Bozeman Daily Chronicle: We're obliged to protect the fundamental right of free speech

The furor over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, it seems to me, boils down to one thing — freedom of expression in a world where we’re never all going to agree.

The cartoons were first published in a Danish newspaper, then reprinted in European newspapers. And while the newspapers had a right to print the cartoons and the Muslims had a right to object, the violence that followed has been out of proportion to the perceived disrespect. More than anything, it is a lesson in what much of the world thinks about the free exchange of ideas.

In this case, a Danish newspaper editor was fed up with artists’ self-censorsing out of fear of reprisals from Muslim extremists. So he commissioned cartoonists to “draw Mohammed as they see him,” and issued this stern wake-up call alongside the cartoons in September:

“The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but ? we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end.”

Welcome to democracy, where lampooning is an equal-opportunity activity.

Muslim leaders, who consider images of the Prophet sacred, were outraged. They demanded action. When Denmark’s leaders refused to apologize for the actions of an independent newspaper, they took their case to the Middle East. They passed around cartoons and other printed material they considered anti-Islam. They stirred the pot. Rumors spread.

Political leaders in Pakistan, for example, called the cartoons part of a “planned conspiracy” and a “sinister agenda” aimed at bringing about “the clash of civilizations,” according to one New York Times op-ed.

Then in January, it blew up. Protesters threw firebombs, torched embassies and businesses and burned the flags of Western nations. At least 40 people have been killed.

It’s hard for me to understand this level of outrage over cartoons. People say, write and draw things every day that I find offensive. People insult journalists, Americans and women all the time. Some people hate the United States so much that they repeatedly call for “death to America” and burn our leaders in effigy.

But here in the United States, we understand that free speech and freedom are inseparable. Religious groups, public institutions and politicians are regularly mocked by everyone from comedians to cartoonists.

Instead of insisting they’re inviolable, those in the crosshairs typically roll with the punches, because, as Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today, told The Washington Post last week, “When people can be publicly mocked in this country, it means you’re a player, and you’re going to take your lumps with everyone else. There’s not that sense with Muslims. People are more cautious.”

Well, maybe not anymore. Lumps for everyone.

It’s important to note that some Muslims have been pleading for a non-violent resolution. “Muslims would do well to consider angry and destructive mobs as a personal insult to the Prophet, who preached that, ‘The best amongst you are those who can reign themselves in when angered,'” Ahmed M. Rehab, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Chicago, wrote in the Chicago Tribune.

Thankfully, reason may be starting to prevail. One Danish Muslim leader has said he’s ready to accept part of the blame for the protests. And Iran’s foreign minister has called for an end to the protests. “We do not support any violence,” he said.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the world is getting smaller while remaining wonderfully diverse. We all have to be sensitive to offensive material — particularly we in the press. But we also have an obligation to constantly strive to protect the fundamental right of free speech. Otherwise, we’re on a very slippery slope indeed.

Copyright © 2006, Bozeman Daily Chronicle