In April 2003 Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons offering a lighthearted take on the resurrection of Christ to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Zieler received an e-mail from the paper’s Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, saying: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten‘s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry. Therefore I will not use them.” Two years later the same paper published twelve cartoons of Muhammad, including one with him wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a burning fuse. Predictably enough, it created an outcry. How we got from there to talk of “the Muslim threat” to the immutable European traditions of secularism and freedom of speech, while Scandinavian embassies burn in the Arab world, is illuminating.
Four months after the cartoons were published, Jyllands-Posten‘s editor apologized. In the intervening time Muslims engaged in mostly peaceful protests. Several Arab and Muslim nations withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark while demonstrators picketed embassies. According to Denmark’s consul in Dubai, a boycott of Danish products in the Gulf would cost the country $27 million in sales.
All of this went largely unnoticed in the West, apart from critics who characterized the protests as evidence of a “clash of civilizations.” In their attempt to limit free speech, went the argument, the demonstrators proved that Islam and Western democracy were incompatible.
Even on its own terms this logic is disingenuous. The right to offend must come with at least one consequent right and one subsequent responsibility. People must have the right to be offended, and those bold enough to knowingly cause offense should be bold enough to weather the consequences, so long as the aggrieved respond within the law. Muslims were in effect being vilified twice–once through the original cartoons and then again for having the gall to protest them. Such logic recalls the words of the late South African black nationalist Steve Biko: “Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked.”
Nonetheless, the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric framed the discussion for the almost inevitable violence to come. For as criticism mounted, other European newspapers decided to reprint the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. This was clearly inflammatory. Now the flames have reached all the way to the Middle East, where Danish and Norwegian embassies have been burned down. And the violence has been characterized as evidence that Muslims are plain uncivilized.
There seems to be almost universal agreement that these cartoons are offensive. There should also be universal agreement that the paper has a right to publish them without fear of violent reprisal. When it comes to freedom of speech, the liberal/left should not sacrifice its values one inch to those who seek censorship on religious grounds. But the right to freedom of speech equates to neither an obligation to offend nor a duty to be insensitive. If our commitment to free speech is important, our belief in antiracism should be no less so. Neither the cartoons nor the violence has emerged from a vacuum. They are steeped in and have contributed to an increasingly recriminatory atmosphere shaped by, among other things, war, intolerance and historic injustices. According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, racially motivated crimes doubled in Denmark between 2004 and ’05. These cartoons only served to compound Muslims’ sense of alienation and vulnerability. The Jerusalem Post has now published the cartoons. Iranian newspaper Hamshari is calling for illustrators to ridicule the Holocaust. The race to the gutter is on.