I’m guessing that you’ve heard about the Mohammed cartoon controversy (see Wikipedia article). To make a long story short, Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, just trying to do their bit for world peace and harmony, invited artists to submit cartoons with the prophet Mohammed as their subject. They published twelve of them, featuring various degrees of ridicule of Islam. (You can see the cartoons here.) Muslims worldwide reacted with outrage, featuring protests, rioting, arson, and at least one counter-cartoon contest — sponsored by an Iranian newspaper, asking for cartoons about the Holocaust. (Presumably because they think that Danes were the major targets of the Holocaust?) There is no shortage of blogging on the topic; for contrasting views, see series at Daily Kos and the Volokh Conspiracy.

I haven’t said anything about the controversy, both because I’ve been busy and since I thought the major points were perfectly obvious. The most-discussed points of contention seem to have been: “Did the Danish newspaper have the right to publish such offensive cartoons?”, and “Did the protestors have the right to resort to arson and rioting in response?” Put that way, the answers are obviously “Yes” and “No,” and there’s not much more to say.

Denmark, as far as I know, is not covered by the First Amendment, but in a democratic society newspapers should be permitted to publish just about whatever they want. The fear of offending people is no reason to suppress public speech. (Speech within private associations is a different matter.) The correct response, if something is said with which you disagree, is to say something else in return — the free market of ideas. True, the cartoons in question are low-brow and intentionally provocative, not the expression of any subtle argumentation. But quality of the speech is not relevant. If you don’t like it, let your displeasure be known, like this London (!) protester is doing:
Freedom Go To Hell
A little self-undermining, maybe, but certainly taking advantage of an appropriate outlet for his own personal expression.

The violent reaction from some Muslims (not all, certainly) is completely inappropriate by any standard. This kind of destructive impulse is not something unique to Islam; it’s a familiar human response, one that is encouraged by fundamentalism of all kinds. At its source, it’s the same impulse that leads people to bomb abortion clinics or set fire to rural churches. Demonization of people unlike you, and violent action against them, is a frequent feature of extreme religious belief; not all religious belief, obviously, but a particularly virulent strain. It is antithetical in every way to the values of a liberal democratic society. This is a paradox of free societies: they must tolerate all sorts of belief, even those that are incompatible with freedom.

The subtleties of the cartoon issue only arise when we move from the question of whether Jyllands-Posten should have been allowed to publish the cartoons (since they obviously should have been), to whether it was a good idea to actually do so. Just because speech is allowed doesn’t mean it is mandatory. Knowing that the cartoons would offend the sensibilities of many Muslims, should the newspaper have printed them?

It’s easier to defend freedom of offensive expression when you’re not the one being offended. The same newspaper has apparently been less willing to publish potentially offensive cartoons about Jesus, for example. And many of the folks who are vociferously defending the cartoons are less willing to stand up for freedom of expression when it comes to flag burning. On the flip side, they have asked whether those who wring their hands over giving offense were all that bothered about works of art that offended Christians, such as Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary (you know, the one with the elephant dung).

Whether or not a group should offend another group (granting that they have the right to) isn’t a matter of fundamental rights, it’s a matter of politeness and civil discourse. The analogy between the Mohammed cartoons and Piss Christ is not a very close one. The former were published in a newspaper, almost begging to be distributed as widely as possible. The latter was shown in an art museum; if you didn’t want to go, nobody was forcing you. Art is (sometimes) supposed to be shocking and provocative; the idea that a gallery should refrain from displaying pieces that offend some people’s sensibilities is dangerous and counter-productive.

Still, even though it was a much more public forum, I don’t think that requirements of civility and politeness are paramount here. It’s true that, although I personally am happy to explain to Muslims why their ideas about religion are completely incorrect, I wouldn’t go out of my way to simply be offensive to their beliefs. But it’s not my newspaper. The editors of Jyllands-Posten weren’t being offensive by mistake; they were making every effort to be offensive, but it’s not like they were putting up posters in downtown Mecca. I may think it’s juvenile and stupid (and I do), but it’s their choice. I doubt that many of the rioters are regular readers of Jyllands-Posten, a right-wing Danish rag; they should have just ignored it.

Unfortunately I can’t demonstrate my good faith by my willingness to allow anyone to offend my own beliefs in the same way, since my beliefs are of a somewhat different character. But, for the record, if anyone wants to draw some offensive cartoons about Galileo, or John Stuart Mill, or Charles Darwin, or Virginia Woolf, or Einstein, or Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Bertrand Russell, be my guest. I promise not to riot.

