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Last Updated: 02/15/2006
The Un-Funniest Cartoons Ever
Peter Krupa

Much of the Muslim world has been up in arms recently over, of all things, Denmark. Back in September, Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper that few people outside Scandinavia had previously ever heard of, printed a handful of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Several months later, as word traveled out to the four corners of the Muslim world, the outrage erupted. Protests were held, boycotts declared, Danish flags and embassies burned.

The response of the Western world was by turns inflammatory and bewildered. Some European papers immediately republished the cartoons in a show of solidarity and support against the threat of Islamic censorship. Others sat on their hands, not sure whether to side with the reactionary xenophobes or the religious extremists.

As the scandal wore on and jumped across the pond, American newspapers almost unanimously declined to publish the cartoons, even though by that point they were the story. Descriptions, the editors explained, would suffice, although CNN also offered pixilated versions of the images.

As these newspapers would have it, the debate hinges on responsibility: Freedom of speech should be absolute, yet exercised with discretion. Meanwhile, as certain groups of Muslims raged out of control and beat a Dutch photographer to death because they thought he was Danish, it looked an awful lot like newspapers were simply kowtowing to the threat of violence.

It’s a messy debate by any standard, not least because by entering it one seems obliged to join one of two very undesirable sides. Indeed, this particular event seems like a bad example when trying to sort out the limits of free speech. But by making one simple distinction the issue can become quite a bit clearer.

Of the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten, several are clearly intended to incite hatred. One, for example, depicts the prophet Mohammed wielding bloody knives over women who are bound in chains. Newspapers have a perfectly valid reason for refusing to republish such a cartoon, the same as they would refuse to republish a cartoon depicting a character in blackface, or a usurious Jew: It perpetuates a negative stereotype that can lead to hatred. Well and good.

However, many newspapers seem to have avoided reprinting any of the cartoons (some of which were quite neutral) on the grounds that they offend Islamic religious sensibilities by depicting the prophet Mohammed - and this argument is unacceptable.

Mainly, it’s unacceptable because it is hypocritical. American newspapers, for example, have in the past published images of the infamous Piss Christ and The Holy Virgin Mary when those two pieces of art were stirring outrage among Christians. Also, numerous movies, books and plays lampooning or otherwise questioning Christian orthodoxy are regularly produced.

Why, then, should the Islamic religion merit special protection from the sticks and stones of the 21st Century media free-for-all? The fact that it does should be shameful to advocates of free, secular and liberal societies

Self-censorship for fear of offending a religious establishment is regressive, and flies in the face of centuries of painstaking progress in the West. From Galileo insisting that the Earth revolves around the Sun, to Monty Python exhorting us to “always look on the bright side of life,” it’s been a long, hard journey to where we are today, where we can criticize, satirize, contradict, assert, or express whatever we please regarding religion.

Sadly, however, it seems that all it takes to get newspapers to think twice about committing blasphemy these days is a few violent demonstrations and death threats. Maybe Fundamentalist Christians should be taking notes.

Peter Krupa is the Editor of the Peace & Conflict Monitor