Two years ago, a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad printed in a Danish newspaper made the rift between Islam and the largely Christian West a little bit wider. Most Muslims find images of the prophet offensive. I’m not sure the exact reason for this–I could look it up, but we’re really close to deadline–but when you consider that the image of Jesus is now used to sell everything from mesh caps to bumper stickers, it makes you think that whoever came up with that rule had a bit of foresight.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” as the saying goes.
The profane cartoons set off violent protests in the Muslim world that left around 50 people dead and three Danish embassies attacked. Grisly, to be sure, but you would think that would be the end of it.
No such luck. On Tuesday Feb. 12, Danish authorities arrested three men who they believe were plotting to kill one of the offending cartoonists, Ken Westergaard. In response, 11 Danish newspapers reprinted the Westgaard’s cartoon–depicting the prophet wearing a bomb in his turbin–the following day. As you could imagine, this did not go over well.
Coincidentally, Danish Foreign Affairs Committee were set to arrive in Iran on Monday, Feb. 18 “for a three-day trip focusing on human rights and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program,” according to BBC.co.uk. Tehran demanded an apology and a letter of condemnation from Danish officials. Instead, the Danish committee cancelled their trip two days before. In fact, leader of Denmark’s Socialist People’s Party took it one step further.
“We are not the ones to apologize,” he said. “If anyone needs to apologize for freedom of speech, human rights, imprisonments, executions and lack of democracy, it is the Iranians.”
Meanwhile, back in Denmark, youth violence erupted in ethnic neighborhoods in Copenhagen and other Danish cities. Rocks were thrown at cops and trash bins and cars were set on fire. AP reported that a notable Danish Imam, Mostafa Chendid (probably the only voice of reason in this mess) called for everyone to just chill out.
“The Prophet has not taught you to burn down schools, or burn cars or infrastructure,” he said. “Mohammad has taught us civilization.”
Also in Copenhagen, a radical Muslim group exercised its right to free speech and organized a peaceful protest–800 strong–the Friday after the cartoon was reprinted.
Obviously, I support freedom of the press and freedom of speech. If I didn’t, I’d find another line of work. And I understand that supporting free speech applies as much to the things I agree with as it does to the things I hate the most. But when does free speech become willful incitation?
“We are doing this to document what is at stake in this case, and to unambiguously back and support the freedom of speech that we as a newspaper will always defend,” said Berlingske Tidende, one of the newspapers that reprinted the cartoon.
However, two years ago, when Jyllands-Posten, the paper that originally ran the cartoons, was dealing with the fall-out, they issued an apology saying it wasn’t their intent to offend the Muslim community. In that light, reprinting the cartoon almost seems like retaliation for the attempt on Westergaard’s life. Is that free speech or just simple petulance?
I don’t know. It’s a slippery slope no matter which way you try to climb it. I certainly can see both sides. I don’t find the cartoons offensive, but I’m not a man of faith. I also try to turn the other cheek. Perhaps the grimmest statement to come from this whole incident came from the artist himself. Westergaard said that his “fear” of being murdered had turned to “anger and resentment.” And the rift keeps getting wider.