Cartoons With a Sobering Punch Line
A series of satirical cartoons may signify a clash of civilizations. Or it could be a spark of a more complex culture war.
First published last September in a Danish newspaper, the cartoons unflatteringly depicted the prophet Muhammad. In one, his turban is made to look like a bomb. Another has him telling followers that the supply of virgins for suicide martyrs is running low. Accompanying the cartoons was an article criticizing self-censorship in the western world.
If the editors of Jyllands-Posten were hoping for a civil discussion, they were soon disappointed. Protests from Muslim communities mounted. Though the editors twice apologized, two Arab states withdrew their ambassadors, and Muslim leaders called for a boycott on Danish goods.
But free-speech champions have not backed down. Fanning the flames, several European papers reprinted the images, including Die Welt in Berlin. In an editorial, the paper noted that Muslims were conspicuously hypocritical about religious insults, citing a recent Syrian TV documentary that depicted rabbis as cannibals.
Reactions do not simply fall on two sides of an increasingly blurry line between the Islamic and western worlds. British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried unsuccessfully to enact a law that would have made it a crime to use abusive or insulting words about any religion.
Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born philosopher and Muslim who teaches at Oxford, says that hard truths need to be told to both sides.
Free-speech allies need to recognize that Muslims view the depiction of their prophet as blasphemy. They also have to realize that Muslims come out of cultures unaccustomed to the ridiculing of their religion. "On the other side," Ramadan says, "Muslims should know that for the last three centuries in Europe ... there has been an acceptance of the cynical and ironic treatment of religious issues and people."
High-minded sentiments. But Ramadan admits that the polarized climate makes it unlikely that either side will soon be making concessions.
This story appears in the February 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.