Skip to content

Censorship and Civility Clash in Controversy Over Cartoons

February 5, 2006

One of the first things I wrote after getting this job as a columnist was a defense of Muslim sensibilities in the Salman Rushdie case. That was in 1989. Rushdie, already a prominent novelist, had just published a devastating send-up of Islam in “The Satanic Verses.” The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s murder. The author has been reclusive ever since. Like everyone else, I was outraged and pointed out the obvious: In the West we don’t censor books or order hits on authors we don’t like.

Still, I thought a few words should be said for restraint when dealing with other people’s deep religious beliefs. I still believe that. So in the current uproar over the cartoons of Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper, and eventually in other European papers, I have some sympathy for Muslims, who believe it is blasphemous to create images of Muhammad. In one of the 12 cartoons, Muhammad tells dead suicide bombers he has run out of virgins to give them as their reward. Another showed him in a bomb-shaped turban. But the political barbs are almost beside the point. Even positive images of Muhammad are offensive to Muslims as too close to idolatry. It is not just extremists and street crazies who are complaining about these cartoons. Muslim moderates and professionals are upset too.

If millions of people think their faith is compromised by illustrations of a particular religious figure, why not just drop the illustrations? Columnist Charles Krauthammer once wrote that in America “pluralism works because of a certain deference that sects accord each other. In a pluralistic society, it is a civic responsibility to take great care when talking publicly about things sacred to millions of fellow citizens.”

Defending free speech in the 1989 Rushdie case, Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic took a different and harder line. He said, “It was blasphemy that made us free. Two cheers today for blasphemy.” That was a voice of the secular intelligentsia that doesn’t hold much sacred, dismissing the concern of supposedly backward people who do.
This is why the cartoon controversy has some people talking about Andre Serrano’s alleged artwork, “Piss Christ.” In general, I support any artist’s attempt to turn his own urine into profitable commerce. But if it had been a different image in there — Martin Luther King Jr. or Anne Frank, let’s say, instead of Jesus — I think we might have heard less about free expression and more about pointless provocation.

The cartoon controversy is an ugly one — Muslim boycotts of Danish goods, death threats against publications that ran the cartoon and against a number of Christians and westerners in Arab countries. The editor of the Danish newspaper issued an apology, and the managing editor of a French paper that ran the images was fired.

My civility argument, I think, is weakened by two problems. First, it is one thing to call for civility and restraint in a nation that has a First Amendment and lots of people willing to defend it. It is something else in Europe where civility often has the power of the state behind it, i.e. hate-speech laws. Some European nations are as eager to punish speech as any American university. In France, charges against Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci for anti-Muslim prose were dropped. In June, she is scheduled to go on trial in Italy on similar charges. A Protestant minister in Sweden was convicted of making anti-homosexual remarks in church. He was unexpectedly cleared by the Swedish Supreme Court.

Second, pressure to avoid publishing things that offend Muslims has been rising, particularly when death threats are made or expected. Fallaci, the target of many such threats, is said to be in hiding in New York. Nobody knows how many death threats have arisen from the cartoon dispute. Under the circumstances, civility might emerge as less important than standing up now to the danger of censorship through fear.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: