That demagogues and agitators are exploiting those cartoons of Mohammed to advance a war of civilizations and expel Europeans from the Middle East seems undeniable.
But that does not excuse the paralyzing stupidity of that Danish paper in running those cartoons — or the arrogant irresponsibility of European newspapers in plastering those cartoons all over their front pages.
The storm first broke last September, when Jyllands-Posten published 12 caricatures of Mohammed, including a lampoon of the Prophet with a terrorist bomb as a turban. In the Islamic faith, any depiction of the face of Mohammed is forbidden.
The Danish paper knew this. It published the cartoons to protest "the rejection of modern, secular society" by Muslims. The cartoons were thus a defiant provocation. And they succeeded.
The Middle East responded with a boycott of Danish foods and goods. But when, in the name of press solidarity, Le Soir and Le Monde in Paris, El Pais in Madrid and Die Welt in Berlin republished the cartoons on page one, Islam exploded. For this was an in-your-face declaration by the secularist media of the European Union that it will exercise its right to insult any God, any Prophet, any faith, whenever it so chooses.
"Enough lessons from these reactionary bigots," said Serge Faubert, editor of Le Soir. "Just because the Quran bans images of Mohammed doesn’t mean non-Muslims have to submit to this."
Faubert, however, is not a Danish soldier in the Shi’ite sector of Iraq. Innocents will pay the price of his heroism.
The U.S. State Department seemed to empathize with Muslim rage, stating that "inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is unacceptable." But, within hours, State had retreated to neutral ground: "While we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images, we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view."
As of today the Danish consulate in Beirut has been burned, Danish embassies have been stormed, and Danes are fleeing the Middle East. Europeans are getting out of the West Bank, Gaza and Beirut, where mobs are attacking embassies and Christian churches.
Islamic countries have recalled ambassadors from Copenhagen. People have been injured and property destroyed in mob assaults as far away as Indonesia. Relations between the West and the Islamic world have been dealt another rupturing blow.
And for what? What was the purpose of this juvenile idiocy by the Europress? Is this what freedom of the press is all about — the freedom to insult the faith of a billion people and start a religious war?
Can Europeans be that ignorant of the power of the press to inflame when Bismarck’s editing of just a few words in the Ems telegram ignited the Franco-Prussian war? Did Europeans learn nothing from the Salman Rushdie episode? Or the firestorm that gripped the Islamic world when Christian ministers in the United States called Mohammed a "terrorist"?
European governments are wringing their hands over the rage and violence unleashed, but they seem paralyzed. What is the matter? Why cannot they denounce press irresponsibility while defending press freedom? Even friends of the West like Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey have denounced these cartoons as insults to Islamic values and deeply damaging to Western interests.
British Foreign Minister Jack Straw deplored republication of the cartoons as "insensitive … disrespectful … wrong." But German Interior Minister Wolfgang Shauble haughtily dissented, "Here, in Europe, governments have nothing to say about which publisher publishes what."
What hypocrisy. When it comes to what Germans are most sensitive about, Hitler and the Holocaust, they are ruthless censors. British historian David Irving has spent three months in a Viennese prison awaiting trial on Feb. 20 for speeches he made 15 years ago in Austria. Skeptics and deniers of the Holocaust are prosecuted, fined and imprisoned in Europe with the enthusiastic endorsement of the European press.
Nor are we all that different. Sen. Trent Lott was ousted as majority leader for a birthday-party compliment to 100-year-old Strom Thurmond. Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker was almost lynched for saying he considers New York a social pigsty. There were demands that Rocker undergo psychiatric counseling.
We have "speech codes" in colleges and "hate crimes" laws to protect minorities from abusive remarks. But newspapers that hail these codes throw a blanket of "artistic freedom" over scatological art that degrades religious symbols — from putting a figure of Christ in a jar of urine to a "painting" of the Virgin Mary surrounded by female genitalia and elephant dung that hung in a Brooklyn museum.
What has happened in Europe is that the secular press, which loves to mock the beliefs and symbols of religious faith, has now insulted a deadly serious religion that answers insults with action.