THE DANISH DOZEN & FREEDOM OF
EXPRESSION IN THE PRESS
On September 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, the largest in the country, published 12 drawings by cartoonists who had been invited by the newspaper to depict the Prophet Muhammad. The drawings caused little disruption at first, but over the ensuing months, various Islamic political agendas took over, and to advance these causes, Muslims worldwide were encouraged to protest by rampaging in the streets. In January and February 2006, they did just that. They also burned embassies and the flags of other nations, and they accidentally killed people, about 130. Muslim countries boycotted Danish products, and in Pakistan, some devout soul offered a reward of 500,000 rupees ($8,333) to anyone who killed the errant cartoonists; by then, fearing for their lives, all twelve had gone into hiding in their native land. All of which provoked discussion everywhere. At issue, seemingly, was freedom of expression and the press, a Western article of faith. Should the cartoons have been published? Where does editorial good taste impinge upon freedom of the press—and should it? What follows here are excerpts from various pieces I wrote in Rants & Raves during the time that the events were transpiring. (Ops. 178 and 179 trace events as they developed; Ops. 183 and 184 focus more on freedom of expression issues.) We begin with Flemming Rose, who started the whole thing in order to provoke discussion about journalistic timidity in the face of Muslim intimidation.
Why I Published Those Cartoons
By Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, in the Washington Post on Sunday, February 19, 2006:
Childish. Irresponsible. Hate speech. A provocation just for the sake of provocation. A PR stunt. Critics of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad I decided to publish in Jyllands-Posten have not minced their words. They say that freedom of expression does not imply an endorsement of insulting people's religious feelings, and besides, they add, the media censor themselves every day. So, please do not teach us a lesson about limitless freedom of speech.
I agree that the freedom to publish things doesn't mean you publish everything. Jyllands-Posten would not publish pornographic images or graphic details of dead bodies; swear words rarely make it into our pages. So we are not fundamentalists in our support for freedom of expression.
But the cartoon story is different.
Those examples have to do with exercising restraint because of ethical standards and taste; call it editing. By contrast, I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn't to provoke gratuitously—and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.
At the end of September, a Danish standup comedian said in an interview with Jyllands-Posten that he had no problem urinating on the Bible in front of a camera, but he dared not do the same thing with the Koran.
This was the culmination of a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship. Last September, a Danish children's writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship. European translators of a critical book about Islam also did not want their names to appear on the book cover beside the name of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding.
Around the same time, the Tate gallery in London withdrew an installation by the avant-garde artist John Latham depicting the Koran, Bible and Talmud torn to pieces. The museum explained that it did not want to stir things up after the London bombings. (A few months earlier, to avoid offending Muslims, a museum in Goteborg, Sweden, had removed a painting with a sexual motif and a quotation from the Koran.)
Finally, at the end of September, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with a group of imams, one of whom called on the prime minister to interfere with the press in order to get more positive coverage of Islam.
So, over two weeks we witnessed a half-dozen cases of self-censorship, pitting freedom of speech against the fear of confronting issues about Islam. This was a legitimate news story to cover, and Jyllands-Posten decided to do it by adopting the well-known journalistic principle: show, don't tell. I wrote to members of the association of Danish cartoonists asking them "to draw Muhammad as you see him." We certainly did not ask them to make fun of the Prophet. Twelve out of 25 active members responded.
We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: we are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.
The cartoons do not in any way demonize or stereotype Muslims. In fact, they differ from one another both in the way they depict the Prophet and in whom they target. One cartoon makes fun of Jyllands-Posten, portraying its cultural editors as a bunch of reactionary provocateurs. Another suggests that the children's writer who could not find an illustrator for his book went public just to get cheap publicity. A third puts the head of the anti-immigration Danish People's Party in a lineup, as if she is a suspected criminal.
One cartoon—depicting the Prophet with a bomb in his turban—has drawn the harshest criticism. Angry voices claim the cartoon is saying that the Prophet is a terrorist or that every Muslim is a terrorist. I read it differently: some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the Prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name. The cartoon also plays into the fairy tale about Aladdin and the orange that fell into his turban and made his fortune. This suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the Prophet.
