The publication of offensive cartoons of the prophet Muhammad by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has triggered violent protests in Muslim countries and communities around the world. The suspicion is that these protests have been fueled by Muslim governments, and in particular Iran, to damage not only Denmark, but the Western world in general in the eyes of faithful Muslims. But whether that is true or not, the incident has most certainly had a major impact on Muslim opinion worldwide. Several people have actually died in the ensuing riots.
Reactions in the West have been, to say the least, varied. Many commentators have pointed out that Muslim outrage over the cartoons reflects a thoroughly unjustified double standard, since cartoons insulting the Christian and Jewish religions are a staple in the newspapers of the Muslim world, where they have been enjoyed for years by the same people who are now rioting over the Danish depictions of Muhammad.
Others have stressed the West's longstanding commitment to freedom of expression. In the world's truly free countries, individuals (including cartoonists) are generally free to say whatever they want to say, however offensive it may be to some others. (There are exceptions: A number of European countries, for example, have laws forbidding statements denying that the Holocaust occurred; and even in the United States, the First Amendment has been held not to apply to rules imposed by certain colleges against "offensive speech," on the theory that colleges can enforce such rules within the college community.)
Then there are the newspapers that, while affirming the Jyllands-Posten's right to publish the cartoons, have refused to reprint them themselves, on the prudential view that to do so might subject their own employees, here and abroad, to violent retaliation by furious Muslims.
Only a few commentators in the free world have taken the position that publication of the cartoons should be condemned solely and simply because it is wrong to offend Muslims so deeply. One of the few, interestingly enough, is former president Bill Clinton.
Speaking at a conference in Qatar on a recent global tour, Clinton condemned Jyllands-Posten for printing the cartoons at all. "So now what are we going to do?" he demanded. "Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?" The parallel he drew seemed all the more inappropriate, considering how vigorously the Muslim world fans anti-Semitic prejudice. What on earth prompted Bill Clinton to take such a controversial stand on such a hot-button issue?
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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