The Right to Blaspheme

"In Islam, it is not the content of an image that is blasphemous, but the very act of depiction."

"In Islam, it is not the content of an image that is blasphemous, but the very act of depiction."

In his influential 1993 book The Clash of Civilizations, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote that, in the aftermath of the Cold War, future global conflicts would be cultural, not ideological or economic. We can argue whether Huntington was prophetic or stating the obvious, but nonetheless the book’s thesis has been proven correct time and again.

We are watching that clash of civilizations in real time as Muslims across Europe and the Arab world take to the streets to protest twelve editorial cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper in September. One cartoon in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten showed the Prophet Mohammed with a headdress shaped like a bomb. In another, Mohammed says that paradise is running short on virgins for suicide bombers. That’s both funny and sad. In other words, a good editorial cartoon.

After death threats began arriving at the offices of J-P, newspapers in Germany, Netherlands, Spain, France, and Italy decided to reprint the cartoons in a spirit of solidarity and in the name of freedom — both of the press and of expression. Germany’s Die Welt editorialized that the “right to blaspheme” is firmly anchored in Europe’s democratic freedoms.

Since then the furor has increased considerably. On Thursday, February 1, Palestinian gunmen surrounded the offices of the EU in Gaza. European embassies across the Arab world shuttered their doors while Arab embassies in Europe recalled their ambassadors. Muslims are boycotting Danish goods and Danish flags have been burned in nearly every Arab city. Syria demanded that those responsible for the cartoons be punished. The offices of Jyllands-Posten closed Thursday after two bomb threats. The staff at the Norwegian newspaper Magazinet has also received death threats, and more threats seem likely.

Many are curious why the protests have begun now, more than four months after the cartoons’ original publication. The Brussels Journal reports that the pot was stirred by a band of Danish Muslim clerics that have been touring Arab countries handing out copies of the offending cartoons (and even more denigrating cartoons that did not appear in any European paper, such as one’s depicting a praying Muslim being raped by a dog, and Mohammed with a pig snout.) Apparently September’s relatively mild reaction to the cartoons, largely confined to Denmark, was not sufficient for the rabble-rousing clerics.

Westerners, watching the scenes of protest and mayhem unfold, are doubtless wondering why these Arabs are so riled up over some silly cartoons published in a Danish paper. Many Arabs, meanwhile, see this incident as a deliberate provocation against Islam, a faith in which it is not just the content of an image of the Prophet that is potentially blasphemous, but the very act of depiction. It doesn’t matter whether the images appear in a newspaper in Riyahd or on the planet Mars. Any image is sacrilege, so someone must pay.

Someone already has. On Thursday, the Egyptian owner of the newspaper France Soir, Raymond Lakah, sacked the paper’s managing editor for reprinting the cartoon, under the headline, “Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God.” The paper’s staff rallied to their editor’s defense, publishing a front page editorial which said in part that “religious freedom gives people the right to practice their faith or not, but should not become a means to impose the rules of a single religion on society as a whole.”

It now seems the death threats and armed protests are beginning to have their desired effect. The editors of Jyllands-Posten have apologized for offending the Muslim religion and promise to consider Muslims’ feelings before they run anything that might be considered offensive. Some European governments, notably the French, have criticized the press for publishing the cartoons. But the fact is there is a lot of truth in the Danish cartoons. Suicide bombers do find justification in the words of their prophet. The protests, however, have not concerned the content of the cartoons, so much as the simple depiction of Mohammed. The question now becomes whether Western societies decide to adopt Islamic traditions at the expense of its own traditions — such as satire — so as not to give offense.

Westerners do lots of things that are antithetical to various world religions. They eat pork and beef and drink gallons of booze. They fornicate freely and dress like floozies. They keep their stores open on the Sabbath. All of this offends the fundamentalists of one tradition or another.

It is not uncommon that great conflicts begin over trivial incidents. The Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 began after Muslims and Hindus were ordered to use rifle cartridges supposedly greased with pig and cow fat. The loss of a ship captain’s auditory appendage sparked the War of Jenkin’s Ear (1739-1742). This cartoonish row may blow over soon, but its consequences may echo for years to come.

Western observers are undecided whether the editors of European newspapers have been courageous or foolhardy. Why publish the cartoons in the first place? Carsten Juste, the Jyllands-Posten editor, said the cartoons were a test of whether the threat of Islamic terrorism had limited the freedom of expression in Denmark. “We wanted to show how deeply entrenched self-censorship has already become,” he told Der Spiegel. But if thousands of Danish workers are laid off because of the boycotts, or if a newspaper office or embassy is attacked and hundreds of innocent people are killed will the “test” be worth it? On Thursday Der Speigel asked Jyllands-Posten’s political editor that very same question.

“Yes, it was worth it,” he said.

Christopher Orlet, a columnist for The American Spectator Online, runs the Existential Journalist website.