On occasion, Jyllands-Posten has refused to print satirical cartoons of Jesus, but not because it applies a double standard. In fact, the same cartoonist who drew the image of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban drew a cartoon with Jesus on the cross having dollar notes in his eyes and another with the star of David attached to a bomb fuse. There were, however, no embassy burnings or death threats when we published those.
Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn't intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.
This is exactly why Karl Popper, in his seminal work The Open Society and Its Enemies, insisted that one should not be tolerant with the intolerant. Nowhere do so many religions coexist peacefully as in a democracy where freedom of expression is a fundamental right. In Saudi Arabia, you can get arrested for wearing a cross or having a Bible in your suitcase, while Muslims in secular Denmark can have their own mosques, cemeteries, schools, tv and radio stations.
The Tinder in the Muslim World: Cartoons Were Merely the Excuse
Back to the Rant of RCH
I’m tempted to say, rubbing my hands in smug satisfaction, that the international furor over the Danish Dozen is vivid testimony to the power of cartoons. Tempting as it is to celebrate the medium, the cartoons were not the authentic cause of all the turmoil. They were just the match, struck too near the tinder of a Muslim world rife with resentment and riddled with marauding bands of incendiary political hooligans, looking for opportunities to advance their agendas.
While Westerners may not, given their heritage, ever fully grasp the reasons for the Islamic rage, we may approach an understanding by remembering two things about the Muslim world. First, the popular Western notion of Islam as unsophisticated and anti-intellectual is not only wrong-headed but historically inaccurate. As Charles Kimball points out in his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, “when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Islamic civilization was thriving from Spain to India. For several centuries Muslims led the world in areas such as mathematics, chemistry, medicine, philosophy, navigation, architecture, horticulture, and astronomy.” Then, as Kimball puts it, “something went wrong. From the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries most of the lands with a Muslim majority fell under the control of outside powers,” and the vitality of the Islamic civilization ebbed away. Today, throughout the Muslim world, the followers of Muhammad are baffled by this fall from influence and hope for its return.
The second cause of the resentment is rooted in the fundamentally different emphasis in the value systems of the two cultural traditions. In the West, “freedom” is the most powerful orienting principle. Anything that fosters freedom is valued; everything that threatens it is condemned. In the Muslim world, “virtue” is the parallel value. To the Muslim, the freedoms of the West seem licentiousness, and they therefore threaten the virtue of his world and must be condemned and rejected in the most strenuous way.
Complicating this polarization is the steady influx into European countries of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and Asia, creating in every country a large minority population determined to remain outside the cultural mainstream of those countries. Islam is now Europe’s fastest growing religion, the second largest in most European countries. Molly Moore of the Washington Post Foreign Service notes that “many of Western Europe’s estimated 15 million Muslims feel alienated by cultural barriers and job discrimination and stigmatized by anti-immigration movements and anti-terrorism laws that they believe unfairly target members of their faith.” All of that constitutes a tinder box waiting to ignite, and into that inflammatory vicinity came the largest daily newspaper in Denmark, the conservative Jyllands-Posten, whose culture editor had a point he thought needed making.
The Issues Summarized and Reiterated
To the instances of Muslim intimidation that prompted his action, Flemming Rose could have mentioned the 1989 death threat against writer Salman Rushdie for his portrayal of Muhammad in his novel, The Satanic Verses. His Japanese and Italian translators were stabbed, the former, fatally; and his Norwegian publisher shot. And then there was the murder a year or so ago of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, killed by an Islamic fundamentalist for harshly criticizing fundamentalism.
“To me,” as Rose put it, “all those spoke to the problems of self-censorship and freedom of speech, and that’s why I wrote to 40 Danish cartoonists asking them to depict Muhammad as they see him. Some of the cartoons turned out to be caricatures because this is just in the Danish tradition. We make fun of the Queen, we make fun of politicians, we make fun of more or less everything. Of course, we didn’t expect this kind of [violent world-wide] reaction, but I am sorry if some Muslims feel insulted. This was not directed at Muslims. I wanted to put this issue of self-censorship on the agenda and have a debate about it.”
