Muslim rage over cartoons of Muhammad published in early October in a Danish newspaper continues to grow worldwide. (See the images below.) These cartoons are less offensive than what is routinely printed in every American newspaper about politicians. Yet rage over them keeps growing:
• Gaza: On Monday, gunmen seized an EU office, demanding apologies from Denmark and Norway (where another publication later reprinted the cartoons). On Tuesday, demonstrators chanted “War on Denmark, death to Denmark” as they burned Danish flags.
• Arab interior ministers declared: “We ask the Danish authorities to take the necessary measures to punish those responsible for this harm and to take action to avoid a repeat.”
• Libya and Saudi Arabia recalled their ambassadors from Copenhagen, while in Saudi Arabia, a mob beat two employees of the Danish corporation Arla Foods, which has been subjected to a crippling boycott throughout the Islamic world — a boycott that has been endorsed by, among others, the Sudanese Defense Minister.
Even Bill Clinton has decried “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam” and huffing self-righteously: “So now what are we going to do? … Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?” Of course not. The cartoons are not a manifestation of anti-Islamic prejudice: criticism of Muhammad or even of Islam is not equivalent to anti-Semitism. Islam is not a race; the problems with it are not the product of fear mongering and fiction, but of ideology and facts — facts that have been stressed repeatedly by Muslims around the world, when they commit violence in the name of Islam and justify that violence by its teachings. Noting that there is a connection between the teachings of Muhammad and Islamic violence is simply to manifest an awareness of what has been repeatedly asserted by bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi, and so many others. Do all these men misunderstand and misrepresent the teachings of Muhammad and Islam? This question, as crucial as it is, is irrelevant here. The fact is, these and other jihad terrorists claim Muhammad’s example and words as their inspiration. Some of the cartoons call attention to that fact.
Ultimately, then, the cartoon controversy is a question of free speech. Freedom of speech encompasses precisely the freedom to ridicule and offend. The instant that any ideology is considered off-limits for critical examination and even ridicule, freedom of speech has been replaced by an ideological straitjacket. Westerners seem to grasp this when it comes to affronts to Christianity, even when they are as offensive as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s dung- and pornography-encrusted Holy Virgin Mary. But the same clarity doesn’t seem to extend to an Islamic context.
Yet that’s where it is needed most. The cartoon controversy is an increasingly serious challenge to Western notions of pluralism and freedom of speech. The Danes have already begun to apologize. But so far both the newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the Prime Minister have limited themselves to saying essentially that they are sorry if Muslims took offense, and that none was intended. If they go farther and “punish those responsible,” as the Arab Interior Ministers demanded, or treat the cartoons as a human rights violation, as a Belgian imam demanded, they will be acknowledging that lampooning Muhammad and criticizing Islam is somehow wrong in itself. Such a notion is just as dangerous for a free society as the idea that the Beloved Leader or dialectical materialism is above criticism.
To take such offense, to withdraw ambassadors and call for boycotts, and above all to attack innocent people because of some cartoons is not a reaction to prejudice. It is madness. It should be denounced as madness. The fact that Bill Clinton is the only American politician who has taken notice of this ongoing controversy, and that on the wrong side, is a travesty.
The free world should be standing resolutely with Denmark, ready to defend freedom of speech. Insofar as it is not defended, it will surely be lost.
Below are the cartoons published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. Click each image to enlarge.