Does the press have the right to mock religions?

cartoon32With Danish and Norwegian embassies in flames this weekend, it is clear that Muslim outrage over a Denmark newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad is not going away. We previously highlighted some of the issues involved, namely that Islam forbids rendering Muhammad in visual media and the obvious tension between Western values of freedom of the press and a Europe with a growing Muslim population. Yesterday Terry covered the stateside media treatment. But this religion and media story is causing such an international crisis that I feel compelled to point out a few other things.

In comments posted here, reader Maryam highlights the attempt of some Muslim bloggers to explain the outrage in a way Westerners will understand:

As Rachard Itani in Counterpunch and many of us Muslim bloggers (try here, here and here) have noted, the reaction to the Danish cartoons issue has far more to do with the rise in xenophobia in Europe, than religious blasphemy.

The cartoons weren’t simply depictions of the Prophet Muhammad; they were cruel drawings of him with extreme racially Semetic characteristics (drawing on Europe’s prior history of anti-Jewish prejudice) inferring extremely offensive and prejudiced sentiments.

If a series of cartoons were printed denying and mocking the Holocaust or depicting Martin Luther King Jnr. in virulent anti-Black messages the world would be rightfully outraged, and media personalities would barely dare to make a peep about ‘free speech’.

Thanks to Maryam for providing links to some analysis. It would be nice if there were a few more mainstream media reports explaining why and how this became an international incident. It might also be nice to read if any Muslims are defending the burning of buildings, issuing of bomb threats, etc., in response. Reuters’ story on the latest embassy attack in Beirut highlights that Muslims are not of one mind about the cartoon response:

Muslim protesters set ablaze the Danish consulate in Beirut on Sunday, and the violent turn in protests over publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad drew condemnation from European capitals and moderate Muslims. . . .

“This has nothing to do with Islam at all,” Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told Future television. “Destabilizing security and vandalism give a wrong image of Islam. Prophet Mohammad cannot be defended this way.”

The Reuters article quotes a few more Muslims as opposing the protests but fails to provide any indication of why some Muslims are burning and kidnapping and others are decrying the same. It should surprise no one that a billion Muslims across the world might not interpret the Quran and other texts the same way. And yet the non-Muslim world doesn’t understand the fissures within the religion. Wouldn’t this cartoon incident — and various reactions to it — be a great way to tell the story?

I also would like to point out Matthew Parris’ opinion piece in The Times of London decrying his paper’s decision not to publish the cartoons. Not only is he not Muslim, Christian Jewish or Hindu, he also thinks these groups are flat out wrong. He mentions this to make his point:

Cutting through the babble of well-meaning souls who like to speak of the “community” of belief among “people of faith”, this must also be what the Muslim is saying to the Christian, Jew or Hindu; or what the Christian must be saying to the Jew, Hindu or Muslim. These faiths make demands and assert truths that are not compatible with the demands and truths of other faiths. To assert one must be to deny the others. Nor is it possible to reply, as some nice Anglicans try to, that “my faith does not exclude yours”. But if other faiths do exclude their Anglicanism, then those Anglicans must exclude those faiths because they must regard it as wrong of them exclude them. There is no faith-based equivalent to the “different strokes for different folks” maxim, unless other folks subscribe to it too. They do not.

I have dealt with the logic of the position. People of faith and people of none cannot escape attaching themselves to claims that are inherently offensive — and at the deepest level — to other people.

But offence implicitly offered, and offence actually taken, are two different matters. On the whole Christians, for example, take offence less readily than Muslims. The case for treating them, in consequence, differently is obvious, but we should be wary of it. It means groups are allowed to be as thin-skinned as they wish: to dictate for themselves how delicately we must tread with them — to create, as it were, their own definition of respect and require us to observe it. Those who do this may not always realise that that they create serious buried resentments among those of fellow-citizens who are more broad-shouldered about the trading of insult.

