Muhammad Goes to Denmark: A Free Press and Religious Sensibilities

Sunday, 19 February 2006

When a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten published political cartoons that contained depictions of the prophet Muhammad, the publishers didn't know what they were getting themselves into. After demonstrations broke out in Europe and the Middle East--most peaceful, some violent--many other newspapers across Europe came to the aid of their Danish colleagues, asserting their right to freedom of the press by publishing one or more of the cartoons themselves. Over the past couple of weeks, protests have continued around the world, property has been destroyed, and several people have been killed, mostly those involved in the protests themselves. As people of faith, what are we to make of these events? Several issues are involved here, including freedom of the press, respect for the beliefs of others, separation of religion and state, and freedom of speech. All of these matters are important principles in a free society, but when they come into conflict with each other, which takes precedent? First we'll examine the individual principles, then we'll look at the question of balance.

Freedom of the Press

That European newspapers have the right to publish political cartoons that reflect the opinions of their editorial staffs cannot be denied. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Freedom of the press is not absolute, of course. Press freedom does not include the right to commit libel, to incite others to violence, or to violate community decency standards. However, it does include the right to promote ideas that are controversial or unpopular, either at home or abroad.

The question of whether the newspapers violated community decency standards is relevant in regard to the political cartoons depicting Muhammad. There is some dispute among Muslims about whether every depiction of Muhammad is banned. Shiites generally allow respectful illustrations of Muhammad, but many Sunnis regard all depictions of the prophet as violations of the Quran. However, most Muslims around the world have generally agreed that the political cartoons published in the European press went beyond the bounds of good taste. Violating good taste, however, is not illegal, and that brings us to our second point.

Respect for the Beliefs of Others

Although newspapers are usually privately owned and thus entitled to express the opinions of their management and reporters, most serious publishers and editors see respect for the beliefs of others as a principle not lightly to be transgressed. One reason for this stance is pragmatic: offending potential readers will not sell newspapers. Newspapers are usually in business to make money, and even ideologically driven papers usually make some attempt to show sensitivity to public opinion. Another reason that newspapers see respect for others as important is that the vast majority of publishers are the product of an educational system that teaches respect for others as a basic human value.

As far as I can tell, the Danish paper that first published the cartoons last September did not do it intentionally to denigrate Islam or offend Muslims. That many Muslims were offended, however, is clear. After first refusing to meet with a group of Danish Muslims--and possibly avoiding the row that developed--the newspaper has now backtracked and apologized for the offense the publication of the cartoons caused, if not for the actual publication itself.

Cultural ignorance or insensitivity is a far cry from the intentional denigration of the religious beliefs or experiences of a group. A leading Iranian newspaper's call for cartoons depicting the Holocaust fall into the latter category and may be condemned outright in advance. But what of the other European newspapers that reprinted the cartoons and, in at least one case, created their own? Their arguments that they reprinted the cartoons in order to emphasize the freedom of the press is a weak one and unnecessarily provocative. I've seen a few of the cartoons online, and they don't offend me, but then I'm not Muslim. If these papers had published cartoons disparaging Jews or Christians, I'm sure that many Jews or Christians would be up in arms. Purposely provoking people by violating deeply held cultural or religious taboos in unwarranted, unless the taboos themselves are harmful in some way, and that is hardly the case here.

Separation of Religion and State

Another factor in the controversy involves the separation of religion and state. The Jyllands-Posten and many other European papers have published political cartoons in the past that show caricatures of God or Jesus, either as ironic representatives of Judaism or Christianity or to depict opposition to some extreme behavior that religious people do in their name (e.g., bombing abortion clinics). European laws protect their right to criticize the practices and even beliefs of religious people, because religion and the state are separate. The same is not true in most (all?) Muslim countries, where publishing cartoons deemed critical of Islam might well land a publisher in jail, or worse.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that some Muslims have taken their protest against the cartoons to such an extreme. When there is freedom of the press, sometimes an author or publisher will stray beyond the bounds of good sense and provoke a backlash, but in general, freedom of the press from the oversight of religious zealots of any sort is a tremendous benefit to society. One could argue that the lack of press freedom in the Muslim world is a major factor contributing to the radicalism of many extreme Islamists. Failure to separate religion and state also leads to gross human rights violations, as in Afghanistan under the Taliban or in Saudi Arabia today. Separation of religion and state, far from denigrating religion, frees it to be a beacon for justice and truth, convincing people through the good sense of its doctrines and the good conduct of its adherents. State support for a religion only weakens it and co-opts it.

Freedom of Speech

The fourth principle that comes into play in the discussion of cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech differs from freedom of the press in the sense that the press--or at least the print media and broadcast and cable journalism--is accessible to only a relatively small percentage of the population, whereas freedom of speech is the privilege and responsibility of everyone. Freedom of speech allows European citizens to say that they support the newspapers' right to publish their cartoons, and it allow concerned Muslims to protest the publication on moral or religious grounds. Freedom of speech--and its associated right, the freedom of assembly--gives protestors the right to gather together outside embassies and businesses, to march in parades with signs and banners describing their position, to call for boycotts of products, and to express their opinions openly without fear of government reprisal but with confidence in government protection.

