A controversy is growing in Europe over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and I imagine it could spill over into America soon. It begins with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which ran a series of cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad this fall, protesting self-censorship and celebrating free speech. Illustrating or imagining Muhammad’s physical appearance is a major taboo in Muslim culture. The images erupted in a wave of controversy throughout the country. The issue became larger this week when a French paper republished them, followed by other European news outlets, as a sign of solidarity with the right to free speech. Tonight there are protests and riots erupting throughout Europe and the Middle East in response to the cartoons.
The Jyllands-Posten and the other publications are correct in asserting that the freedom of speech entitles them the right to publish these images. With great power comes great responsibility though, and it is on the second half of this equation where the papers fail. Imagine if the NY Times organized a public flag-burning ceremony as an expression of their freedom of speech. They would be within their rights to do so, but it would be beyond poor taste. Even more disappointing is the fact that many of these pictures were filled with hateful stereotypes like suicide bombers or covered women.
I will note that at this point, news organizations choosing to republish these images is somewhat more justified. The initial republications were done intentionally as an opinion piece celebrating free speech. The French paper printed it with a caption “Yes, we have the right to caricature God.᾿ However, if an organization prints the pictures now simply because the images themselves have become news, that is more acceptable. It is for that reason I will link to a Wikipedia entry with the pictures, for those who are curious. It is regrettable that in the act of doing this, the editor of a Jordanian newspaper was fired.
Almost a year ago today I wrote about the nature of free speech and this is clearly disappointing to see it at its worst on display today. I am actually ashamed of my Western culture and values. That’s not to say I don’t agree with free speech – it is something I believe strongly in. It is just disturbing that people are using it as an excuse to publicly ridicule a religion. I encourage those who are feeling angry and frustrated about these cartoons to use free speech, not violence, right back at those who support these cartoons. Here’s a start – a cartoon from Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj, by way of Naseem.