It took the New York Times’ distinguished editorial board an entire week to figure out what to say about the Danish newspaper cartoon controversy. One can only imagine the hand wringing around the conference table, the anguished discussions about the conflicting values of press freedom versus sensitivity to oppressed religious minorities during those seven days that shook the Muslim world. And after that, and while the bonfires were still burning in the Middle East, the most profound lesson the editorial board could glean from the whole affair was that the cartoons were “juvenile” and that “people are bound to be offended if their religion is publicly mocked.” Still it wouldn’t be fair to say that the editorial published on January 7 was unbalanced. After all, the editors did chide the Muslim mobs a bit for their awful manners. “The proper response [to the cartoons]” advised the editorial, “is not to go on a rampage and burn down buildings.” No doubt these words of wisdom had a powerful effect on the arsonists.
The editorial also defended the Times’ decision not to show the offending cartoons on its news pages, saying it was “a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words.” That this was a phony explanation was proven by the next day’s edition of the paper.
The Times ran a long piece by resident art critic Michael Kimmelman analyzing the impact the offending images had on the Muslim world. To the previous day’s editorial characterization of the cartoons as “juvenile,” Kimmelman added the judgment of a true connoisseur of the arts. He alternately called the cartoons “callous,” “feeble,” “banal,” and “idiotic.” Having run out of adjectives, Kimmelman charged they had been “cooked up as a provocation by a conservative newspaper…to score cheap points about freedom of expression.” Speaking of provocation, a discerning Times’ editor decided to illustrate Kimmelman’s article with an artistic image that millions of believers are likely to find offensive. No, it wasn’t another cartoon about Mohammed. It was Chris Ofili’s notorious collage of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung and pornographic pictures clipped from magazines. (This was apparently justified, in the editor’s opinion, by a passing reference in Kimmelman’s piece to the 1999 controversy over the Ofili Virgin Mary being shown at the Brooklyn Museum.) Surely you would think that this qualified as a prime example of the “gratuitous assault” on a “religious symbol” that the Times had assured us just 24 hours earlier it would refrain from publishing, and particularly when that same image would be “so easy to describe in words” – as I have just done. No one at the Times seemed embarrassed by the blatant contradiction.
Thus did the most powerful media institution in the Western world go wobbly and intellectually incoherent at a historically defining moment for Western civilization’s common values. As our great champions of liberty going all the way back to Voltaire and Thomas Paine have taught, those values must, of course, include the freedom to criticize, even mock, religious dogma. And in the case of a particularly dangerous and violent religious dogma that freedom becomes almost an obligation. The New York Times once understood its responsibility. Today the people who run the paper are mired in a moral quagmire of multiculturalism, relativism, and white guilt. In the Times’ new style book, criticizing the dominant West and mocking its religions is speaking truth to power; deconstructing militant Islam by word and image is a cruel and “gratuitous” affront to the world’s oppressed.
So expect the clueless New York Times to be AWOL for the long civilizational battle ahead. Yet let us now also give three cheers for a courageous newspaper called Jyllands-Posten and for Flemming Rose, the clear thinking cultural editor who commissioned the twelve cartoons on Islam. In a definitive op-ed essay in Sunday’s Washington Post, Rose shames the Times editors’ quivering response. As he explains, there was nothing at all gratuitous about his decision to run the cartoons. It came only after considerable reflection about the intimidation and self-censorship that European newspapers and other cultural institutions were feeling in commenting on the threats to democratic values presented by the spread of radical Islam. Publishing the cartoons was not a provocation against Moslem religion but rather a lesson in the open society principles that the Danish people have a right to expect all new immigrants to assimilate into. Think of the twelve cartoons, with their very diverse political messages on the issue of radical Islam, as a town hall meeting.
The best proof that this was the right thing to do is on the ground. It is true that in the Middle East Islamists are still fouling their own nest. And some of the Danish cartoonists are in hiding. But in the aftermath of the cartoons there is again a glimmer of hope for reason and honor in Europe. Muslims in Denmark, Mr. Rose reports, have not only not rioted, but are beginning to speak out against extremism. The radical imams who took the cartoons to the Middle East to stir rage and pressure the Danish government are isolated. Unlike the New York Times, several French magazines have honored their Voltairean roots by publishing the cartoons. And Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy is proposing that all non-European immigrants sign a contract outlining their obligation of accepting the norms of democratic, open society. The Dutch and Belgians are getting serious about immigration reforms and about expelling radical Islamists.
Far from a provocation, Flemming Rose’s decision to print the cartoons is a beacon alerting the West to the dangers radical Islam poses to its hard-won freedoms. Think of him as our new century’s John Peter Zenger. It is an indictment of our own media culture that we would never imagine this role being played by an editor in our own paper of record.
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