Press freedom threatened

LONDON - FEBRUARY 03:  Muslim demonstrators hold banners at the Danish Embassy on February 3, 2006 in London. British muslims have condemned newspaper cartoons which first appeared in a Danish newspaper, some of which depict the Prophet Mohammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. The cartoons have sparked worldwide protests.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Do you wonder if every religion news story from here on out is going to involve some kind of clash of civilizations? I hope not but here's another entry into that category. We've covered the various stories surrounding the Danish cartoon controversy that erupted a few years ago. German Chancellor Angela Merkel honored the creator of some of the controversial cartoons at a ceremony this week. Since 2006, Kurt Westergaard has had his life repeatedly threatened by Muslims angry over his art. Here's how AFP put it:

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday defended a Danish cartoonist whose drawing of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb for a turban earned him death threats, as he was given an award in Germany.

"[We] are talking here about the freedom of opinion and of the press. It's about whether in a Western society with its values, he is allowed to publish his Mohammed cartoons in a newspaper or not," Merkel said.

"It is irrelevant whether his caricatures are tasteless or not, whether he thinks they are necessary or helpful, or not. Is he allowed to do that? Yes, he can," Merkel added in the speech in Potsdam near Berlin.

Kurt Westergaard, who is under constant police protection, "is a cartoonist, of whom there are many in Europe. Europe is a place where a cartoonist is allowed to draw something like this.

"This is no contradiction that Europe is also a place where freedom of belief, of religion, where respect for beliefs and religions, are valuable commodities."

At the same time Merkel slammed as "abhorrent" plans by US pastor Terry Jones's Dove World Outreach Center in Florida to mark the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks by burning Korans.

The AFP story is good, but I wish that maybe they would have explored that last bit a tiny bit more. It is difficult for an American reader, perhaps, to understand the distinction Merkel makes between freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Even just the tiniest head nod to the Nazi history of book burning might have helped.

But both the AFP and BBC stories missed another nuance or underplayed a problem to the point it's problematic. From the BBC:

Dozens of people died in violence that broke out in early 2006, months after Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons showing Muhammad in a variety of humorous or satirical situations. Muslims regard the depiction of the prophet as blasphemy.

That's true, if by "dozens" we mean well over a hundred, including a nun a priest targeted because of their religion. It's also true, however, that the violence that broke out had a more complex story behind it. What hasn't been explained well is that two imams living in Denmark created a 43-page dossier claiming to show images that had been published in Jyllands-Posten. They did -- they included the 12 cartoons such as Westergaard's depicting Mohammed's turban as a bomb. But they also included pictures from another Danish newspaper (which had actually been satirizing Jyllands-Posten's cartoons). And then they included some very offensive cartoons that never appeared in any newspaper. Here's how Reason magazine put it:

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - JUNE 2:  Police invesitgators and female medics work the scene outside the Danish Embassy following an explosion on Monday June 2, 2008 in Islamabad, Pakistan. A suspected car bomb exploded outside the embassy at midday, killing at least 8 people and wounding more than a dozen, according to reports. It is not yet known who bears responsibility for the blast, though militant Islamic groups have threatened Danish embassies around the world with retribution for the publications of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, first printed in September 2005.  (Photo Warrick Page/Getty Images)

The images include an amateurish doodle identifying Mohammed as a pedophile, a dog humping a prostrate praying Muslim (with the caption, "This is why Muslim pray five times a day"), and a photocopy of a French comedian in a pig-squealing contest (with the phony caption, "Here is the real image of Mohammed"). . . . It is as if the pope created "Piss Christ" and then passed it off as the work of critics of Catholicism.

They took these images on a tour of various countries -- telling people, falsely, that Jyllands-Posten was a government paper. BBC didn't exactly help matters by incorrectly reporting that one of the images had been published in Jyllands-Posten. Anyway, the imams made their tour, meeting with prominent people and telling folks that the Danes are infidels.

There was a lot of fallout. The the Organisation of the Islamic Conference demanded that the United Nations impose international sanctions upon Denmark. And, in fact, a consumer boycott was organized in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries. Demonstrations took place worldwide. The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set on fire. So were the Danish embassies in Beirut and Tehran. Altogether, at least 139 people were killed in protests. Bounties were put on the heads of the cartoonists and death threats soon followed. Many went into hiding. A government official in India announced a prize for anyone who beheaded "the Danish cartoonist." The U.S. accused Iran and Syria of organizing the protests. In the four or five years since all this happened, there have been a number of police actions. A Pakistan student tried to kill a Berlin newspaper editor for reprinting the cartoons. Two suitcase bombs were discovered in trains near two German cities -- police say they were to be detonated in response to the cartoons. One terror suspect said in trial that his group was considering sending a remote-controlled car packed with explosives into the home of the Jyllands-Posten editor. And then there have been the high-profile attempts to murder Westergaard, one just earlier this year. It has had other fallout as well. When Yale University Press published "The Cartoons that Shook the World" -- they removed the cartoons in question.

This does, of course, play a bit into the other story everyone's obsessing about right now. There is a clash here. There is tension between religious liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the views of some Muslims about whether these values are inviolable. It's a very difficult story -- and one that has been made more complex by misrepresentations made throughout the world.

Merkel may pay a heavy price for her decision to stand for freedom of the press, if the BBC story is to believed. But as the media and others are making a circus out of these issues through their irresponsible elevation of a publicity stunt, have we made any progress in conveying the importance of these values or why they benefit a free society? Have we seen any coverage looking critically at why so many are so fearful of the response to a publicity stunt?

The threats to a free press or both external and internal. Both sides need vigilance.

Please respect our Commenting Policy