These cartoons are much less offensive than what is routinely printed in every American newspaper about presidents, presidential candidates, and other pols. Yet strange as it may seem to Western non-Muslims, the rage over them seems to grow with each passing day — until the global scale of the response to it has now involved ambassadors from many countries, the United Nations, international boycotts, and the threatening of utterly innocent businesspeople and embassy personnel. A few recent examples:
• Gaza: On Monday, gunmen seized an EU office, demanding apologies from Denmark and Norway (where another publication later reprinted the cartoons). On Tuesday, demonstrators chanted “War on Denmark, death to Denmark” as they burned Danish flags. Said Islamic Jihad leader Nafez Azzam: “We feel great rage at the continued attacks on Islam and the Prophet of Islam and we demand that the Danish government make a clear and public apology for the wrongful crime.”
• Arab interior ministers, meeting in Tunis, declared: “We ask the Danish authorities to take the necessary measures to punish those responsible for this harm and to take action to avoid a repeat.”
• Libya and Saudi Arabia recalled their ambassadors from Copenhagen, while in Saudi Arabia, an angry mob beat two employees of the Danish corporation Arla Foods, which has been subjected to a crippling boycott throughout the Islamic world – a boycott that has been endorsed by, among others, the Sudanese Defense Minister.
• Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari complained to the Danish ambassador to Baghdad, while Danish troops were put on alert there after a fatwa concerning the cartoons was issued.
These incidents follow diplomatic protests from the Organization of the Islamic Conference, protests in Kashmir, death threats emanating from Pakistan, protests to the United Nations from the Muslim World League and other organizations, and more.
Even Bill Clinton has gotten into the act, decrying “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam” and huffing self-righteously: “So now what are we going to do? ... Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?” Of course not, but his question is beside the point. The cartoons are not a manifestation of anti-Islamic prejudice: criticism of Muhammad or even of Islam is not equivalent to anti-Semitism. Islam is not a race; the problems with it are not the product of fear mongering and fiction, but of ideology and facts -- facts that have been stressed repeatedly by Muslims around the world, when they commit violence in the name of Islam and justify that violence by its teachings. Noting, as some of the cartoons do, that there is a connection between the teachings of Muhammad and Islamic violence, is simply to manifest an awareness of what has been repeatedly asserted by Osama bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Omar Bakri, Abu Hamza, Abu Bakar Bashir, and so many others. Do all these men and so many, many others misunderstand and misrepresent the teachings of Muhammad and Islam? This question, as crucial as it is, is irrelevant to an ethical evaluation of the cartoons. The fact is, these and other jihad terrorists claim Muhammad’s example and words as their inspiration. Some of the cartoons call attention to that fact.
Ultimately, then, the cartoon controversy is a question of freedom of speech. As I wrote in mid-December: “As it grows into an international cause célèbre, 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.” Freedom of speech encompasses precisely the freedom to annoy, to ridicule, to offend. If it doesn’t, it is hollow. The instant that any person or ideology is considered off-limits for critical examination and even ridicule, freedom of speech has been replaced by an ideological straitjacket. Westerners seem to grasp this easily when it comes to affronts to Christianity, even when they are as sharp-edged and offensive as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s dung- and pornography-encrusted Holy Virgin Mary. But the same clarity of thought doesn’t seem to carry over to an Islamic context.
Yet that is where it is needed most today. The cartoon controversy, insignificant and even silly as it may be in its origins, is an increasingly serious challenge to Western notions of pluralism and freedom of speech. The Danes have already begun to apologize, to the tentative satisfaction of Danish Muslim groups. But so far both the newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the Prime Minister have limited themselves to saying essentially that they are sorry if Muslims took offense, and that none was intended. If they go farther and “punish those responsible,” as the Arab Interior Ministers demanded, or treat the cartoons as a human rights violation, as a Belgian imam demanded, they will be acknowledging that lampooning Muhammad and criticizing Islam is somehow wrong in itself. Such a notion is just as dangerous for a free society as the idea that the Beloved Leader or dialectical materialism is above criticism. It is death for a free society.
Not only that. Muslim cartoon rage, having spread now all across the Muslim world, from Egypt and Sudan to Pakistan and beyond, also threatens to become the tinderbox that sets off a much larger conflagration between the West and the Islamic world than the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Muslim world was enraged over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and over reports last May that a Qur’an had been flushed down at toilet at Guantanamo Bay. But although there have been no killings in connection with the cartoons yet, as opposed to the Qur’an desecration scandal, the international scope of the cartoon rage makes those other sources of anger trivial compared to it.
About the Qur’an desecration riots in Afghanistan in which people were reportedly killed — people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the alleged desecration — I wrote: “The question here is one of proportionate response. If a Qur’an had indeed been flushed, Muslims would have justifiably been offended. They may justifiably have considered the perpetrators boors, or barbarians, or hell-bound unbelievers. They may justifiably have issued denunciations accordingly. But that is all. To kill people thousands of miles away who had nothing to do with the act, and to fulminate with threats and murder against the entire Western world, all because of this alleged act, is not just disproportionate. It is not just excessive. It is mad. And every decent person in the world ought to have the courage to stand up and say that it is mad.”
No one has been killed for these cartoons. But otherwise the same words apply today to the cartoon controversy. It is mad. It should be denounced as mad. The fact that Bill Clinton is the only American politician who has taken notice of this ongoing controversy, and that on the wrong side, is a travesty.
The free world should be standing resolutely with Denmark, ready to defend freedom of speech. Insofar as it is not defended, it will surely be lost. On Wednesday publications all over Europe — in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Holland — published the cartoons to demonstrate their support for this principle. But in a grim reminder of the dhimmitude and multiculturalist fog that still grips us, the editor of France Soir was fired for doing so. The defense of free speech and free thought will not be easy, and is not the matter of just a day.