Drawing Violence

Posted: Feb 11, 2006 12:05 AM
Freedom of religion and freedom of expression depend on each other for survival. Look no further than our Constitution’s First Amendment. It does a lovely job of protecting both since, if it tried to protect just one, the other could suffer. The key to both freedoms is tolerance -- a trait sorely lacking in the Islamic world.

For proof, look no further than the cartoonish violence generated by some cartoons.

Last fall, a Danish newspaper decided to print several political cartoons that showed illustrations of Mohammed, Islam’s prophet. It requested the drawings to make a point: Very few artists would be willing to draw Mohammed, since Islamic tradition supposedly prohibits doing so, and most artists were afraid they’d be targeted for violence.

Point made.

Newspapers across Europe reprinted the cartoons in recent weeks, and the predictable violent protests erupted throughout Muslim countries. “Whoever defames our prophet should be executed,” marcher Ismail Hassan told a reporter in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Small wonder the cartoonists are now in hiding. “Some of them are really, really scared. They don’t want to see the pictures reprinted all over the world. We couldn’t stop it. We tried, but we couldn’t,” a spokesman told The Times of London.

The artists’ fear is understandable, but their prescription is the wrong one. It’s certainly tempting to withdraw the cartoons, apologize and never print them again. But in the name of tolerance, the cartoons ought to be republished in every newspaper in the world.

Some disagree. As State Department press officer Janelle Hironimus put it, “Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable.” And United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned, “Honestly, I do not understand why any newspaper will publish the cartoons today. It is insensitive. It is offensive. It is provocative and you see what has happened around the world.”

But that’s exactly why they should be reprinted. And reprinted. And reprinted again. Until the violence burns itself out. Otherwise, we’re telling the extremists that if they respond to what we say with violence, we’ll give in. We can’t afford that.

This isn’t about tolerance. Like the expression “celebrate diversity,” “be tolerant” has become a cliché. But as philosopher Thomas Mann observed, “Tolerance becomes a crime when applied to evil.” Throwing rocks and threatening to kill cartoonists is evil, and we can’t tolerate that.

What the Islamic protesters are saying is, “our religion doesn’t allow for depictions of Mohammed, therefore nobody (whether they’re Islamic or not) may depict Mohammed.” Imagine if other faiths took this approach. Many Roman Catholics don’t eat meat on Friday. Would they be within their rights to demand that all steakhouses be closed on Friday? Should they be allowed to firebomb any restaurants that serve meat on Friday? Of course not. Tolerant people understand others aren’t bound by the strictures of their religion.

This isn’t to say the Danish cartoons aren’t provocative, maybe even stupid. But there are plenty of provocative and stupid cartoons. A recent Tom Toles offering in The Washington Post depicted an American soldier sitting in a hospital bed with his arms and legs amputated. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sits nearby and comments, “I’m listing your condition as ‘battle hardened.’”

Many readers were upset by the cartoon. Some, including all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote protest letters to the paper. But nobody threatened to attack Toles or bomb the newspaper’s headquarters. “No one questions the right of a cartoonist to do what they want to do and people do it all the time,” Rumsfeld said. That’s the tolerant attitude we need from the Islamic world.

Muslims are free to be offended by drawings of Mohammed. They should feel free to march or boycott Danish products. But they don’t have the right to tell non-Muslims what we may or may not do. And they certainly don’t have the right to insist that Europe change its laws on press freedom, as the spiritual leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah recently demanded.

If the West gives in now, where will the demands end? In Austria, some Muslim men are insisting that non-Muslim teachers in their children’s school wear headscarves. So if you think a few cartoons aren’t worth standing up for, better dust off the old burka.

At the dawn of the 21st century, it’s simply too dangerous to have a growing group which advocates taking the world back to the 8th century. We can’t pick between freedom of expression and freedom of religion. We need them both.