Self-censorship is as inhibiting to free speech as official censorship, and Rose wanted “to examine whether people would succumb to self-censorship as we have seen in other cases when it comes to Muslim issues.” The debate Rose hoped to start would, pretty clearly, involve protesting the climate of intimidation surrounding Islamic concerns. At first blush, it would appear that the device Rose chose to inaugurate the debate proved so incendiary that discussion was impossible.
In picturing Islam’s revered Prophet, the 12 cartoonists who responded to Rose’s call did exactly what they should do if their object was to inflame the Muslim population. The traditions in some corners of Islam prohibit artistic representations of any of the prophets—whether Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, or Abraham. In some of the strictest branches of Islam, not even the human form can be depicted. Such images, particularly of the prophets, could lead to idolatry, which is specifically prohibited in the Koran. Islamic tradition on the matter, however, is not as iron-clad as those who protested the cartoons would have us believe. Muhammad has appeared through the centuries in hundreds of paintings, drawings and other imagery both in the West and in Islamic countries without a word of complaint in the Muslim world. Images of Muhammad and other sacred persons similar to Orthodox Christian icons are commonplace in Shi’ite communities, particularly in Iran, according to a blogger named Soj, who went on to say “there are also Muslim works of art depicting Muhammad in Central Asia, and neither these nor those in Iran are considered inflammatory.” Nor are they censored. Perhaps the current outrage arises, as much as anything, from the fact that the Danish Dozen are cartoons, cartoons traditionally being comical and instruments of ridicule. Anything “cartooned” is therefore belittled, diminished. In the case of the Prophet, a highly blasphemous act. But, said Soj, unflattering pictures of the Prophet have appeared in the West for years, beginning with Christian churches and illustrations for Dante’s Inferno and culminating with derogatory images in tv’s “South Park.” And yet, “there’s been no rioting, storming of embassies or CNN coverage.”
When Does A Cartoon Undermine Its Purpose?
I support the freedom of the press to publish cartoons, regardless of their import. The press is either free or it isn’t; there aren’t degrees of freedom. The question with respect to the Danish Dozen, however, is: What was the comment that they were making? Was it worth making? The question any editor must ask about a cartoon or prose opinion comment is: Will it provoke thought or mindless outrage based upon a misunderstanding? That, it seems to me, is a legitimate question. If the outcry overshadows the comment, then the cartoon has destroyed itself. Every editorial cartoonist wants to be provocative. But if the provocation diverts attention from the issue being examined, what’s been gained?
Clearly, if a cartoon provokes more hostility than thought, it's crossed the line and defeats its purpose. Few people can think clearly in the white heat of outrage. Cartoonists must have the right to cross the line, no question, and in the case of the Danish Dozen, they clearly did, so was the purpose of publishing the cartoons therefore frustrated? The next question about the Danish Dozen is: What was the issue that the cartoonists addressed? And do the cartoons make insightful comment on the issue? For some of the cartoonists, the purpose was to suggest that terrorists found their actions condoned, even encouraged, in Islam. These cartoons misfired: no one in the aftermath of their publication seemed to be talking about the Islamic roots of terrorist strategies. So at first, I thought the basic objective of the drill had been frustrated, that the message of the cartoons was obliterated by the fuss they incited. Then I changed my mind.
The cartoons that connected terrorism to Muhammad failed, but not all of the cartoons aimed at that target. The reason the Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published the cartoons was to protest a dangerous timidity in the news media that was being promoted through intimidation by Muslim extremists. It would appear that the hostility inspired by the cartoons thwarted their purpose. But as the smoke cleared over the wreckage of Danish embassies in the Muslim world, it seemed that the debate Rose wanted to have was actually occurring on all sides. Feathers were ruffled, feelings hurt, sensitivities ignored, property destroyed, and scores of lives lost, but the conflagration of opinion all around us would seem an unabashed endorsement of the balls-on, all-out, wheels-up, publish-and-be-damned-to-you free speech and unfettered press posture so vividly championed by cartoonist Ted Rall and other firebrands.