Freedom of speech allows people to express themselves freely in many ways, but there are definite limits to that expression. Freedom of speech does not give protestors the right to burn buildings, vandalize cars, or assault people. Those who engage in such activity are not only breaking the law, both local and international, they are violating the tenets of their own religion in ways far worse than the publication of cartoons ever could. In fact, some might argue that the overreaction to the cartoons on the part of a few religious zealots shows the value of the original publications in demonstrating the dangers of extreme forms of any religion. I don't personally agree with that argument, because I think that the original publication of the cartoons was unwise, but it's hard to argue that a basic flaw in fundamentalism--in this case fundamentalist Islam, but the principle applies to extreme forms of other religions as well--is made evident by these events.

The Question of Balance

The principles we have discussed--freedom of the press, respect for the beliefs of others, separation of religion and state, and freedom of speech--are all important, but when they come into conflict with one another, they must be balanced for the good of society. The newspaper that first published the cartoons made an error in judgment, albeit unintentional, because they were not culturally sensitive to the feelings of the Muslim community in Denmark. The publishers made a more significant error when they refused to meet with Danish Muslim leaders to discuss why Muslims were offended by the cartoons. Danish Muslim leaders, frustrated by their failure to discuss their grievances with the newspaper's editorial board, made an error when they sought to involve the greater Muslim community around the world in the protests, because they should have been able to foresee the probability that violence would result in some places. They made a much greater error, not in judgment but in ethics, when they put together a portfolio of the cartoons and included other cartoons that were never published in the newspaper, cartoons of a much more provocative and degrading nature. What of the European newspapers that republished the cartoons in an effort to support their Danish colleagues in the press? I believe that these newspapers made a mistake in republishing the cartoons, because they lost sight of the balance that is necessary among the fundamental freedoms we have been discussing. Muslim protesters had every right to cancel their subscriptions, to boycott Danish and other European products, and to voice their outrage through marches and protests. When some of them resorted to acts of violence, however, they undermined their cause in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Let's take a step back from these events and look at the big picture. First, we should note that the whole mess started with culturally insensitive cartoons published in a newspaper. This fact reminds all of us that we need to learn more about our neighbors and become familiar with their basic beliefs and customs. Had the Danish paper done this prior to publishing the cartoons, the chaos that followed could have been avoided.

Second, the reaction to the publication of the cartoons has been way out of proportion to the offense. The prophet Muhammad led armies into battle against his enemies. Would the publication of a few cartoons have hurt the feelings of such a strong warrior? Committing violence to protest a nonviolent offense calls into question the religious conviction of those who commit such acts--is it Muhammad who is offended or the perpetrators of violence themselves? Truly religious people do not burn international embassies, do not fly planes into buildings, do not bomb abortion clinics, do not revel in the suffering of others, and do not call for the death of other people because they have expressed opinions contrary to their own. People who do such things grossly misunderstand the nature of the God they claim to worship, and their acts prove beyond doubt that their motivation is self-righteousness and self-serving human wrath, not true religious devotion.

Third, people of goodwill from all faith and secular traditions need to arrive at ways to express their thoughts and opinions that will minimize offense and eliminate violence. "All things are lawful," the apostle Paul said, "but not all things are profitable." Just because it's legal to publish a cartoon doesn't mean it's a good idea to do so, as recent events have demonstrated. On the other hand, editorial cartoonists need to have a mechanism for representing Islam as an entity, just as they might use a depiction of Jesus to represent Christianity. In this regard, I offer a simple solution that I think should solve the problem that Muslims have with depictions of the prophet and at the same time allow cartoonists to represent Islam in their drawings in an immediately recognizable way. Instead of drawing Muhammad himself, draw Muhammad's third cousin, once removed. I don't know how many third cousins, once removed, Muhammad had, and I doubt that anyone else does, either. If such an indeterminate person could be used to represent Islam (with a small note saying, "This isn't Muhammad, it's his third cousin, once removed"), both the problem of depicting the prophet and the problem of the need for a human figure to represent the religion would be solved.

As terrible and out of hand as the cartoon flap has been in Europe and the Middle East, we need to remember that far greater problems exist in the region: the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine and the implications for the peace process with Israel, Iran's dallying with nuclear energy and the West's suspicions that they intend to develop nuclear weapons, the ongoing chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, the severe restrictions on and abuses of human rights that are perpetrated in Saudi Arabia and other countries on a daily basis, and the increasing tide of anti-immigrant fervor in many European countries, just to name a few. Rather than driving people to extreme positions on one side of the argument or the other, maybe the furor over the cartoons will cause people on opposite sides of the original issue to sit down and talk, to come up with solutions that respect the rights and feelings of all concerned, and to commit themselves to the peaceful resolution of future conflicts of this nature. In particular, people of faith should remind themselves again of the basic teachings of their faith traditions. The world is a dangerous place, and religion should be a source of peace, not conflict.

© Copyright 2006, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology