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It began quietly enough last September, when the right-of-center Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten commissioned Danish cartoonists to try their hands at depicting Muhammad, revered by Muslims as the Prophet of Islam. Concerned that fear of reprisals was causing comedians, cartoonists, and other commentators to treat Islam more deferentially than other faiths, culture editor Flemming Rose offered twelve cartoonists a free hand on a page titled “Faces of Muhammad.” Danish Muslim moderates protested politely. Danish Islamists were outraged and reached out across the Arab world, sometimes misrepresenting what Jyllands-Posten had actually published. Arab boycotts of Danish products began. Indignation climbed when other European newspapers reprinted the cartoons as a defense of freedom of expression. Protests flared across the Muslim world, then turned violent ... then deadly. Danish and other European embassies and missions were invaded by mobs, vandalized, or burned.
Some Muslim activists chose a less violent way to fight back: a cartoon counteroffensive. A group called the Arab European League posted on its Web site a cartoon of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank, while Iran’s leading newspaper announced a worldwide contest for cartoons about the Holocaust. This descent into anti-Semitism is deplorable, but not intolerable in the way its promoters apparently expect: Europe’s Jews, like its Christians, have largely mastered the skills of living in a secular society. First among these is the knack of recognizing that what is sacred to one community is not sacred to all.
Free Inquiry considered it important to run a selection of the Danish cartoons. We’ve chosen to publish four in this issue—as I write, the largest number to appear in print in any nationwide U. S. publication. In part, we do this in solidarity with several European newspapers, demonstrating our commitment to the Enlightenment principle of free expression and the fundamental democratic principle of a free press. But as secular humanists we have additional grounds to think it important that these images see print. As noted in the Center for Inquiry’s mission statement, we are committed to freedom of inquiry “in every area of human endeavor,” and that emphatically includes religion. No religious teaching, community, or institution should be held immune from criticism simply because it is religious in nature.
This anonymous cartoon does what most of the Jyllands-Postencartoons did not: it contains internal evidence making clear that its subject is the Prophet. Yet it stops short of showing a face, which might make it acceptable to some Muslims.
The Vatican’s first statement on the cartoon controversy exemplifies the stance we reject. Though deploring the violence of Muslim street protests, the Holy See rebuked the cartoons, observing: “The right to freedom of thought and expression cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.” Such a principle privileges religious sentiments as such in a way foreclosed to other kinds of sentiments—for example, the sentiments of nonreligious persons. Freedom of thought and expression can and must entail even the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers, else it is not free.
Religion is unique among human activities, particularly in the passions it can kindle. Through the centuries, Western countries have tried various ways to accommodate the religious impulse while insulating the body politic from the most disruptive effects of sectarian strife. One approach, as embodied in that Vatican statement and in Britain’s unfortunate blasphemy law, is to confer upon religion legal privileges not extended to other human activities. To my mind, America’s founders chose a better way, constructing a system that places extraordinary restrictions on government in its relations with religion (the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment) but pointedly declines to extend those restrictions into the private sphere. There, the rule is respect for all faiths but deference toward none. Though not all European countries embrace this principle in their governing documents, it seems to animate broad European understandings regarding freedom of expression.
In any case, as journalists and as U.S. citizens, we have the right to treat sacred matters in the same uncompromising way we might approach any other issue. Inquiry, criticism, satire, even the occasional resort to mockery—all can be within bounds, depending on the context. If we possess that right, it is a right we must defend. It is a right we surely should not quail from exercising. In particular, it is a right we should not quail from exercising for fear of reprisals by outraged believers. Exactly insofar as religious matters have important consequences in politics, society, and culture, it is imperative that they face the same exposure to the rough-and-tumble of public discourse as does any other kind of activity in which human beings engage.
It has often been noted that Islam has yet to experience an analogue of the Christian Reformation. As the Muslim world deepens its relations with the West, and as Muslim emigrant communities seek to build satisfying lives in Western countries, there must come a tempering of their faith’s fierce exclusivity. Islam must learn to conduct itself in the civil sphere as one creed among others, as other world religions have done. Otherwise, the polarizations and divisions that this controversy has thrown into such sharp relief will continue to deepen.
In this section, we feature an examination of the cartoon controversy by R. Joseph Hoffmann, director of the Council for Secular Humanism’s Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER). The more religious aspects of the matter, including past threads in Islamic tradition that have welcomed depictions of the Prophet, are probed by Ibn Warraq, author or editor of a number of books, including Why I Am Not a Muslim and a Center for Inquiry research fellow.
As comics icon Art Spiegelman told The Nation, “The banal quality of the cartoons that gave insult is hard to believe until they are seen.” Either the Danes favor very dry humor, or American cartoonists have little to fear from free trade with Denmark. Three of the cartoons were inscrutable or unfunny, Three others targeted not Muhammad but other Danes: one showed an anti-immigrant politician among Muslim males in a police lineup, and two accused Rose or Jyllands-Posten of sensation-mongering. Of the rest with but one exception, we know the subject is Muhammad only because the headline tells us so. In another context, these images could be unremarkable pictures of a generic mujahedeen—or maybe of Osama bin Laden on a bad-beard day.
Three of the cartoons we present are among the most pointed. The famous image of the Muslim man with a bomb for a turban is here, as is the cartoon in which an imam at the pearly gates tells a line of smoldering jihadi martyrs that the supply of virgins has run out. Less remarked on, but perhaps most deftly drawn, is an image of a Muslim male with a crescent halo forming devil’s horns. The fourth cartoon, a pictogram combining another generic Muslim male face with Islam’s star and crescent, is included as an example of how the collection’s less sharply focused entries fell flat.
As cartoons go, there’s certainly an enormous disconnect between their relative blandness and the furious response they have engendered across the Muslim world.
Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry.