Nine years ago today the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. It was only several months later, however, that protests erupted throughout much of the Muslim world. The Nation, a longtime supporter of free speech rules, somewhat struggled—as everyone did, and does—to produce a coherent response to the controversy, ultimately deciding, in the following editorial, that publishers ought to have a right to print inflammatory materials, but that they have a social responsibility to consider broader dynamics of power and powerlessness before doing so. It is a position the magazine reiterated earlier this year after the attack on the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which has also published cartoons ridiculing Muhammad, as well as almost everyone else.

This magazine has historically been committed to freedom of speech, an essential principle that democratic societies have established over years of struggle, and we remain vigilant in its defense. Given attacks over the years from within our own constituency on cartoons by such esteemed Nation artists as Edward Sorel, David Levine and Robert Grossman, we at The Nation know as well as anyone their power to inflame emotions. Defending free speech means defending the rights of those with whom we disagree most profoundly, whether they are cartoonists who would have us believe that Muhammed is the forefather of today’s suicide bombers, marchers who argue that “blasphemy” is not covered by freedom of speech or Holocaust revisionists on trial in Europe, where some speech is not protected. The cartoon scandal is about much more than freedom of speech. At its heart the controversy is about power—the power of images; the power that divides Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans, the West and the Middle East; the power of radical Islamists to silence more moderate voices—and the responsibility that comes with power. In today’s volatile political climate—charged by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, by Israel’s construction of the “separation wall” in Palestine, by the controversy over the hijab and the revolt in the French banlieues, by the growth of anti-immigration politics and radical Islam in “liberal” Europe and by the velocity with which news and rumor travel on the Internet—the point is not Jyllands-Posten’s right to publish but its editorial wisdom, its sense of civic responsibility. But whether or not the publishing of the cartoons was a reckless provocation, and whether or not the violent response was manipulated by Islamists, we must come to terms with the conditions that created the tinderbox. Cartoons embody larger political and social issues…. Discrimination against Muslims is an objective fact: Racially motivated crimes in Denmark have recently doubled. After the cartoon crisis has passed, that truth will remain.

September 30, 2005

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.