The press has the right to mock religions, Parris argues. And in the West they certainly choose to exercise that right — see the cartoon above. I should also mention that I have absolutely no idea what the point of the cartoon below is as I read no Arabic. I’m just sure it offends someone. The other Parris point that I find interesting and applicable is that no matter how hard religious adherents try to avoid the fact, religious views are offensive. One of my editors jokingly thought the title of my upcoming book on the interfaith movement should be Religion is Offensive — Get Over It! However, getting over offense only works in a society that embraces tolerance.

aljazeerahThe deeper issue of how to respond to the inherent clash of religious values is resolved in various ways. The press will reflect the virtues of the society, so it’s important to get this figured out. The West previously embraced the notion of tolerance — the view that even if you vehemently disagree with another religion, people have the right to practice it. It’s a deeply Western value that is foundational in this country. A new form of coexistence has emerged in America and Europe, subtly and overtly embraced, that argues that tolerance is not enough. Some pluralists, for instance, argue that all religions are equally valid, simply different paths to the same nirvana.

No matter how the issue is resolved, it is fascinating that the role of the press is front and center with this issue. We’ll be covering this story for a while, so please pass on links to stories that cover the issue particularly well or analysis pieces with interesting ideas for resolution. Bonus points for news stories that explain the position of those Muslim protesters as well as the Muslim divide over this issue.

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  • Chas S. Clifton

    It’s a common misconception that the Prophet Muhammed cannot be graphically represented. In Classical Persian and Mogul art he was often show, although frequently with a veil.

    But the larger point is this: that prohibition applies ONLY TO MUSLIMS. The rest us are not bound by it!

  • AK

    The increasing evidence of xenophobia in European countries (especially those such as France and Denmark, where there is an especially strong immigrant population) has been well documented recently. The backlash against Muslims in Europe – witness the French ban on the Muslim hijab headdresses for schoolchildren, or the increased enforcement of immigration and “terroristic threats” laws in Denmark and England – has increased proportional to the threat European natives feel from the Muslim population. Terrorist attacks in London and Spain, riots primarily by Muslims in France, and isolated but high-profile criminal incidents in Denmark have led to the generalization that Muslims in general are a threat to EU communities.
    It’s difficult to fault that perspective, given the persistent problems, but it misses a larger problem: the inability of Western cultures and Islamic cultures to integrate. Core principles in Western democracies, like free speech or women’s sufferage, often are at odds with Islamic law. That is exactly what is at issue in this case: not just the insidiuosness of stereotypes, but the clash of free speech versus religious convention. If you’re interested, there’s more on that here.

  • Benedict

    Can’t comment on this publicly, as I work for a major media organization that has decided not to publish the cartoons for even for discussion purposes.

    But it seems to me that the difference is this.

    A number of papers/websites have published the cartoons for discussion and those are condemned just as strongly as those that published them in the first place. We don’t condemn you for publising that Catholic disparging cartoon above, because we know it represents a point of reference for discussion and not your actual views.

    And this of course leaves aside the fact that even if someone publishes something offensive, burning down their embassy is not a justified response.

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  • Paul

    I understand that Muslims are upset and offended by all this, but the irony is their violent reaction to being pointed out as so. Already a few Danish embassies have been torched. Today, a Roman Catholic Priest in Turkey has been shot to death in his Church, by a young man shouting “Allah Ackbar”. Protestors are shouting for righteous and BLOODY vengeance. And these really are just tip of the iceburg stuff.

    Unfortunately, this problem is inherent to Islam.

    Simply being non-Muslim is a crime according to Islam. There are numerous passages in the Koran that tell believers to “kill unbelievers whereever you find them”, and “when you find unbelievers, you must take their heads”, and other such things.

    This is a problem for two large reasons:

    1. Unlike Christians, who view the Bible as the INSPIRED word of God, open to many different interpretations and criticism, the Koran specifically states and Muslims are supposed to believe that the Koran is the ACTUAL Word of God, handed down to the Prophet by Heaven. And it is completely perfect and infallible.

    That makes passages like that hard to ignore for Muslims – the Koran, is afterall, the Literal and perfect Word of Allah.

    2. Unlike Christianity, there are no MITIGATING verses in the Koran to trump these violent passages. The Bible has some violent passages as well, particularly in the Old Testament, though not nearly as vivid and not nearly as many. But again, this is only the INSPIRED Word of God, and therefore can be challenged, and often is in many different denominations.

