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The power of the press: a double-edged sword

2006-02-07 06:47:00

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If ever there was an instance where a small but hurtful act had worldwide implications, it was when a Danish newspaper hit the streets on Sept. 30, 2005. The paper featured caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, one of them depicting him wearing a turban in the form of a time bomb.

The 12 cartoons were commissioned by the conservative paper Jyllands-Posten. Since then, the caricatures have caused an uproar in the Muslim world and sparked a new battle over freedom of speech, religious tolerance and cultural sensitivity.

The original publication went almost unnoticed. There were some protests by Muslims and left-wing Danes who felt it incited hatred. Then there were counter demonstrations by right-wing groups calling the newspaper a defender of free speech and the cartoons evidence of Danish freedom.

As the weeks and months went by, the debate intensified and the anger built. Fascist and anti-immigration groups became involved. Danish Muslim clerics mounted a campaign in the Middle East, alleging discrimination in Denmark. Radical leftists burned the Danish flag and gradually feelings and attitudes became inflamed.

The crux of the issue is that, on the one hand, Muslim believers take their religion seriously: Any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, however benign, is forbidden. Many Muslims already think that western countries hate them and with a long history of being dominated by the west, activist Muslims are increasingly sensitive to anything they see as negative.

They cite the war in Iraq and the alleged double standard that allows Israel to have nuclear weapons but forbids Iran even from enriching uranium for the production of nuclear power. Then they found yet another issue to point to as proof of western hostility – the publication of the "blasphemous" cartoons, ridiculing the Prophet, the most sacred figure in Islam. On the other hand, there is the western adherence to free speech as represented by the newspaper's decision (and right), to publish the cartoons. In order to support their Danish colleagues, several European newspapers and one in New Zealand re-published the material and then there was a major demonstration in Copenhagen.

The rest, as they say, is history. But is it?

The burning of embassies and the threats against western diplomats and institutions can't be justified by pointing the Islamic finger of blame at a little Danish paper. The anger and the violence have other causes besides that one. And there may be more fallout than we have yet seen.

The uproar over the drawings resonates with Muslim youth precisely because they are caught now between two worlds. One of those encompasses their religious beliefs and obligations. The other is entirely different, even alien, but at the same time perversely attractive to them.

That other one is the world of the secular West, with its freedom of speech and consumerism, its entertainment, gambling, alcohol and open attitude toward sexuality – all anathema to the strict rules of Islam.

Muslim youth would love to have democracy, western music, t-shirts from Wal-Mart and more freedom. Many of them secretly find Islamic law and customs restrictive, even oppressive. The problem is they don't want western secular values imposed on them by force, so when they feel coerced or insulted, it's an excuse to lash out. That's what their elders expect them to do and in some cases, encourage them to do. Grievances, old and new, some big and some trivial, fuel resentment and anger.

The American invasion of Iraq, with help from Britain and other western countries including Denmark, robbed the Iraqis – and by proxy, other Muslims – of the chance to stage their own revolution.

The campaign against Iran's nuclear development program angers the activists because it underlines the perception that there is a double standard in the West when it comes to the rights of the Muslim world.

And finally, the Danish cartoons, which poked fun at Islam, robbed this generation of Muslims of the chance to satirize their own culture and religion, just as Christians and Jews have done to theirs over the years.

As one Danish comedian said recently, "I have no problem urinating on the Christian Bible, but I'd never do it on the Koran or the Torah and that's a limit on my freedom of speech that I'm forced to accept."

Perhaps the Danish comic would like to urinate on those holy books but he's probably right to leave that job to Muslims and Jews. A little restraint on all sides is not a bad thing. Should the cartoons have been published? Probably not.

We in the West have never really understood the inextricable relationship between Islam and everyday life in the Muslim world. We need to admit that, back off a bit and work harder at understanding each other. There is plenty of racist and bigoted baggage on both sides. Moderate Muslims know this and one hopes that many of them will begin to speak out against the senseless violence we've been seeing.

Finally, we ought to allow the process of social and political change to be carried out by the people who need and want change. No one else can do it for them.

There's an ironic and telling footnote to the "freedom of the press" issue that westerners seem to feel is at the heart of this whole matter. It involves the same Danish paper. It seems that, back in 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted cartoons that lampooned Jesus. The paper refused to publish them and here's how the editor explained his decision:

"I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore I will not use them" Maybe Shakespeare applies – at least on this point – when he wrote, "there is something rotten in the state of Denmark."

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