Sunday, February 05, 2006

Danish cartoonists

This article, reports that the Danish embassy in Beirut was torched by Lebanese protesters. At least 18 people were injured, although many protesters were themselves upset, because they had expected a peaceful protest. According to this source, Syrian protesters also torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus as well as accidentally damaging the Swedish embassy on their way to the French embassy. This article describes the event that triggered the protest in more detail: it seems that some members of "the Islamic world" felt that certain political cartoons were in poor taste. (This blog shows one of the cartoons in question.*) Rather than join the many who were writing stern letters to the editor, a few turned to violence.
(America and several European countries blame this on Syria, for failing to protect the embassies; presumably they also hold Lebanon responsible.)

So, Denmark find itself in a bit of national security crisis (the BBC describes Denmark as bemused by the whole thing), and their response is to apologize, while continuing to assert that they were right in printing the cartoons. That's not a real apology, in my opinion. Denmark (as well as other countries who printed or re-printed the cartoons) holds that it had every right to print the cartoons, because free speech is a basic tenet of democracy. Unfortunately, Denmark is learning that free speech does not cover being offensive for the sheer sake of being offensive, nor does it cover defiling holy symbols. It will be interesting to see how this minor insult (at least as far as Denmark is concerned) develops, and to see how violent the end response to this cultural insensitivity becomes.

As an
aside, the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, responded to this crisis by saying, "We hope that religious centers like the Vatican will clarify their opinion in this respect." The Vatican did, indeed, clarify its position: "The right to freedom of thought and expression cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers." Denmark is over 95% Protestant, so I do wonder if they're really listening to the Vatican.

*Please do not click on the link if you are likely to be offended. Contents of the cartoon should not be construed as opinions of the author of this post, the Patterson School, or anyone else associated with this blog.


Robert Farley said...

It's interesting, because it touches on some important differences between the US interpretation of free speech and freedom of the press and the European interpretation. I'm somewhat more inclined to lean toward the US, but that's as much of a trade-off as any other value conflict.

Cavour said...

I think the European responses is jaw-droppingly insensitive and more than a little stupid. Just because one of their newspapers printed a cartoon doesn't mean that it was wise, responsible, or tasteful to do so. It would have been perfectly permissible to condemn the paper's tasteless decision to print the cartoons without infringing on freedom of the press.

Western Europe COULD learn a valuable lesson about taste and responsibility from this. Given the Europeans' reactions thus far, I don't really expect it, though.

Waw Waw said...

I found this event to be interesting because Denmark is usually not one of the countries in the center of the news and I do think that while there free speech right, this is unacceptable, I mean how would Christians like it if Jesus was depicted like that.

Meow said...

Okay, guys...this is going to be horribly unpopular, but here goes anyway.

Jesus HAS been represented that way. Does anyone remember the scandal over the artist who urinated in a jar, put a crucifix in it, and photographed it?

While there was a huge uproar over the issue, I don't recall anyone storming the artmuseum to burn it or doing violence on the artist's person. Furthermore, I think we should also realize that the most offensive cartoons that helped actually spark the whole scandal were NOT PRINTED IN THE PAPER. Rather, they were taken out of Denmark and used to incite violence.

And certainly printing the cartoons was silly, considering that Islam, if I recall correctly, prohibits the representation of its prophets or God, but one has to remember that the Danes were printing this for Danish consumption. Sure the rest of Europe could condemn the paper as being blatantly stupid, but neither can they tell the Danes not to print whatever they wish to print.

Finally, are we really shocked that a newspaper printed a tasteless cartoon? How often has that happened in the United States? I direct your attention to Falwell v. Flynt. (I think that's how you spell the crazy man's name.) Flynt ran a satirical comic and interview with Falwell in his magazine of ill repute. Falwell turned around and sued on the grounds that it was malicious and libelous. The Supreme Court sided with dear old Larry, agreeing that while the comic was distasteful, it was protected under the First Amendment.

Granted Falwell isn't the basis of a religion, but the comic did feature some particularly perverted religious symbolism.

Going back to the issue of insensitivity--the United States is not exactly known for its tact in the rest of the world, and our comics are no exception to that. I don't think Americans can really afford to take the moral high ground on this one--or have we forgotten the legacy of Thomas Nast.

I'm remarkably comfortable with the European response in the same way I'm comfortable with the publication by the KKK of racist literature. I don't agree with it--and I find the underlying biases disgusting--but they have every right to print their views. We certainly wouldn't countenance the NAACP going and burning down the KKK offices in Hartford, now would we?

Waw Waw, when you say that you accept that there's a right to free speech, you have to accept the good with the bad. You can't just turn around and abridge that by saying "this is unacceptable". Yes, there are limits on free speech, libel is one, but regardless of what we might think, good taste is not one of the requirements of publication.

Jesco said...

I wish those guys could calm down a little bit. It's amazing they have nothing better to do than flock together and violently protest whatever they can. This shows how powerful religion is, and how it can be the greatest obstacle to negotiating something or maintaining peace. They just can't even give an inch.

Cavour said...


Being a Christian, I find the depiction of Jesus you mentioned even more despicable. Just because you have the right to print or sculpt something doesn't mean it's tasteful or responsible to do so. Similarly, the museum and the newspaper should not be required to showcase it. Furthermore, it's fully within the right of anybody to protest it in any peaceful manner. It's within the rights of Christians to picket the museum showing that depiction of Jesus. It's within the rights of Muslims to show their disapproval by boycotting Danish goods and demonstrating outside the Danish embassy. That latter one is a little thing called "freedom of assembly."

While I draw the line at violence (e.g. torching the embassy), any non-violent protest is perfectly acceptable. You may not agree with how seriously Muslims take it, but they're within their rights to be upset and to express their anger. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. Everything we do has consequences. You can't just hide behind freedom of speech and expect to get away with anything.


I don't think religion is the problem here. I can perfectly understand why the rioters are so upset, and I'm not a Muslim. I think there are multiple factors at work here. Many West European countries are notoriously bigoted, particularly toward their growing Muslim populations. In other words, the Muslim states don't exactly have a monopoly on intolerance. Part of the problem here is the Europeans' desire to hide their intolerance behind their (rather lame) excuse of free speech. It's also partially a desire by numerous factions within the Islamic world to exploit this for their own gain.