Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 22 issue 1

Was It Right to Publish the Islam Cartoons?
NO: Tolerance and Humanism

David Koepsell

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 1 (Spring 2006).

The April/May 2006 issue of Free Inquiry features four of the twelve cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad commissioned by a Danish newspaper and published there last fall, and by many European and some American media thereafter. The reactions of offended Muslims have ranged from peaceful protests to boycotts of Western goods to riots where innocent bystanders have been killed.

There was significant debate among the staff and supporters of the Council for Secular Humanism about whether Free Inquiry should publish the cartoons. We were not all of one mind. Some of us found the cartoons insipid and felt they were apt to provoke those with deeply held beliefs. Now mind you, one of our chief concerns here is to challenge beliefs when they are based upon faulty history, unsupportable assumptions, and supernaturalism. In that vein, we have an active organization, the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Societies (ISIS), which hosts scholarly work, publications, and conferences with the express aim of exposing falsehoods, inconsistencies, and errors in Islamic dogma. This is an effort that we direct evenly at all religions. The Council’s Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) spends much of its time dealing with similar issues in all religions, and has focused especially on Christianity recently. However, publishing the cartoons was not scholarly criticism.

To be sure, we stood up for Monty Python’s Life of Brian when it was under fire by the Catholic Church and likewise for The Last Temptation of Christ. But the first was legitimately funny, and the latter was artful and tasteful. So what of the cartoons, and is there a humanist ethic of tolerance that we should uphold?

One of the responsibilities of truly free inquiry is to not hold back from honest inquiry just because the results may offend. In other words, if we show through scientific evidence that Jesus or Muhammad were fictional characters, that would certainly offend a great many people. But the intention behind scientific inquiry is truth-seeking, and the dissemination of scientific results is an ethical obligation of science. The result of offending large numbers of believers with scientific facts cannot be a good reason to withhold those facts. It would be dishonest.

On the other hand, if one seeks to offend, one isn’t engaging in science. Stereotyping entire religions or cultures, even while we disagree with their religious underpinnings, is antihumanistic. Surely, many in the Muslim world, even while they revere their Prophet, do not practice violence personally nor tolerate it ideologically. Among our humanist values is the belief in the inherent freedom and dignity of every individual. The Affirmations of Humanism includes the statement: “We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.” We also “attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.”

Yet the cartoons’ original publication, in my view, could not do anything but promote unfairness and intolerance. They were based upon painting an entire culture and religion with broad brushstrokes and taking potshots at those who revere the Prophet. More specifically, they flaunt the (disputed) prohibition to depict the Prophet. They do not criticize.

Of course, we uphold the right of individuals to openly mock anyone. It’s a basic human right to speak openly, and insult, demean, provoke, or otherwise use speech in any way we wish. Indeed, as Free Inquiry stated when it published the four cartoons, no “religious teaching, community, or institution should be held immune from criticism simply because it is religious in nature.” But I fail to see how the cartoons were criticism. It overly broadens the term to call a depiction of the Prophet with devil’s horns “criticism.” It flies in the face of our humanist affirmations.

But I wish to argue an even more important point. While many of us found the cartoons unfunny, none of us would argue that the kind of violent response that ensued around the world was called for. Even so, it was predictable. This does not excuse the violence, but it argues for perhaps employing our reason more carefully. What we should be asking is: how can we secularize Islamic societies, and how can we help engage Islamic moderates and liberals to bring about a more peaceful, rational world?

Surely, not by provocation, baiting, or mocking.

Instead, we need to do what ISIS and CSER do: challenge the historical bases of fundamentalist religions; show that faulty assumptions should be abandoned in favor of reason; raise legitimate doubts about dogma; lead by example. Criticism of religious dogma, when it flies in the face of empirical evidence, is part of our ongoing mission. It can never be abandoned. We must and will continue that tradition in the hopes that, by raising serious questions about the legitimacy of religious beliefs, believers will doubt their assumptions and cast aside superstitions.

Another reason expressed for publishing the cartoons was to show solidarity with other publications who chose to publish them and faced criticism. Many other publications expressed such solidarity without actually repeating the act of publishing the cartoons. The New York Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal all expressed outrage at retributive violence over the original publications, even while declining to re-publish the cartoons. Each expressed its opinions regarding the cartoons themselves, even while condemning those who used them to foment violence and pursue their ideological agendas.

Underlying this issue is the conflict between rights and responsibilities. Surely, I uphold the right of publications to offend. Does that mean we should necessarily provide a stage and a spotlight to those who do so? Or do we bear a responsibility to help try to elevate public debate and criticism? Which seems most likely to effect the ends we wish to achieve: reason, science, and free inquiry in every realm of human endeavor, or provocative actions?

David Koepsell is Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism and an associate editor of Free Inquiry.

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