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?
But when dealing with Bill Clinton, it is always wise to assume that he has thought about the matter carefully, and knows exactly what he is doing. And as it happens there is a perfectly rational, albeit slightly cold-blooded, reason for the position he took.
In May 2005, I reported in this space that "Bill Clinton's desire to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations when the latter steps down (in September 2006) has now graduated from the rumor stage to that of a fact as well established as such a thing can reasonably be at this point in the game." I noted that Clinton's popularity overseas is such that he is probably the sole exception to the rule that a citizen of the world's only superpower won't be chosen to head the United Nations. Moreover, the job is bound to appeal to him: It is enormously prestigious, and involves lots of grandiose speeches and relatively little really heavy lifting. To be sure, he would have to obtain President Bush's consent and support -- but haven't you noticed the remarkably warm relationship Clinton has sedulously cultivated in the past couple of years with the president's father?
By openly condemning the offensive cartoons of Muhammad, Clinton has endeared himself to the Muslim world, whose support would be essential to his bid to become secretary-general of the United Nations. By doing so in Qatar, he no doubt hoped to diminish the statement's impact in the United States -- and he seems to have succeeded.
Stay tuned. I will keep you informed of further moves in Slick Willie's latest campaign.