Robert Spencer, writing for humaneventsonline.com December 14, noted the wider implications of the disturbance that started in Denmark: “[Freedom of speech] is imperiled internationally more today than it has been in recent memory. As it grows into an international cause celebre, the cartoon controversy indicates the gulf between the Islamic world and the post-Christian West in matters of freedom of speech and expression. And it may yet turn out that as the West continues to pay homage to its idols of tolerance, multiculturalism, and pluralism, it will give up those hard-won freedoms voluntarily.”
Similarly, Joshua Micah Marshall at his blog, TalkingPointsMemo.com, looks stoically, albeit glumly, I think, to an unwelcome future: “There’s something peculiarly 21st century about this conflict—both in the way that it’s rooted in the world of media and also in the way that it shows these two societies or cultures ... can’t interface. The gap is too large. The language too different. One’s coming in at 30 degree angle; the other, at 90. ... Is it just me, or does it seem that more and more often there are public controversies in which ‘blasphemy’ is considered some sort of legitimate cause of action—as if ‘blasphemy’ can actually have any civic meaning in a society like ours. ... An open society, a secular society, can’t exist if mob violence is the cost of giving offense,” he continued. “In any case, there is a hint of the absurd in this story, the way continents of people get swept up in reaction to some simple pictures. But this episode seems like a model for what I imagine we’ll be living with for the rest of our lives.”
To Print Or Not: What, After All, Is the Press Free To Do?
To show support for their Danish conferees and for freedom of the press, several European newspapers reprinted the cartoons, but in the U.S., almost no general circulation newspaper published the cartoons. They ran newsstories about the riots in Arab streets but failed to show their readers what caused all the outrage. Defending this dereliction of journalistic duty, apologists said they were simply trying to be sensitive to Muslim feelings and to show respect for their religion. Nat Hentoff, an incendiary advocate for freedom in all its manifestations, disagreed with this position. “If I were an editor of a newspaper, I would publish the cartoons—within the context of the entire story.” Then he quoted Eric Fettman, on the editorial board of the New York Post: “Showing sudden sensitivity in the face of the murderous mobs ... is to effectively endorse violent intimidation of the press.” Merely describing the cartoons, which some newspapers resorted to, is not enough. Amada Bennett, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, published at least one of the cartoons, citing as journalistic justification a famous photograph taken during the Vietnam War: “Would the words ‘a naked young girl burning with napalm’ have made us understand the horrors of the Vietnam War as completely as Nick Ut’s iconic photo?” As unlikely an ally as William J. Bennett agreed that the cartoons should be published and regretted that they hadn’t been. “Radical Islamists have won a war of intimidation,” he said. “They have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons.”
The contagion of political correctness spread. In May, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the Cavalier Daily was criticized for publishing a cartoon that many students saw as offensive to Hindus. Well, of course: if we can’t offend Muslims, we shouldn’t offend Hindus. Or Buddhists. Or any other religion at all, including Scientology. And whither The Da Vinci Code? Surely it is offending devout Catholics everywhere. Boycott the movie and Tom Hanks’ hair-do. Fortunately for the academic weal at the U. of Virginia, Daniel Colbert, a columnist on the campus paper, saw the issue clearly and wrote about it. Excerpts: “The comic itself may have been offensive,” he wrote. “That is not the issue. Offensive content is a staple of Cavalier Daily cartoons. ... The pattern of offensive comic followed by outrage from a minority group has been constant this year.” He continued (I’ve added boldface to sentences I think are particularly acute): “In light of these episodes, the Managing Board of the Cavalier Daily felt the need to explain the process of approving a questionable comic in the lead editorial this past Monday. The policy that they expounded was both responsible and just. Naturally, the paper will not publish anything false, nor will it publish direct attacks at a specific group for anything other than their opinions or actions. Since the comic is a work of fiction, the first criterion does not apply. Religion, the editorial correctly argued, is an opinion and is open to both criticism and ridicule. This policy rightly errs on the side of freedom, a goal for which the press should strive.
