Why He Published Those Cartoons

Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, has a long op-ed in today’s WaPo explaining, “Why I Published Those Cartoons.”

I agree that the freedom to publish things doesn’t mean you publish everything. Jyllands-Posten would not publish pornographic images or graphic details of dead bodies; swear words rarely make it into our pages. So we are not fundamentalists in our support for freedom of expression.

But the cartoon story is different.

Those examples have to do with exercising restraint because of ethical standards and taste; call it editing. By contrast, I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn’t to provoke gratuitously — and we certainly didn’t intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.

At the end of September, a Danish standup comedian said in an interview with Jyllands-Posten that he had no problem urinating on the Bible in front of a camera, but he dared not do the same thing with the Koran.

This was the culmination of a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship. Last September, a Danish children’s writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship. European translators of a critical book about Islam also did not want their names to appear on the book cover beside the name of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding.

Around the same time, the Tate gallery in London withdrew an installation by the avant-garde artist John Latham depicting the Koran, Bible and Talmud torn to pieces. The museum explained that it did not want to stir things up after the London bombings. (A few months earlier, to avoid offending Muslims, a museum in Goteborg, Sweden, had removed a painting with a sexual motif and a quotation from the Koran.)

Finally, at the end of September, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with a group of imams, one of whom called on the prime minister to interfere with the press in order to get more positive coverage of Islam.

So, over two weeks we witnessed a half-dozen cases of self-censorship, pitting freedom of speech against the fear of confronting issues about Islam. This was a legitimate news story to cover, and Jyllands-Posten decided to do it by adopting the well-known journalistic principle: Show, don’t tell. I wrote to members of the association of Danish cartoonists asking them “to draw Muhammad as you see him.” We certainly did not ask them to make fun of the prophet. Twelve out of 25 active members responded.

Well, they certainly showed. While I’m not sure how “disturbing” a restriction of free speech fear of urinating on a religious artifact imposes, one should not allow the fear of violence to allow one religion to get preferential treatment.

Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn’t intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.

This is exactly why Karl Popper, in his seminal work “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” insisted that one should not be tolerant with the intolerant. Nowhere do so many religions coexist peacefully as in a democracy where freedom of expression is a fundamental right. In Saudi Arabia, you can get arrested for wearing a cross or having a Bible in your suitcase, while Muslims in secular Denmark can have their own mosques, cemeteries, schools, TV and radio stations.

Quite so. It is simply inconceivable that any series of cartoons, films, novels, or any other form of expression that insulted Christianity or Judaism at any level would provoke anything approaching the level of violence we have seen in the Islamic world.

And, please, do not bring up examples from the Medieval period. Civilization marches forward. Or, at least, it has in the Christian and Muslim Jewish world. That Islam is theologically stuck in the 7th Century does not allow its adherents to conduct themselves as if this were the Dark Ages.

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Danish Muslim Cartoons - Click to enlarge

See these cartoons in full size here.

Related entries below the fold.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DeWaun says:

    And, please, do not bring up examples from the Medieval period. Civilization marches forward. Or, at least, it has in the Christian and Muslim world. That Islam is theologically stuck in the 7th Century does not allow its adherents to conduct themselves as if this were the Dark Ages.

    I belive you meant, “Jewish”?

  2. James Joyner says:

    DeWaun – Yep. Fixed. Thanks.

  3. Herb says:

    I must hand it to the Dames for publishing the cartoons. As stated by the Danish newspaper, “it was not meant to cause riots and deaths in the Muslim world”, the truth is now known to everyone. The Muslim World is a world of hate, violence and killing anyone that just happens to be nearby. The Muslims have no one but themselves to blame for this entire mess, Their exreemist views and actions are definitely now from a “peaceful religon” as we hear so often from everywhere. Moderate Muslims, I haven’t seen it yet and don’t think I or anyone else will either.

    The best action the Europeans can take now, is to deport every muslim back to their own lands and let them have their perveted joys of killing each other.

  4. Olrnf says:

    It is simply inconceivable that any series of cartoons, films, novels, or any other form of expression that insulted Christianity or Judaism at any level would provoke anything approaching the level of violence we have seen in the Islamic world.

    And, please, do not bring up examples from the Medieval period.

    Modern Christian violence tends to be more systematic–and far more deadly. Christianity was an essential element in Hitler’s facist vision of the world–and certainly the holocaust was directly the product of his Christian “theology.”

    Similarly, the genocide in Rwanda (a primarily Christan country) was the work of Christians. In fact you had people like Nsengimana, Rukundo, and Seromba–all Catholic leaders–who are awaiting trial for genocide at the International Tribunal. Ntakirutimana, a protestant pastor, has already been found guilty of genocide.

  5. Randall says:

    Fine, The Christians are violent. Say your piece. Make your point. Reasonable people can disagree over the extent to which Christianity actually caused the violence in any given part of the world, or was simply a thin layer spread out recently over a troubled culture afflicted by conflicts going back thousands of years.

    The fact is, you can make the claim and go home this evening without police escort.

    As an atheist, I think that fact is not lost on me.

  6. G A PHILLIPS says:

    dude, Hitler was an evolutionist, and the catholic church does not have jack to do with being a true Christian, do you know how many Christian’s were put to death by said church just for trying to read the gospel or owning a bible, you folks need to hit them history books a little harder. The Muslims have only have Islam to blame for being Muslims. Olrnf, buddy, were did you ever get the the idea that Hitler was was a follower of Jesus Christ.

  7. Olrnf says:

    Olrnf, buddy, were did you ever get the the idea that Hitler was was a follower of Jesus Christ.

    His on speeches and writings. The point of bringing up the history of modern “christian violence” is to show how stupid it is to engage in the simplistic “analysis” that James exemplified in this post which suggests that religions are both unitary and the primary causal factor for such protests as we’re seeing in relation to these cartoons.

  8. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Olrnf, I did not ask where Hitler used God’s name for his own end, I asked how you came to believe that he was a follower of Jesus Christ, and are you saying that Islam does not have everything to do with the way that its believers act. I can see your point a little, but I do believe that The teaching of Islam is the true cause, and it is not the way some people use this faith, Terrorism is the way that their God has commanded them to spread their faith. Please look into this for your self if you do not believe me.

  9. Olrnf says:

    Hitler used GodÂ’s name for his own end, I asked how you came to believe that he was a follower of Jesus Christ,

    What’s the differnce? Anyone can claim that they “follow” any religion, historical figure, mythical figure, etc…Who is to judge?

  10. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Olrnf, They are Judged by what they do, in this they show if, or not, they are true believers, in what they preach.

  11. Boyd says:

    I think the discussion of who may or may not be a Christian is beside the point. More important would be the reaction of Christians to such behavior.

    While the population of Muslims participating in these riots may be small relative to the universe of Muslims, the general lack of condemnation and, in some cases, endorsement of their actions by Muslim leaders says much about Muslims.