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68 Responses to Cartoons

  1. Arun says:

    Ted Rall, a working cartoonist, has a take on it:

    It is an impressive rant, for those who don’t want to navigate there, here is an excerpt. I generally agree with it, by the way.

    As the only syndicated political cartoonist who also writes a syndicated column, my living depends on freedom of the press. I can’t decide who’s a bigger threat: the deluded Islamists who hope to impose Sharia law on Western democracies, or the right-wing clash-of-civilization crusaders waving the banner of “free speech”–the same folks who call for the censorship and even murder of anti-Bush cartoonists here–as an excuse to join the post-9/11 Muslims-suck media pile-on. Most reasonable people reject both–but neither is as dangerous to liberty as America’s self-censoring newspaper editors and broadcast producers.

    “CNN has chosen not to show the [Danish Mohammed] cartoons out of respect for Islam,” said the news channel.

    “We always weigh the value of the journalistic impact against the impact that publication might have as far as insulting or hurting certain groups,” said an editor at The San Francisco Chronicle.

    “The cartoons didn’t meet our long-held standards for not moving offensive content,” said the Associated Press.


    If these cowards were worried about offending the faithful, they wouldn’t cover or quote such Muslim-bashers as Ann Coulter, Christopher Hitchens or George W. Bush. The truth is, our national nanny media is managed by cowards so terrified by the prospect of their offices being firebombed that they wallow in self-censorship.

    Precisely because they subvert free speech from within with their oh-so-reasonable odes for “moderation” and against “sensationalism,” the gatekeepers of our national nanny media are more dangerous to Western values than distant mullahs and clueless neocons combined. Editors and producers decide not only what’s fit to print but also what’s not: flag-draped coffins and body bags arriving from Iraq, photographs of Afghan civilians, their bodies reduced to blobs of blood and protoplasm, all purged from our national consciousness. You might think it’s news when the vice president tells a senator to “go f— yourself” on the Senate floor, but you’d be wrong–only tortured roundabout descriptions (like “f—“) make newsprint. “This is a family newspaper,” any editor will say, arguing for self-censorship–as if kids couldn’t fill in those three letters in “f—.”

    As if kids read the paper.

  2. It changes nothing about the larger issues having to do with this, but Islam interprets the graven images commandment very, very literally. It is considered haram (forbidden by Islamic law) to create any depicition of Muhammad, regardless of whether or not it mocks Islam or is super-respectful and religious. Thus, to a Muslim, this isn’t the same thing as a cartoon mocking jesus would be to a Christian. The comparison to Piss Christ, as Sean says above, is much more apt.

    That being said, I still can’t belive there is mass rioting, and the withdrawal of ambassadors over this. The actions of fundamentalist Muslims make no sense to me, really.

  3. Arun says:

    might be of interest to you, bittergradstudent.

    Some of this fundamentalism stems from Wahabbi Islam, where even the Prophet’s house was demolished because of this ideology.

  4. Hektor Bim says:

    bittergradstudent is not correct.

    It is considered haram by some Muslims to create any depiction of Muhammad. Notably, images of Muhammad are for sale in Shia Iran and officially sanctioned there and by some Sufis. The Ottomans (Sunnis to a man) drew Muhammad regularly in miniatures, only obscuring his face by flames. The level of iconoclasm in Muslim thought and culture has varied over the centuries and varies today among different Muslim communities.

    Salafism or Wahabism does not equal Islam, any more than Sunni thought encompasses all of Islam, despite the best efforts of people like Saudia Arabia and apparently bittergradstudent.

    A lot of the outrage comes from the satirical and offensive intent of some of the drawings.

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  6. michaeld says:

    Thank you Sean!! As someone with broadly liberal views I have been really disgusted by the reaction of a lot of liberals to this, and disturbed that most of the people condemning these intimidation tactics and upholding freedom of speech are Bush supporters, who supported the invasion of Iraq, think only one side is at fault in the Israel-Palestine conflict etc. It’s good to see that not all liberals feel obliged to pander to Islam.

  7. Well, as with most of my kind I alternate between benevolent condescension towards “our Danish cousins”, and irrational anger about their sanctimony in view of their history and current efforts.
    But, by far the most annoying thing about all of this, is that now Norwegians are being confused with Danes, and both are trying to get out of it by pretending to be Icelanders…

  8. The whole thing is crazy on many levels. No, Jyllands-Posten should not have published the cartoons. What does it accomplish to deliberately offend the believers of some religion, just because you can? The comparison to Piss Christ and similar raises an interesting point. At the time, it was tempting for someone like me to shrug it off as shock art, and even to shrug off the fact that it was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. But was public funding really a good idea? It seems hard to argue now that it was.

    On the other hand, the response to the cartoons is horrible, excessive, dishonest, hypocritical, inconsistent, and otherwise irrational. The aspect that really gives me pause is that on the basis of zero evidence, Iranians and others decided to blame and bash the Jews. In response they do not draw anti-Danish cartoons, they draw anti-Jewish cartoons. (Which they have been doing for a long time anyway. I’m not sure why they see any fresh provocation in it.) It is an echo of the Crusades, in which the Europeans slaughtered Jews as a warm-up to fighting better-armed Muslims.

    I am tempted to say that it is squaring the circle to try to make religion logical. Even if you accept basic concerns of religions — Christians don’t want public sexuality, Muslims don’t want pictures of Mohammed — the responses are hopelessly inconsistent. In one season, a show like Temptation Island provokes no great outcry. On another day, Janet Jackson bares her breast and that’s a scandal. So there is a difference, I suppose, between studied and incidental provocation of religious people. Studied provocation is sometimes foolish. Incidental provocation can’t be helped.

  9. Belizean says:

    I didn’t think that my opinion of the American news media could sink any lower until this week’s display of its mass cowardice. I agree with Rall that a particularly disgusting aspect of this cowardice is the media’s insistance on denying it.

    I also found the Bush administration’s cowardly labeling of the cartoons as “unacceptable” to be irritatingly disappointing.

    If our society this cowed by Islamists today, what will happen when they have access to nuclear weapons courtesy of Iran? Ass kissing 24/7?

    The one bright spot is the surprising courage of the European press, lead most notably by a French magazine. Who would have thunk it?

  10. Well, I shouldn’t overgeneralize. There are religious people who don’t buy into the provocation game. If people keep to their own beliefs — expressing a public opinion from time to time is also fine — then I don’t have to pass judgment on what they believe. My personal belief is that religion isn’t rational, but detente is only fair if the believers on the other side abide by it.

    Another point is that no one is rational all the time anyway. I don’t think that it is ever good to be irrational, but it is only human. Certainly there are devout people whose total irrationality is much less than that of many atheists.

  11. I can’t say that I quite understand the accusation of cowardice in this case. Is cowardice any impulse to avoid harm, or is it just unwillingness to dangerous but necessary things? I don’t see the cowardice in letting sleeping dogs lie.

  12. Belizean says:

    I can’t say that I quite understand the accusation of cowardice in this case. Is cowardice any impulse to avoid harm, or is it just unwillingness to dangerous but necessary things?

    Cowardice is the failure to performs one’s duty as a consequence of fear. The duty of the press (as it often declares) is to inform the public. It is not to minimize the danger to its employees. The cartoons are clearly newsworthy — i.e. the public needs to be informed about them by seeing them — because these images cause of a global epidemic of rioting.

    It would also have cowardice if, for example, the New York Times had refused to publish Abugraib photos in response to implied threats from the Bush administration. [They only published them, it now seems, because they were secure in the knowledge that they had nothing whatsoever to fear from the administration.]

  13. I guess I would agree, given the precedent of Abu Ghraib, that it would be newsworthy to reprint the cartoons. I agree because I was curious to see what the fuss was about. The newspapers evidently decided have decided that the newsworthiness of the cartoons was outweighed by the anger that they would invite. So I guess this technically qualifies as cowardice.

    But is it unacceptable cowardice? I am not convinced, for several reasons. First, anyone who wants to can find the cartoons on the Internet anyway. Maybe a reasonable compromise would be for the newspapers to explain how to find the cartoons on the Internet.

    Second, if I had a traffic accident with a mobster, then I would be “cowardly” and inconsistent in response. I might well try to keep it confidential, even if I might publicly talk about a traffic accident with someone who is not a mobster. I would not even take the trouble to thank the other driver for not being a mobster. I don’t think that we owe each other explicit thanks for not being killers. By the same token, I don’t think that the New York Times owes the administration thanks for not being as tyrannical (at least toward the domestic press) as Islamic terrorists.

    Third, the New York Times doesn’t owe you anything either. They are a privately owned newspaper. Yes, they should print newsworthy things, because that is their product. But it’s not their “duty”. It may even be the ideal that they strive for, as with their masthead slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print”. Even so, they are allowed to fall short. There is a lot of foot-tapping from many quarters over why the Times did this and didn’t do that. I think that most of it is out of place.

  14. Arun says:

    It seems very likely that the so-called offensive cartoons were published in an Egyptian newspaper, way back, October 17, 2005.


    Therefore the incendiary nature of this is not in the printing of the cartoons – the “outrage” is an orchestrated thing, orchestrated some by governments and some by non-governmental groups.

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  16. Anti-Nothing says:

    Presumably you do know that Holocaust-denail is outlawed in many EU-member states, hence the Iranian counter-cartoon contest; on the other hand the figures published in the Human Rights Watch[0] reports on the rise of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim hate crimes contribute a thing or two to the Muslims’ view that the west is out there to get them. Regarding the argument of previous depictions of the prophet, I think that it is best to quote the BBC here: “It is the satirical intent of the cartoonists, and the association of the Prophet with terrorism, that is so offensive to the vast majority of Muslims.”[45]


  17. How much violence against Muslims has there been in Denmark? Denmark is also not among the countries that outlaw Holocaust denial. Is the idea now that Western countries have to answer for each others’ politics?

  18. One can’t simply dismiss Jyllands-Posten as a ‘right wing Danish rag’. It’s actually the highest-circulation daily newspaper in Denmark and is only really right wing by comparison to the general tenor of public discourse there (it’s also begging the question to link ‘right wing’ with ‘rag’. The axes ‘left wing/right wing’ and ‘rag/respectable publication’ are orthogonal). The original exercise was to investigate the degree to which self-censorship (which is really more pernicious than the overt kind) was suppressing artistic and satirical engagement with radical Islam. To that end, it has been a smashing success. The very fact that such banal subject matter engendered such a furious response is significant in and of itself. Had the cartoons been genuinely inflammatory, then the offence taken might have been more understandable—although its violent expression would have been no less reprehensible.

    It’s a little disingenuous to say that free speech does not force us to offend. If it is to mean anything, free speech includes the right to offend, and rights that are not exercised atrophy. If I disagree with someone, then expressing my disagreement is likely to cause him offence. I think that vegetarianism is tantamount to an eating disorder like bulimia, for example, a standpoint that no doubt is offensive to vegetarians. But I don’t expect to see a gang of militant vegans threatening to behead me.You have to push the envelope. Censorship, including self-censorship, only happens at the margins of discourse, and never in the middle. It is only controversial speech that has to fear the blue pencil of the thought police. And the degree to which your interlocutor believes in his position is neither here nor there. Strong and sincere belief in evil does not mitigate the evil itself. A Fascist or Stalinist true believer is not excused because he really believes in the rightness of his cause. Likewise the Islamofascist barbarians shrieking about depictions of Mohammed. They might be genuinely upset, but that is no reason to indulge them. And I’ll cut them a lot more slack when they stop printing the truly grotesque anti-Semitic cartoons in their own press.

    By the way, nice blog. I came here looking for news on the LHC.

  19. The one intelligently designed says:

    I completely agree with what Sean has said. I am a Muslim myself. I was offended myself when I saw these cartoons cause it seemed like those guys are not trying to make a joke but just trying to humiliate the Muslim tradition. But the kind of fuss it has created is plain stupidity. A billion people going crazy over the work of a few cartoonists.
    I personaly feel like its not only a matter of freedom of press its also an internal matter of a country. Why do people want to dictate their norms and traditions on other countries. I think its upto the Danes to think if what was done was right or wrong.

  20. The One intelligently designed says:

    As for the voilence in protests is concenred , you should also keep it in mind that it happens all the time in many of the third world countries and not only over religious issues and not only in muslim countries. Getting some people who could burn some buildings and break cars is not that hard. When you havs millions of youth having nothing to do at all, thats what they do. I cant speak of other countries, but in my own country, I have yet to see a person who took a day off from his job to go to these protests.
    To belizean, If what you mean is that they should have printed one or two cartoons as illustration of what the story is all about then you may be right. But printing them as a medal of press freedom doesnt make sense to me. Its about the decision that what you think as worthy of printing or not. Let me make a few cartoons about Holucost or Black slavery and then see if they are courageous enough to print them. Would you advocate with the same reasoning then?

