Danish Cartoons and the Press

“All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true and the other well pleasing unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation.” – John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689.

In the Supreme Court Building, a careful observer will note a frieze depicting historical figures in legal history from Moses to the first US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. One sculpted figure is a representation of the Prophet Mohammad grasping both a Koran and sword. The depiction is honorific recognizing Mohammad’s contribution to the law. Some Islamic groups have requested that the figure be sand-blasted away. Representations of Mohammad are discouraged in some Islamic sects and this figure offends certain religious sensibilities. Representations of Mohammad are allowed is other Islamic traditions. The Supreme Court declined the request because removing the figure would compromise the historic and artistic integrity of the work. There have been no violent responses to this refusal.

In September of 2005, the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons lampooning and deriding Mohammad as leading a violent religious tradition. It is reasonable to expect that some Muslims would take offense at the ridicule of their key religious figure. It was tasteless for Jyllands-Posten to criticize radical Islamists in a way that more broadly insults all Muslims. Some upset with the cartoons demanded that the Danish government take action against the newspaper. The Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has rightly and courageously stood up for press freedom. He claims that he has no authority to control the press and he would not want any such discretion. As a consequence, some outraged Muslims have resorted to burning embassies and threatening those associated with the cartoons with violence. Some the violent protests have resulted in deaths. There is no doubt that Syria, Iran, and some radical Muslims have deliberately inflamed emotions and incited this violence. There are even some particularly egregious images that are purported to be published by the Danish newspaper, which were never published by them.

The two depictions of Mohammad, in the Supreme Court and in the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are different. One is honorific and the other insulting and critical. Yet both are equally protected expressions. A free society allows for open expression, the congenial and scholarly as well as the exploitive and mean-spirited. Enduring offense is one price we pay for freedom. In the modern Western world, this principle is not in dispute.

The reaction by some in the Islamic World reflects a pre-Enlightenment view of belief and is one more indication of the present clash of civilizations. Radical Islamists are not only devote and certain believers, but are convinced that this certainty entitles them to compel proper observance on the part of others. This mirrors the medieval views of a Christianity too anxious to use force to enforce belief. The modern ethos recognizes that orthodoxy cannot be imposed. If one manifests outward compliance with religious observances out of intimidation, there is no genuine faith and belief. Teaching and personal witness are the means that others are brought to faith.

What is somewhat more disconcerting is the confused reaction of the Western press. One the one hand, some European newspapers, in solidarity with their Danish colleagues, have republished the controversial cartoons. If such republication were a journalistic judgment that showing the cartoons was necessary to understand the controversy that action would be appropriate. However, in some cases this republication was just an assertion of the right to publish. This approach is counterproductive. Imagine for example if a newspaper published a racially-bigoted cartoon. Would republication be salutary? It is possible to separate assertion of a right of publication from the gratuitously offensive exercise of the right.

One the other hand, some news organizations appear to apply a double standard with respect to publication of religiously offensive material. When a controversial photographer Andres Serrano displayed a crucifix in urine, CNN and other mainstream organization had little difficulty in showing the photograph to make clear to readers and viewers the nature of the controversy. By contrast, now there is a reluctance to publish the Danish cartoons out of an excessive deference to Muslim religious sensibilities. Why?

One possibility is that the dominant media sources have internalized terminal political correctness believing that it is impermissible to offend any group save Christians, especially Conservative Christians.

Another possibility is that media have been successfully intimidated. Offended Christians may generate complaints, pickets, and boycotts, but little violence. By contrast, certain radical Islamic groups can be counted on to react violently to media interests abroad. If the media can be forced to alter their coverage by violence or potential violence, they will only encourage more of it.

Whether out of political correctness or fear and intimidation, the double standard of the main stream media with regard the publication of offensive material has been less than noble and heroic.

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