by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
February 6, 2006
CARTOON LIBERTIES AND A FREE PRESS
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 6, 2006 -- The big media questions of the week involved violent responses to the publication of cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad that were printed in a Danish newspaper last September. The damage has included the sacking or burning of several embassies, the arrest of newspaper editors and multiple attacks against Scandinavian citizens, not to mention mass demonstrations and riots in many cities.
As Western governments responded either by standing courageously on principle, or else capitulating cravenly to angry demands, at least three distinct issues became intertwined in a way that has mainly inspired confusion.
The facts that everyone agrees upon can be summed up simply: Last September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons which caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. The newspaper explained that it was exploring the self-censorship that writers and artists have created for themselves out of the fear of inspiring Muslim anger. The newspaper, in printing the cartoons, managed to demonstrate beyond its wildest dreams the reality of that anger.
Rather than provide a catalog of the demands, threats, violence and deeper debate that have resulted, let me simply refer you to the BBC Website, at news.bbc.co.uk. It contains a growing collection of stories that provide a detailed history of the matter.
Political analysts have tended to concentrate on isolated questions, among them freedom of the press, the role of governments in controlling expression, what is offensive to Muslims (or others), what sort of protest may be appropriate, and lastly, a curious concept wrapped up in the word "unacceptable."
By isolating on the individual concepts, writers have managed to leave readers either in a state of confusion or deluded by spurious certainty. The few writers who have managed to get it right have been able to summarize the argument like this: It is possible for something to be offensive, yet be legally protected. It is legitimate to protest against what you find offensive, but it is not legitimate to prevent a newspaper from publishing material you happen not to like. It is even less legitimate to demand that Western governments intervene in what their newspapers publish.
Let's consider the basic questions.
First, were the cartoons offensive? The answer has to be yes, at least on one side. It is clear from Muslim responses that many consider the cartoons to be nothing short of blasphemy. Many Westerners don't find them offensive, and many probably find them appropriate, but that is simply a difference in religious preference.
Is it appropriate for Muslims to protest? No matter which point of view you adopt - Muslim or Western - it is appropriate to protest against things you find grievous. Along with freedom of the press and of religion, America has enshrined this in its First Amendment, which guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble." There is a philosophical confluence between Western and Muslim thought over the right to protest against Western thought.
Now for the crux: Is it proper to compel newspapers to refrain from printing material that some may find offensive? There obviously is disagreement between the two cultures. It is a strong philosophical gulf. We may characterize the one side as libertarian, the other authoritarian.
Neither side much likes or respects the views held by the other. Jordan made its position clear by arresting two newspaper editors who dared to reprint the cartoons in question. On the other end of the spectrum, Denmark's Prime Minister made clear that his country honors freedom of the press, while vigorously dissasociating his government from the cartoons and deploring the decision to publish them. On one side there is the purity of religious thought; on the other is the ideal of freedom.
Here is where it starts getting strange, at least from the Western point of view. Protesters all over the world not only complained about the newspaper, they made demands of the Danish government. It was as though the acts of one newspaper were identified with the national government or even the entire nation. Not only individuals, but Muslim governments offered up these protests and made demands. The Danish government was expected not only to make its own apologies, but somehow to compel the newspaper to recant and apologize. Danes, their export products, and their diplomatic privileges were all made into targets. All Danes were held accountable for the actions of one newspaper.
From the Western point of view, such demands come across as absurd. We make a distinction between the acts of nations and the acts of individuals; we recognize that the opinions expressed by government officials and the opinions printed in newspapers come from two different worlds. In short, we make a distinction between national policy and individual opinion. It is a distinction as real and as important as the wall between church and state.
This distinction doesn't seem to be understood by the protesters. At one level, it may just be what happens when frustrations come to a boil. For the aggrieved, it may be hard even to identify, much less attack, the particular newspaper that provoked the crisis. Denmark is very far away, and Jyllands-Posten is pretty much unpronounceable and unavailable. But there is a broader target available in the form of the Danish people, the national flag, and the country's export items. So cheese, embassies and the red flag with the white cross get burned.
