to Islam?

    1. Denying the very existence of Allah

    2. Drawing a cartoon of Mohammed

  • gracefulboomer

    I feel sorry for the Danes. Arab hackers are attacking their web sites.
    Disgusting, the Islamists are putting up ‘how-to’ detailed instructions on what sites show Danish origin point and how to attack-hack which looks much like instructions for bomb making.
    Same rhetoric..

    The murder of Van Gogh and now this..

  • john

    Well the arabs talk about conspiracy. I wonder why they wont comment on the three false cartoons that depicted the prophet as a “pigman”, a pedophile and having intercourse with a dog.

    The pigman has proved to be a picture of a french comedian in a competition about who could make pigsounds most realistically.

    How can anybody, but stupid lying immams with war on the agenda do so. They even call themselves for danes.

    All the bullshit about islamic sensitivities is an outrageous lie constructed to justify riots aimed at changing muslims position in the west.

    They want to have special rules because islam is supposed above all others. [Deleted]

    If muhammed is a peaceful prophet how come his followers are mostly violent and completly insensitive to others beliefs. Atheists included.

  • anders

    I have been thinking about blasphemy.

    What is it really …………..?

    If I were a Christian, I guess that I would find that muhammed was making blasphemy about my faith, by claiming, that he had the latest news from my god.

    If more than one religion exist in a society, which one should then have the right to define blasphemy. The minority religion ?

    Muslims must accept that other can take offence from their religious standpoint. Just as they themselves take offense towards democratic values.

    Maybe in the future muslims will reflect upon present events and conclude that it was the arab worlds first lesson in real democracy.

    The satelitenews and the internet has admitted the arab world into earth democracy. They are immature but maybe in 700 years they will respect other existential stanpoints and opinions.

    I do have the right to consider islam and christianity as ridicolous and primitive on par with santaclaus and animists. Especially since both religions have waged wars and indoctrination, causing millions of dead people. I find them appalling and disgusting in their selfrightness.

  • khatera

    Many of the people that have posted comments on this board stereotype the muslim population as terrorits and against western ideas. They also make the assumption that the teachings of Muhammed and Islam are violent and go against the idea’s of a free society, but none of these people have given any information as to how they came about this assumption. I mean have they researched Islam and the teaching of Muhammed? Have they read the Quran? Do you have muslim friends/coworkers/neighbors that are terrorists? I believe that one should first seek to understand then to be understood.

    I don’t agree with the small fraction of the muslim community that are exemplifying the very criticism that the cartoons were making of. But it seems to me that the people that have posted the messages on this board are also being hypocritical. How can you criticies one group of people for their hatered, when you yourself are posting hurtfull slander and ensuing more hatred?

    I am also not against free speech, but I do feel there was a better way to go about critizing the extermist muslims without offending the billions of other muslims that don’t think about hijacking planes during their lunch break. Denmark would probably not be in so much hot water with the rest of the muslim community if it had simply choosen a different figure…lets say a notorious terrorist like Osama Bin Laden…in their cartoons.
    that way we are all happy. well except the extremest muslims, but lets face it they are never going to be happy. i think some one should tell them about prozac.

  • Muhammad Rahim

    “If muhammed is a peaceful prophet how come his followers are mostly violent and completly insensitive to others beliefs. Atheists included.”

    If Jesus was a holy man, why are his catholic priest unholy sodomizing little boys?

    Stop blaming prophets and messengers for the evil actions of the people that claim to follow them. Jesus IS holy and Muhammad IS peaceful. Jesus is not responsible for the child molesting catolic priest no more than Muhammad is for the terrorist that profess Islam.

    I hope that answers your question.

  • Muhammad IS peaceful

    No. Mohammed was one of the most bloodthirsty, genocidal military men who ever lived on this earth.

  • Muhammad Rahim

    khatera: “Denmark would probably not be in so much hot water with the rest of the muslim community if it had simply choosen a different figure…lets say a notorious terrorist like Osama Bin Laden…in their cartoons”

    You are absolutely right. that’s my point. the violent protest is wrong no doubt…..

    But the pain of the Muslim world is because of the incorrect and insulting portrayal of the Prophet. He was not a terrorist not more the Jesus was a sexual pervert. But many of their so-called followers are!

    But as Muslims, we respect ALL messengers of God, so whatever offensive material you find in the arab press (which is also WRONG), I bet you won’t find insulting images of Jesus, Moses or other prophets…….. I don’t read arabic, so if you prove me wrong…….please show it to me.


  • Muhammad Rahim

    “No. Mohammed was one of the most bloodthirsty, genocidal military men who ever lived on this earth.”

    If thats true, then he’s right up there with every US president including Dumb-Boy Bush. and every European leader!………hahaha

  • Muhammad Rahim

    How much blood will Jesus Christ spill on his return?

    Read the Bible…….. it’s in there.


  • khatera

    yeah and i believe the spanish inquisition was also done in the name of chirsitanity and they used the bible in the south to defend the practice of slavery. just because a person uses a religion to support their cause, u shouldn’t blame the religion unless it clrealy says “kill everyone and be eveil”, u should blame the person’s interpurtation of the religion.

  • There’s something very interesting going on here. If I can use names as an indication, it is the Muslims who are being reasonable and ecumenical while the non-Muslims are making grand, intolerant statements.
    Yet the argument is that the “West” is superior while the Muslims are the intolerant ones. Is there a lesson in here somewhere?

  • Thanks for the piece. I’ve linked back to you.

  • Thanks, Kathy!

  • I find negative depictions of Santa to be a defilement of a holy figure. I think I’ll riot.


  • Incisive defense of a Turkish saint, Dave. One question: What’s the difference between rioting alone and just being an asshole?

  • When I riot alone I carry a sign. When I’m just being an asshole it’s mostly verbal.


  • What will your sign say?

  • Nancy

    Actually, taking him in the context of his times, Mohammad was an unusually patient, forgiving, & un-bloody person. After years of persecution & actual hostilities against him & his followers by the residents of Mecca, when he was finally in a position to slaughter all of them down to the last one, he not only forgave them, but re-instituted them to full status as fellow citizens of Mecca instead of consigning them all to slavery or worse. Even the most biased histories agree that he fought only when he was attacked or betrayed first by others, and then he refused to take his lawful revenge when he’d won. No, Mohammad wasn’t as passively-resistant and peaceful as Jesus was, but he was (and still would be, were he still here and in a position of leadership) an outstandingly peaceful, equitable person, like Gandhi at the least. He certainly deserves better than he’s gotten at the hands of the West & the RC church over the centuries. I’m no expert on the Qu’ran, so I can’t explain some of the Surahs that seem to incite violence, etc., but I can say from familiarity with the entire Qu’ran & some of the Hadith (anecdotes concerning Mohammad’s behavior & words) that they certainly are NOT consistent with Mohammad’s actual behavior & commands to his followers regarding their interactions with others.

    Too many Westerners trash Mohammad, but know almost zilch about him. Read some of the good bios first. There’s a list on ‘About.com’ under ‘Mohammad’.

  • and

    jesus and mohammed are just people…..not prophets………

    God does not exist…..Do you understand…..It is fantasy and chemicals…….

    do you also belive in santaclaus…..you should respect him as jesus and mohammed……….

    And the animists shall have respect…….

  • fuck the muslims

  • All of them? That’s ambitious, even for a Viking…