  21. Free speech also includes the right to verbally humiliate a loyal spouse, so it is a good thing that there are married cads who still do that. Otherwise the right to do so might atrophy.

    Although I can’t quite place it, there seems to be a non sequitur in that logic.

  22. Douglas says:

    Has anyone really considered the fact that these riots are obviously state-sanctioned? These nations do not hold freedom of speech (obviously) and protests are certainly banned. The only reason citizens of these countries can get “away” with rioting and protesting the cartoons is that as their leaders tell the Western world “We condemn these acts of violence,” they are giving these people days off work and the means to perform acts of violence. Obviously these nations’ leaders are benefiting *tremendously* from the whole fiasco.

    Why is it that American media has taken to such a decidedly barbaric portrayal of Islam (which isn’t new at all)? Why is it that all Americans hear about that religion is car bombs, riots, and terrorism? Could the media possibly be benefiting from the outrage and suspicion that Americans have had towards Muslims for many years now? Could, I don’t know… the President?

    Seeing as we have no contact with what is actually going on in these countries, I’m not surprised that our views are being shaped by the interests of those who determine what we can know.

    …And isn’t it just a little odd that the cartoons were published last September, over four months ago? How clear do I have to make it that people are flaming the passions of a few individuals to benefit from this kind of news!?

  23. subodh says:

    hi sean,
    nice post… but do you really absolutely draw no line in defending the freedom of speech at all costs in all democratic societies? isn’t upholding such a belief just as dogmatic as upholding one’s religious (or otherwise) beliefs? (sorry to have to bring this up), but what do you think about democratic post-war (formerly west) germany’s take on the freedom of speech? india (a patently democratic society where communal tensions have flaired up violently twice in the last twenty years) has strict laws against religiously inflammatory speech. such legislation is there to save lives, and i’d rather those laws were in place than not. your post was phrased in some rather general terms… it is this generality that makes me uneasy (one size fits all etc.)…

  24. Belizean says:

    Greg Kuperberg:

    So I guess this technically qualifies as cowardice. But is it unacceptable cowardice?

    It might be acceptable cowardice, if the press did not insist on lying to us about it. They are too afraid to print the cartoons, and they refuse to admit that.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    I don’t think that the New York Times owes the administration thanks for not being as tyrannical (at least toward the domestic press) as Islamic terrorists.

    This is a bit OT, but it really doesn’t help to clarify the issue, when you characterize the admininstration as “not being as tyrannical… as Islamic terrorists”. You don’t have to be a rabid Bush supporter to admit that you can openly criticize George Bush and his administration without the slightest fear of reprisal, while openly criticizing Islam, especially if you are a muslim, puts your life in danger — even in the United States.

    Greg Kuperberg:

    …the New York Times doesn’t owe you anything either. They are a privately owned newspaper. Yes, they should print newsworthy things, because that is their product. But it’s not their “duty”.

    It’s not their legal duty. It is their moral duty under the ethical imperative that they themselves claim to be operating under. If they want to change that imperative, that’s fine. Let them announce that henceforth they will print a news item only if doing so will expose them to no risks whatsoever.

    The One intelligently designed:

    Let me make a few cartoons about Holucost or Black slavery and then see if they are courageous enough to print them. Would you advocate with the same reasoning then?


  25. Tim D says:

    I generally agree with Sean’s (and Ted Rall’s) take on the matter, but its worth pointing out that for a lot of the people who are rioting, the issue is probably not just (or even mainly) about the cartoons. Riots always have a psychogical flashpoint, but they draw upon a larger reservoir of outrage over injustices (both perceived and real, depending on your politics, I suppose).

    I don’t think the Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s were only about the acquittal of the police officers; anger arose out of years of police harassment and marginalization of the poor inner-city folk. Likewise, I would argue that these riots are less about religion and intolerance, than the fact that you have high unemployment, corrupt governments and a disturbingly high level of anger toward the U.S. and the “west” in general over the Iraq War, Palestine, etc. If the Muslim countries in question were prosperous and peaceful, my sense is most people would just roll their eyes and get on with their lives.

    So yeah, people are being stupid by rioting over a cartoon, I mean, if you’re gonna go to the trouble of protesting, at least make it about a substantive issue. But it’s always the straw that breaks the camel’s back, isn’t it?