A deeper side of this behavior doesn't bode well for the march of democracy. In listening to complaints about the acts of individual newspapers and companies, it often appears that the protesters not only do not, but cannot, make the distinction between policy statements that come from individuals and policy statements that come from governments. It is as though the nation and the acts of individuals cannot be separated.
In other words, the diverse peoples of the West are viewed through the same authoritarian mindset that characterizes Islamic cultures. From such a viewpoint, it is all but incomprehensible that a newspaper could act without the consent of its government. With this controlling attitude, it is not surprising that protests are targeted at the entire Danish country and people. The protests that first targeted one newspaper and a few cartoonists have been extended to become a complete absurdity. At least 11 Muslim governments have communicated demands to the Danish government that it take action to deny the rights of Danish citizens.
This, of course, the government of Denmark will not do. It has lots of options available, but shutting down a newspaper as if Denmark were still under the Nazi Occupation is not one of them. No matter how many mobs burn down embassies, boycott Danish products or attack tourists, the West isn't going to rewrite its hard-won principles guaranteeing freedom of expression. There may be some notable exceptions (European prohibitions against neo-Nazi expression being the foremost example), but the overall principles seem still to remain intact.
Western governments are left in the unenviable position of trying to satisfy two irreconcilable forces. The more independent-minded have the option of standing on principle and refusing to bow to intimidation. Denmark's Prime Minister refused even to meet with those 11 ambassadors from Muslim countries, pointing out that freedom of the press was not something he could or would even want to negotiate.
Others try to find a third path, which has created controversy of its own. Western governments could have taken a public position that goes something like this: We can sympathize with the hurt feelings of people who feel that their most sacred symbols have been abused. At the same time, we need to make clear that freedom of the press is a cherished right in our own countries and we will not abuse that principle. Anybody is free to protest peacefully on any subject, including Muslims living within our own borders. Newspapers are equally free to publish their own opinions. Any attempts at changing these policies will fail. But governments being what they are, the defense of free speech rights is rarely a priority, while apologizing for their use is common. In exactly such a crucible, our liberties become cartoonish ideals that our leaders will only defend with reluctance.
So, they have not taken the principled stand, and instead are dithering. The attempt at finding a third way has led to the absurdity of the U.S. government attacking freedom of the press. In a story dated Feb. 3, Reuters reported: "'These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims,' State Dept. spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in answer to a question. 'We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.'"
In other words, freedom of the press is all right as long as you don't print anything that the government disagrees with.
President Bill Clinton also attacked the publication of the cartoons. In a story attributed to Agence France-Presse and available from Yahoo News, Clinton was quoted as calling the cartoons "appalling." Clinton was also quoted referring to "these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam."
In one sense, the governmental spokesmen are caving in to foreign pressure. At another level, they have adopted an approach that involves a certain subtlety, even if most observers have missed the point.
The argument they are making says, in effect, that although Western governments will not intervene against freedom of the press directly, the governments and their agents are entitled to express their own opinions. The subtlety lies in this assertion, however implicit, that the right to freedom of speech is also enjoyed by governmental officials - with official permission, of course - speaking on the side of fairness.
In asserting that freedom, the opinion they are expressing is that the cartoons in question, however protected by constitutions and legal safeguards, have created quite a problem for their governments, insulted a lot of people, and could have been avoided.
This is where that mysterious concept of being "unacceptable" arises. Numerous officials have now referred to the publication of the cartoons this way, and it is a curious usage. The officials who use the term don't say that publishing such cartoons is illegal. They don't claim the power to censor them. We must conclude that the term is now being used to mean politically unacceptable. In non-governmental venues, the usage of this word is clearly meant to imply the cartoons are religiously unacceptable. In expressing such opinions, the same government spokesmen are precisely why there is a First Amendment - because politically unacceptable opinions are the very core of democratic dialogue.
Perhaps we ought to be thankful that governments in the West have limited themselves to blustering and sputtering this newly valued word, "unacceptable." The beauty of Western philosophy is that the rest of us don't really need to worry about whether our governments find our personal opinions acceptable. In a time of stress on our basic liberties, let's hope it stays this way.