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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