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The Cartoon Controversy, Part Two: The "Anti-Muslim" Cartoons; the Boycotts, the Reprints, and the Holocaust Cartoon Contest

Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006

In my last column, I discussed, among other topics, the Bush Administration's decision to publicly deem "offensive" the set of twelve controversial cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper. I argued there that it's perfectly appropriate for the government to comment on speech - as long as it neither penalizes that speech, nor tries to interfere with its publication. Indeed, the government's ability to comment, in my view, is part of the reason why it need not - and ought not - act as a censor.

In this column, I'll take a closer look - from a free speech perspective -- at the various cartoons; the Danish newspaper's defense of them; and the different responses the cartoons have elicited.

Not Intended to Be Offensive? Unlikely.

The Danish newspaper's Chief Editor now claims that the drawings "were not intended to be offensive." But that seems hard to believe.

The editor who chose to commission the cartoons, Flemming Rose, told Newsweek that he did so because he was "concerned about a tendency toward self-censorship among people in artistic and cultural circles in Europe," and wanted "to test this tendency and to start a debate about it." Rose's intention, then, seems quite clear: He wanted to figure out where the line was, and dare cartoonists to cross it. He was courting controversy.

Rose said he "did not ask for caricatures [or] to make the prophet a laughingstock or to mock him."

But caricatures and mockery were what he received - and what he then chose to publish. And unlike, say, a town square, a newspaper is not a public forum where any and all speech must be tolerated. So a choice to publish is just that: A choice.

The editor who opts to publish certain material must take responsibility for the choice, just as the artist who draws it must. Rose should have either apologized for his initial decision, or stood by it - rather than pretend he never meant to court controversy in the first place.

Differentiating Between the Cartoons: No Figure Can Simply Be Off Limits

Are the cartoons, in fact, offensive?

Different observers will offer different answers. In this column, I'll make a case for some of my own answers - which differ from cartoon to cartoon.

Of course, many Muslims will find any depiction of the Prophet offensive. Islam forbids any images portraying Muhammad. Reportedly, some Muslims oppose hand-drawn pictures of people (or any creature with a soul), so a hand-drawn depiction of Islam's prophet is the ultimate offense.

It's their right to take offense - but it's not their right to ask that such depictions therefore be suppressed, or to resort to violence if they are not. In a free society, no figure can be off limits for criticism, comment, or simple depiction. To hold the contrary is not just to embrace faith, but to enforce it as law.

(Although the U.S.'s First Amendment does have an exception for "fighting words," it's generally limited to spoken words. And in any event, it would seem unfair - and playing into stereotypes -- to presume that the cartoons are "fighting words" in the sense that the typical Muslim would respond to them with violence.)

Moreover, as I discuss later, there are many ways to legitimately react to speech one finds offensive -- or simply disagrees with - that fall far short of banning it, or calling for a ban.

The Offensive Cartoons: Mere Slurs

In my view, some of the cartoons are offensive because they boil down to mere slurs.

Consider the bomb/turban cartoon. Editor Flemming Rose claims that it "doesn't say, 'All Muslims are terrorists,' but says, 'Some people have taken Islam hostage to permit terrorist and extremist acts.'"

But strong evidence from the cartoon itself undermines this interpretation: The entire turban seems to be a bomb - with the offensive implication that Islam itself is warlike: a "ticking bomb" from which violence will erupt. Imagine, by comparison, a cartoon depicting a crucifix made from AK-47s, or a yarmulke patterned with images of grenades.

Also, because Muhammad will apparently be blown to bits when the bomb goes off, Muhammad himself is depicted here, in a sense, as a suicide bomber. Willing to forfeit their own lives in order to kill many others, suicide bombers are the most dangerous element of so-called Muslim extremists - and most would agree that such extremism is not part of Islam's teachings, and that, indeed, such bombers are not Muslims at all. Thus, to call equating such extremism with the Prophet "provocative" is an understatement.

If the cartoonist had truly wanted to show Islam being taken hostage, it would have been simple: He might have shown Muhammad as a captive of terrorists, begging for his life on video, for instance. Instead, he chose not to distance Muhammad from terrorists, but to equate the two.

Among the other cartoons, however, are a number that, in my view, are not mere slurs, and that, indeed, have something interesting and worthy to say.

Controversial, But Not Offensive: The Cartoons that are Really Commentary

Among these is one that shows the cartoonist nervous to draw Muhammad at all - a prescient commentary on the furor such cartoons were fated to trigger.

Another depicts Muhammad at the gates of heaven, saying, "Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins." This cartoon uses ridicule as a tool - but, crucially, it does not ridicule the Prophet: Rather, its point, I think, is that Muhammad clearly has better things to do than to line up whores for terrorists. What is ridiculed here - and rightly so - is the strangeness of promising young men, in Muhammad's name, that their reward for murder and suicide will be sex.