“Critics of ... offensive comics often claim that the cartoons are not even funny. It is as if many believe that an offensive comic is less offensive if it is also funny. It is safe to say, however, that if the Cavalier Daily only printed funny comics, the Comics page would consist most days of a Jumble, crossword puzzle and Sudoku. As Monday's lead editorial stated, the comic artists' sense of humor ‘will always be a mystery.’ Perhaps, following the lead of television shows like ‘South Park’and ‘Family Guy,’ the artists have decided that offensiveness is inherently funny.
“A point central to most of the criticisms is that religious beliefs must be respected. The claim is tied into the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. However, the Constitution does not insist on respect for any religion. It states that the government may not impose religion on its citizens, but it also allows citizens to say whatever they want about the religions of others, including what may be considered heresy. It was intended to allow citizens to
question religious authority without fear, but it reserves no special treatment for minority groups, which is what some are implicitly demanding.
“That the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech does not mean that the Cavalier Daily was required to print the offensive comics, of course, but the paper should not censor their artists or writers based on possible offensiveness. In his letter to the editor printed on April 19 (‘A heretical comic’), Aadit Bimbhet argued that ‘a line must be drawn somewhere.’ Freedom of speech, however, means that no lines are drawn. It is too easy to imagine true political expression being stifled in the name of political correctness to allow for any censorship on those grounds. The Opinion, Life and Comics sections of the Cavalier Daily exist in part to give students something to talk about. If an offensive comic or column serves to spark debate, it can only be viewed as a good thing.”
Here at the Keyboard of the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer, we have a word for this sort of intellectual shenanigan: Bravo. Would that other so-called professional journalists were as professional.
On the other equally reasonable and also admirably pragmatic hand, we have Mahir Ali, an Australian cartoonist writing for Dawn in Pakistan, quoted in Inkspot, newsletter of the Australian Cartoonists’ Association: “European papers contend that re-publican of the cartoons was necessary in order to show their readers what the fuss was all about. But would they have been quite so eager to go down that road had the story—and illustrations—in question related to, say, graphic child pornography or pedophilia? Most probably not. Why? Obviously, in the interests of good taste, and in order not to offend public sensibilities. Does this mean Muslim sensitivities somehow matter less than those of other sections of the public?” The implied answer—Yes—tells us why Muslims were so irate about the Danish Dozen.
Also in Inkspot, Rod Emmerson, political tooner on the New Zealand Herald in Auckland, said: “When I first saw the story some five months ago, it was blatantly obvious that the Danish paper was indulging in some poorly conceived mischief making. ... Papers that jumped onto the Freedom Bus months after the event and published the work looked somewhat ‘hairy-chested’ for no real purpose. No one in this day and age doubts the Freedom of the Press. We cartoonists (from all faiths) tiptoe all over people’s beliefs and sensitivities every day of the week and not everyone laughs, so we go about our work with great skill. But the Danish sortie into this minefield has done untold damage to journalism, and, unfortunately, has proved to be a handle for extremists on both sides to fan the flames.”
To which we may add the remarks of Peter Lewis, editoonist at the Newcastle Herald in New South Wales: “So what’s to be learnt from this latest clash of cultures? Is our cherished ideal of press freedom at an end? Well, to be honest, there’s no such thing as press freedom. Every day editors wrestle with a long list of ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ when putting a publication together. A single defamatory slip can cost millions in legal fees and fines. Then there are matters of taste: you can say one thing but not another; you can use one swear word but not another. It’s all very nebulous trying to figure out what is acceptable, what is funny, and what is offensive. But looking back over my two decades of cartooning, the hot topic—the topic that’s almost certainly going to get you into trouble—is religion. It’s where angels fear to tread. Fortunately, most western believers have grown a thicker skin. My cartoon of the Pope in a panzer tank didn’t produce a single complaint. Other religions aren’t so complacent. Criticize L. Ron Hubbard, and you’ll get a writ from a Scientology lawyer. Islam is a faith that takes itself very seriously. Even being good humored cuts no ice. The fatwa against Salman Rashdie in 1989 was just a warning shot, one that [the Danish newspaper] Jyllands-Posten ignored to its peril. I have mixed feelings about this mess. On the one hand, I see it as a lost battle for satirists, another retreat from what can be said. On the other hand, I think the Danes involved are idiots. I mean—duh! Newsmen who spend hours each day sorting the usable wheat from the defamatory chaff of newsprint should have seen this coming, and, let’s face it, if a large group of people regard something as rude, then shouldn’t their views be respected? Newspapers can’t print swear words because of the possibility of giving offence, so what’s the difference here? Everybody knew Muhammad was a no-go. The big worry is where the world goes to from here. I like to think of cartoonists as being canaries in the coal mine of freedom. While we twitter and make rude noises, then all is well; but when we fall silent. ...”
