Thursday, February 2, 2006

No Surprises

We took the position earlier today that European papers were, on balance, wrong to publish caricatures of Mohammed which, though perhaps quite mild in the eyes of a Western observer, were nevertheless sufficiently inflammatory to offend the religious sensibilities of millions of Muslims. We argued that as Christians we certainly wouldn't want Christ to be the object of caricature in the major press organs of the world, and we are therefore enjoined by Jesus' command to "do unto others as we would be done by" to refrain from needless ridicule of that which others hold sacred.

Having said that, we have to add that the violent reaction to this perceived affront by Muslims around the world is the very reason their religion is held in such low esteem by outsiders. Rather than rely upon the levers of peaceful protest, a form of pressure apparently unknown in the Islamic world, today's news is full of threats of murder and kidnappings of innocent Europeans. Unable to comprehend the concepts of separation of church and state and freedom of the press, Muslims everywhere are holding the governments and businesses of the countries in which the cartoons were published responsible for what their newspapers printed.

So, the European media acted with contempt for the religious convictions of members of a major world religion, and Muslims in turn responded like thugs and savages. We can't say that either is a surprise.

Meanwhile, American networks, out of respect for Muslims, they assure us, have chosen not to air the cartoons. As Michelle Malkin observes, it's a pity that the nets don't show the same solicitous concern for the sensibilities of Christians. Michelle convincingly catalogs the hypocrisy of their rationale which is really just a cover for cowardice.

No surprise here, either.

Hurt Feelings Among the Muslims

European newspapers, in a rare display of Euro-kidney, are running the cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad that have infuriated many Muslims around the world. The papers are doing it, they say, because they want to establish that they will not be intimidated by those who seek to censor the press through threats and intimidation:

PARIS - French and German newspapers on Wednesday republished caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that have riled the Muslim world, saying democratic freedoms include the "right to blasphemy." The front page of the daily France Soir carried the headline "Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God" along with a cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud. Inside, the paper reran the drawings.

"The appearance of the 12 drawings in the Danish press provoked emotions in the Muslim world because the representation of Allah and his prophet is forbidden. But because no religious dogma can impose itself on a democratic and secular society, France Soir is publishing the incriminating caricatures," the paper said.

Germany's Die Welt daily printed one of the drawings on its front page, arguing that a "right to blasphemy" was anchored in democratic freedoms. The Berliner Zeitung daily also printed two of the caricatures as part of its coverage of the controversy. The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten originally published the cartoons in September after asking artists to depict Islam's prophet to challenge what it perceived was self-censorship among artists dealing with Islamic issues. A Norwegian newspaper reprinted the images this month.

The depictions include an image of Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, and another portraying him holding a sword, his eyes covered by a black rectangle. Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet to prevent idolatry.

Angered by the drawings, masked Palestinian gunmen briefly took over a European Union office in Gaza on Monday. Syria called for the offenders to be punished. Danish goods were swept from shelves in many countries, and Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their ambassadors to Denmark.

The Jyllands-Posten - which received a bomb threat over the drawings - has apologized for hurting Muslims' feelings but not for publishing the cartoons. Its editor said Wednesday, however, that he would not have printed the drawings had he foreseen the consequences.

Carsten Juste also said the international furor amounted to a victory for opponents of free expression. "Those who have won are dictatorships in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, where they cut criminals' hands and give women no rights," Juste told The Associated Press. "The dark dictatorships have won."

Demonstrations and condemnations across the Muslim world continued. The Supreme Council of Moroccan religious leaders denounced the drawings on Wednesday. "Muslim beliefs cannot tolerate such an attack, however small it may be," the statement said. In Turkey, dozens of protesters from a small Islamic party staged a demonstration in front of the Danish Embassy.

Despite the show of solidarity among Europe's newspaper editors, not all Europeans appreciated the drawings. Norway's deputy state secretary for foreign affairs, Raymond Johansen, said they encourage distrust between people of different faiths. "I can understand that Muslims find the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the Norwegian weekly ... to be offensive. This is unfortunate and regrettable," Johansen said on a visit to Beirut. There was also anger in France, which has Western Europe's largest Muslim community with an estimated 5 million people.

Mohammed Bechari, president of the National Federation of the Muslims of France, said his group would start legal proceedings against France Soir because of "these pictures that have disturbed us, and that are still hurting the feelings of 1.2 billion Muslims." French government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope struck a neutral tone, saying France is "a country that is attached to the principle of secularism, and this freedom clearly should be exercised in a spirit of tolerance and respect for the beliefs of everyone."

French theologian Sohaib Bencheikh spoke out against the pictures in a column in France Soir accompanying them Wednesday. "One must find the borders between freedom of expression and freedom to protect the sacred," he wrote. "Unfortunately, the West has lost its sense of the sacred."

This episode does raise difficulties. The Muslim belief that any depiction of the Prophet constitutes blasphemy is silly, of course, and we're delighted that the papers are willing to stand against the same sort of Islamic thuggery that produced a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Indeed, if Muslims are offended by these cartoons they'd be donning the bomb vests if anyone ever put into their hands an accurate biography of Muhammad.

Nevertheless, not all Muslims are homicidal extremists, and it is the sincere belief of many among the saner sort that Muhammad was a prophet of God. If Christians don't wish to have their own revered figures caricatured in the secular press, they certainly shouldn't support the caricaturization of other peoples' icons. That is, after all, the point of the Golden Rule.

We agree that newspapers should have the freedom to express ideas that some will find offensive, but the right to publish offensive ideas should entail an obligation to the public not to publish those ideas in an offensive manner. A paper, for example, can advertise toilet tissue without running photographs of the product being employed. A man's free speech doesn't mean that his public use of vulgar language should not be rebuked.

We admit sympathy with the Europeans' wish to stand against, rather than truckle to, those Muslims who seek to impose their intolerant and archaic religious views on the rest of the world, but we're reluctantly reluctant to applaud the means they've chosen to do it. We demur not because we think Muhammad deserves the reverence Muslims heap upon him but because if it's Muhammad who is being skewered and mocked today, it'll surely be Jesus Christ tomorrow. If we don't want the latter, and we don't, then we can't countenance the former, as much as we'd like to.

By the way, the offending cartoons can be seen here. According to Michelle Malkin, who supports the cartoons' thumb in the Muslim eye, pressure is building to run them in the U.S.