The Boycotts: Valid Responses, But Overly Broad

Having evaluated the government's response to the cartoons, I turn to some individual responses - and how they fit into the free speech continuum.

It goes without saying - or ought to -- that arson and violence are out of bounds. They are antithetical to the entire concept of free speech, which holds that persuasion and discussion can be viable alternatives to violence and coercion.

It also goes without saying, for me, that boycotts generally are a viable means of protest. Boycotting - and organizing others to boycott -- a newspaper whose cartoons you find offensive is only right, and a great way to make one's views heard.

In this controversy, boycotts have been much broader, however - and, I think, wrongly so. Boycotting the newspaper rightly protests its content. But what message does boycotting all Danish products send?

I think there are two possible messages, and both are noxious. One message is a call for censorship: If you won't censor, then we won't buy from you. This is an ugly attempt to make Denmark pay dearly for its people's freedom - freedom that can be used to defend Islam, not just to attack it.

Another message is a simple slur, and equally wrong: You Danes are all the same, so we'll treat you all the same. Given that many of the boycotters are objecting to equating Muslims with terrorists, they surely shouldn't themselves be equating all Danes with the few who've given offense.

The Reprints: Repeating Offense Is Not the Best Defense of The Right to Speak

On the other side of the controversy, what about reprints, as a pro-free-speech protest? Some European newspapers have reprinted the cartoons not to illustrate articles about the controversy, but simply to protest the attacks on the Danish newspaper.

I have mixed feelings about the reprints as a form of protest. On one hand, reprints of the cartoons are a show of solidarity. But on the other hand, since when has solidarity been a virtue of what ought to be a diverse press?

I don't like the idea of a newspaper giving away its independent editorial judgment to print something it doesn't believe in, simply to make a pro-free-speech point - especially when the reprinted material was never censored in the first place.

Moreover, it seems doubtful that the reprints are speaking to the right audience. After all, suppose I felt someone had been unfairly jailed for shouting racial slurs at my neighbor, because although the slurs were despicable, he had the right to say them. Would it then be a good form of protest to start shouting racial slurs at my neighbor myself?

If the point is to protect the editor who commissioned the cartoons from possible violence, better to chip in to buy him the kind of personal security he may need right now. A bulky bodyguard is a lot more effective than a show of solidarity - and helping pay for one would vindicate the principle the newspapers really support: That speech should never be "punished" with violence.

The Holocaust Cartoon Contest: A Legitimate Response?

Finally, what about Iran's "Holocaust cartoon" contest? Obviously, in context, that contest is deeply offensive; Iran's views on Jews are despicable, and this contest fits in with them.

But suppose that the contest wasn't being held by Iran -- with its noxious recent Holocaust denials and open anti-Semitism - but rather by, say, a neutral website. And suppose that it wasn't limited to the Holocaust, but rather took aim at a range of religions' core concerns, besmirching holy figures ranging from Jesus, to the Virgin Mary, to Buddha, to Moses, and more.

In that event, I think such a contest would be a valid response to the Danish cartoons. Part of the problem with the Danish cartoons seems to be that the editor who commissioned them does not even understand why they might be found offensive, and doesn't get that they're singling out a religious minority that's already feeling defensive. (For more on the European context, see a prior column by Ruti Teitel). Indeed, according to the L.A. Times, Denmark is "bewildered" at the whole uproar.

Denmark's largest religion is Christianity. (Its second largest is Islam.) It's possible that Danish Christians will truly only understand how offensive the cartoons are, if they actually see their Christian equivalents.

Offensiveness is often in the eye of the beholder, and may only be seen clearly when it's one's own ox that is being gored. And effective speech may sometimes need to shock, and sting. That explains both why the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad fall within the protection of free speech, and why responses taking aim at other religious figures would, too.

Finally, another effective strategy to demonstrate and underline offensiveness - this time, the offensiveness of Iran's Holocaust cartoon contest - has been by way of parody. Art Spiegelman - famous for communicating the horrors of the Holocaust in his comic-strip book Maus - offered his own "anti-Semitic" cartoons in the New Yorker, and so have a group of Israeli comic book artists who boast, "We'll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!....No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!"

It seems that even when it comes to offensive cartoons, the marketplace of ideas is alive and well - and, one hopes, ultimately self-correcting, sorting out bias and sorting in truth.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, graduated from Yale Law School in 1992. She practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Hilden is also a novelist. In reviewing Hilden's novel, 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read.... a work of art." Hilden's website,, includes free MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.

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