    Furthermore, Jesus Christ himself actively TRUMPS and SUPERCEDES those violent parts of the Old Testament with his own Message. He even said in the Sermon on the Mount, that you have heard it said an eye for an eye, but that he says that when one strikes you you should turn the other cheek.

    Jesus’ Message CHANGES the violent parts of the Old Testament, and does it on purpose, as he is the Messiah and the new and only way.

    Islam does not have any versus that change the meaning of its violent proclamations to kill non-believers whereever you find them.

    In fact, that really IS Islamic Law, straight from the supposed “Literal and Perfect Word of Allah”.

    So it is very difficult for moderate Muslims to gain any traction – really because they don’t actually have much of a leg to stand on in that religion to support their “peaceful” case.

    Why then, does this mean not all Muslims are out killing like the Koran says? It’s very simple, not many people will actually WANT to trade in their lives for their religion, or kill for it, or die for it, etc. They want to live their own lives.

    However, this is also why so many Muslims are so sympathetic to the cause of the Jihadists – they may not have the balls to follow their own religion, but most of them view the Jihadists as Muslims with the courage to ACTUALLY follow the religion as taught in the Koran. These are the “true Muslims”. The only thing holding back most of the others is their own personal comfort and/or survival instinct.

    But this is why “Osama” is the most popular name to name your child now in the Muslim world, after Muhammad.

  • matt

    I wish “the media” would stop refering to him as “the prophet Muhamed”. They could at least add an “alleged” or a “supposed” or a “purported”. or better yet, just say “the founder of Islam, Muhamed”. there is no reason to denegrate the memories of Noah, Abraham, and Moses by counting Muhamed as one of there group.

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  • Maryam

    “Simply being non-Muslim is a crime according to Islam. There are numerous passages in the Koran that tell believers to “kill unbelievers whereever you find them”, and “when you find unbelievers, you must take their heads”, and other such things.”

    I’m perplexed Paul, how do you explain the existence of large numbers of non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries over the centuries?

    Matt: how does “alleged Christian deity Jesus” sound?

  • Allen

    I wonder how many Koran’s went up in smoke on 9/11 and why there was not a huge outcry from the radical side of who we are hearing from now? Some groups of people will use any excuse to riot or commit violent acts. To burn embassy’s and have people killed over a cartoon is ludicrous. But when the same mentality stays mum about 3,000 dying and a few Koran’s being destroyed, I believe it totaly undermines their credibility. Certainly the few that are (mis)behaving in this manner do not represent the majority, but instead of fabricating superstitous reasons for that behavior, why don’t they just admit that they like to burn things, blow apart human beings, and play with guns and explosives? I can accept deviant behavior more readily than twisted logic built upon superstition. I don’t think the other religions are any better in the solid reasoning department but they are not violent for the sake of peace.

  • kerwin

    Does the press have the right to mock religions?
    No, Mollie the press does not have a right to mock religion because that would be anti-religious and so unbiased. A biased paper by it’s nature is not free. The cartoonist stands accused of slander and bigotry. Below a few quotes covering what Thomas Jefferson had to say on the subject.

    “The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.” –Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, Oct. 13, 1785. (*) ME 5:181, Papers 8:632

    “No inference is here intended that the laws provided by the State against false and defamatory publications should not be enforced; he who has time renders a service to public morals and public tranquility in reforming these abuses by the salutary coercions of the law.” –Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805. ME 3:381

    “These people [i.e., the printers] think they have a right to everything, however secret or sacred.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1815. ME 14:345

    The above quotes came from The Etext Center at the University of Virginia Library web page titled “Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Freedom of the Press.”

  • Maria

    I don’t think it’s true that Christian cartoons would cause similar outrage. For example, the show South Park has been making fun of Jesus for years, and as a Christian I feel it is quite rude. However according to Christ’s words “Don’t judge and you will not be judged”. It is not up to us to judge others or to punish others for their sins. If you really believe in God then you must admit that he will be able to punish the sinners in the afterlife. (this is the basis of Islam as well as Christianity) With this kind of philosophy it is unnecessary to protest and to burn flags. In the afterlife each will get what they deserve.

