Cartoon Violence 

One Danish newspaper stokes the fires of free speech to discover it ain’t so free.

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No matter how small your circulation or audience, if you’re a member of the Fourth Estate, few things are more interesting than the evolution of free expression.

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The show grows exponentially more interesting when it’s entangled in religion, immigration, alleged bigotry, culture and the current political climate of our “war on terror.”

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The first, and so far only, true Dane I’ve known was a young exchange student named Nicholas who stayed with my family for six months in 1986. Once he learned not to regale us with tales of his progressive sex life back home, we got along great. Having lived in Utah most of my life, I’ve known plenty of other Danes by extension of their heritage. No one who lives here can begin to count the number of Rasmussens, Christensens and Sorensens they’ve met. (For City Weekly’s own Danish-American perspective on this controversy, see D.P. Sorensen’s “Deep End,” p. 10.)

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At the same time, ever since 9/11, I'along with plenty of other Americans'made a conscious effort to read everything I could get my hands on regarding Islam and the Middle East. I also made a point of never turning down the chance to meet and converse with Muslims. I’ve yet to visit West Valley City’s Khadeeja mosque but have visited the Islamic Society mosque on 700 East and participated in a few media panels on Islam. What I’ve learned since 9/11 has shocked, enlightened, shamed and saddened me.

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It’s enormously depressing to see the wholesale burning of Danish flags; the gutting of whole embassies in Damascus, Beirut and Tehran; and to read about people killed in rioting. It was both amusing and depressing, however, to read the response of many Danes and Europeans once it became obvious that the publication of caricature depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and their republication elsewhere in Europe had caused more than a little uproar. “Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure'unconditionally!” the editor told BBC and other media.

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Well, if you insist. This paper could publish an illustrated guide to LDS Temple ceremonies, but why? The current level of violence worldwide in reaction to this issue does a grave disservice to the vast majority of Muslims who’ve kept their cool or protested peacefully. But the only people “astonished” at the anger of Muslims worldwide are those who know absolutely nothing about Islam. Depictions of Muhammad, and especially his face, turn the prohibition of idolatry back onto Islam’s most central figure. The prohibition against idolatry in Islam, and especially Sunni Islam, is so strict that calligraphy is a Muslim specialty. To the extent that there is no benign depiction of Muhammad, the 12 Danish artists who obliged Jyllands-Posten might as well have stood outside the LDS conference building and wiped their butts with temple garments, as Salt Lake City’s street “preachers” did years ago. Having seen these offending illustrations, it’s obvious that some of them make no political points. A few of them, meanwhile, are unapologetically offensive. Westerners learned a long time ago that offense is one of democracy’s small prices. Should we remind ourselves that large portions of the world aren’t there with us just yet?

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The fact that both sides of this argument are speaking past each other shows how much Muslims and Westerners have yet to learn.

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Bloggers in defense of the offending European newspapers have pointed out that depictions of Muhammad do, in fact, exist, including one statue in Washington, D.C. Others offer evidence that Saudi religious authorities eager to divert attention from the death of Muslim pilgrims at last month’s Hajj have chosen the Danish cartoons as tool of distraction. After all, why the delayed outrage over something originally published last September?

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Both are interesting points but obscure the more relevant atmosphere of tensions between Europeans and their Muslim populations. In an act of blinding stupidity, France banned women’s headscarves in schools. Dutch director Theo van Gogh was murdered after making a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. Tolerance isn’t the same as apathy, and polite requests for integration quickly become frustrated demands. Denmark’s Queen Margrethe has berated Muslims for paying more attention to their religion than learning Danish. Then, of course, there’s our war in Iraq. Strange as it sounds, all that’s needed are a few cartoons to unleash chaos.

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Anyone who lives in a mixed or multicultural society, and that includes most of us, should confront this question right now. It’s the very question that Jyllands-Posten provoked but only after the fact: At what point does respect for another culture or religion become submission to or a transition into that culture?

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The offending European newspapers might argue that unless sensibilities hostile to free expression are tested and eventually integrated now, the chances of free expression surviving in the future are dim. At the same time, it’s telling that many of those newspapers are beholden to their country’s conservative element. In Britain, only the right-wing British National Party posted the cartoons on its Website. Both BBC and CNN decided not to show them.

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When freedom of the press is your bread and butter, as it is mine, you make no apologies for exercising it'within certain boundaries, of course. Some speech, like pornography, isn’t free at all. You’ve got to pay for it. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasumussen was right to refuse disciplining Jyllands-Posten while at the same time extending his hand in dialogue to offended Muslim nations. Who can argue with that?

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