Perhaps a little grim. But no less pertinent. So, however, is another remark from Inkspot, this from Peter Nieuwendijk, secretary general of the Federation of Cartoonists Organizations: “Of course Allah and God have a sense of humor: otherwise, He would never have created men.”
In the seemingly endless pondering and repondering of these matters, I wonder: if the issue is “understanding” between East and West—if the noblest objective is to foster our understanding in the West of Muslims in the East—then reprinting the Danish Dozen will demonstrate to us just how super-sensitive Muslims are about their religion because the cartoons are so inferior, so insipid, so badly drawn. Juxtaposing the cartoons against the Islamic reaction highlights Islam’s sectarian intolerance, and once we in the West are aware of this kind of sensitivity, won’t we be better prepared to co-exist? Therefore, I advocate, in the interest of promoting understanding—but not to provoke rage— that the Danish Dozen be reprinted as often as is possible until they no longer provoke either ire or discussion.
In the hopeful meantime, however, we have the acerbic Christopher Hitchens, whose angry bon mots on the subject I chanced upon a year after he first uttered them (in 2006). I nonetheless applaud them and quote a few of the more memorable of them; herewith—
“The incredible thing about the ongoing Kristallnacht against Denmark (and in some places, against the embassies and citizens of any Scandinavian or even European Union nation) is that it has resulted in, not opprobrium for the religion that perpetrates and excuses it, but increased respectability! ... Nobody in authority can be found to state the obvious and the necessary—that we stand with the Danes against this defamation and blackmail and sabotage. Instead, all compassion and concern is apparently to be expended upon those who lit the powder trail and who yell and scream for joy as the embassies of democracies are put to the torch in the capital cities of miserable, fly-blown dictatorships. Let’s be sure we haven’t hurt the vandals’ feelings.”
Elsewhere (a little earlier than the February 21 remark above), Hitchens wrote: “For most of human history, religion and bigotry have been two sides of the same coin, and it still shows. Therefore there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general. ... Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the Prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. ‘For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.’
“I refuse to be spoken to in that tone of voice,” Hitchens continues, “which, as it happens, I chance to find ‘offensive.’ ... The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species. As it happens the cartoons themselves are not very brilliant, or very mordant, either. But if Muslims do not want their alleged Prophet identified with barbaric acts or adolescent fantasies, they should say publicly that random murder for virgins is not in their religion. ...”
“The question of ‘offensiveness’ is easy to decide,” he goes on, taking up the question of whether or not so-called “offensive” pictures or stories ought to be published. “Is it not clear that those who are determined to be ‘offended’ will discover a provocation somewhere? We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt. ... Civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient. It is depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts. ...”
By all means, publish and be damned.
You can find Hitchens’ entire essay at http://www.slate.com/id/2135499/?nav=navoa
A sober, non-inflammatory report on the cartoon incident, including a history of the origins of the Islamic ire in Denmark, appears in the Winter 2007 issue of the Middle East Quarterly by Pernille Ammitzboll and Lorenzo Vidino; you can find it here: http://www.meforum.org/article/1437 . It would appear—fascinating to contemplate—that another of Flemming Rose’s objectives has been realized: moderate Muslims have come forward to condemn the violence of their more radical brethren. And so the press’s exercise of its freedom is apparently justified. Again. As usual.