  • Actarus

    The Press have the right to mock religion as it mock politic, international; events and local events. The Muslims reaction just proves that they (the Muslims) are animals. Muslims as always equal violence, wars and especially COWARD TERRORIST (suicide bombers). The Muslims are a stain on the surface of earth. a CANCER that has gone out of control. They should not use rubber bullet and tear gas against low-life, animal, human garbage cartoon protestors, they should use FLAME TROWER. The less Muslims there is. the better this planet will be. Any countries that have been INFECTED with Muslim suffer from terrorist, violence and social tensions. There are nothing more the a SATANIC SECT that should be outlaw.

  • Derek

    Nobody has the right to harm another person. Religious satire causes no harm to the faithful. If your faith is so weak that a cartoon will have impact on it, then you have no one to blame but yourself.

    Violent acts in the name of your god only show that you are a violent person, or that your god represents violence.

    Those who are truly enlightened never see violence as an answer.

    Does the press have the right to mock religions? The freedom of the press should only be limited by a requirement not to publish known falsehoods. Satire, especially in cartoon form lies in a grey area.

    If humor is in particularly poor taste, then people will complain, and the publication will have a reputation to uphold. Regardless of this, a severe over-reation to satire which is in poor taste only demonstrates a severe lack of a sense of humor, and people who are far too “up tight” for their own good.

    If your beliefs are strong, then you should have nothing to fear from the words of others, and especially not from cartoons.


    The freedom of speech will always apply equally. If they can say and do things then so can others……

    i think that there was no need to go to such extents of violence then say they did it in the name of “GOD”…… or the “MESSENGER OF GOD”………… is this what “GOD” wants??????

    ofcourse then they say that their religion does not promote violence…..right now im trying to figure out exactly what it promotes…….

    i aint saying that they dont have a right to express their feelings…. everyone does but this is not how it should be done…burning buildings, burning flags and then replacing them with flags that say “Alah is GOD and Muhammad is the messenger of GOD!!”

    its a case of narrow minded people wih no other work but to constantly chant “MY RELIGION IS THE BEST, MY GOD IS THE BEST ”
    if they are so narrow minded as to think something like a cartoon will do them harm then seriously GOD HELP THOSE DAMNED PEOPLE…..

  • Martin

    Paul at 3:33 pm on February 6, 2006: I completely agree with you – people who don’t have the guts to follow – always look up to those who do – forgetting the fact that whether “the act” – was required for them to follow is indeed worth following.

    In eastern religions, questioning one’s own beliefs passed on through the generations is not an acceptable behaviour – and I have been told and read that islamic teachers explicitly ask their pupils to “keep distance” from those that question their ways.

    Also, it is said in quran that “Allah knows all your thoughts” – even the thoughts that “question” what you are being taught – and being afraid of hell -as a muslim you wouldn’t want to question anything even in your mind – remember? Allah knows all your thoughts.

    The beauty of Christianity (although it is also a eastern religion- for christ was born and lived in middle east) – was simply adapted and accepted by the western civilizations because – the teachings of christ and Bible in itself was ripped apart, torn in the middle, criticized and found to be true (for a vast majority of the people) – the freedom to tear-apart one’s own religion and the religion you wish to be adopted into – is the key for survival.

    Christianity went through different phases -from pure roman catholic church to protestanism started by Martin Luther – a Monk in the catholic order- who “questioned” the ways catholic church and did his own research pulling out the truth of the salvation through christ.

    On the other hand – Islam does not allow this adventure – an adventure to test its true strength – how do they intend to spread Islam if they do not allow it to be studied, criticized and even ridiculed -only then can it pass the test of fire and possibly be accepted or rejected (based on the result of this gruesome trial-for it will be an era of test)- by the western societies.

    Posted by matt at 3:51 pm on February 6, 2006 – I agree with matt.

    Posted by Maryam at 10:33 am on February 7, 2006
    I think media should refer to him as “Islamic prophet” – for I don’t believe in Islam and for me Mohammed is nobody. but if you are my friend and Islam is your religion – obviously, he means something to you – I respect that and I will refer to him as your “islamic Prophect”

    And I would be glad if you can refer Jesus as -”Your saviour Jesus Christ”