Protecting Muhammad

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Feb 03, 2006 11:05 AM

We see a big storm brewing, brought on by the Danish newspaper's publication of caricatures of Muhammad. Muslim activists every day sharpen their protests. On Thursday they assailed the office of the European Union in Gaza, and Friday in Indonesia they stormed the Danish Embassy. Now they are asking that the prime minister of Denmark, no less, apologize for the publication of the caricatures in Jyllands-Posten, never mind that the government has no official ties with the tortfeasor.

Everybody in sight, including the paper, has regretted that feelings were hurt, but a line is crystallizing: Apologize for profaning Islam, but do not use language that conveys an apology for the laws of the land, which uphold a free press.

The Danes aren't about to schedule an auto-da-fe, in which the offending editor throws himself on a pyre in expiation of his sin. And the prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has not tendered an official apology, though he has convened a meeting of foreign diplomats to figure out what to say that will calm the Muslims without offending liberal sensibilities.

The most striking aspect of the controversy is the leverage of the offended Muslim community. Even in the United States, even a publication as venturesome as Slate magazine describes the offending caricatures but is careful not to reproduce them. A quite natural curiosity attaches to how these 12 caricatures actually looked. One of them features Muhammad in a vaporous cloud addressing an assembly of suicide terrorists, with the caption that the heavenly kingdom has run out of virgins, so that aspirant debauchers simply have to lay off for a while. How was all that actually depicted by the cartoonist? Even the banal representation of Muhammad with a bomb replacing the turban on his head did not appear in The New York Times, the paper of record.

While the offending cartoons are available on the Internet, as far as the press is concerned, they have to be imagined. The reason for it is what turns out to be an iron glove at the disposal of the Islamic establishment. The publisher of Paris's France Soir, which did reproduce the images, fired the editor who was responsible. Massive boycotts of Danish goods are in motion. Foreign leaders and press spokesmen are objects of boycotts and even death threats. Flag burning is routine.

What we have seen is an intimation of the strength of a mobilized Muslim community. And this is early on, in the great narrative of the growth of Muslim power in Europe, where national suicide is reflected in the birth rates of Italian, German, French and British non-Muslims (to call them Christians would be wholesale co-optation). These societies seem to be willing themselves to go out of existence, as the birth rate falls below the replacement rate.

There are Europeans who are satisfied that the tradition of press liberty is asserting itself in the current challenge but who are entitled to wonder whether five, 10 years from now -- let alone 50 -- any such frolic as that of Jyllands-Posten would in fact be tolerated. The laws asserting the freedom of the press, like most laws, depend for their fortitude on public backing. Forty-two percent of Germans, polled on the question, opposed publishing "cartoons which might hurt religious feelings." Triggering a second question: Is the publishing of iconoclastic material integral to the question at hand?

Iconoclastic expressions in America are broadly condemned as being in bad taste. However, there is certainly freedom in America to deride Christ. This is done every day on Broadway, and every other day in Hollywood. Americans do not take up arms in protest. Derisory material at the expense of Jews is permitted only if the executioner is a Jewish comedian. Care on this front is a welcome legacy of the Holocaust: No jokes are told by visitors to Buchenwald.

But is the day imminently ahead when Muslim influence expresses itself here as vigorously as it is doing in Europe? How exactly to account for the nearly universal decision of the press not to reproduce the Danish cartoons? The arrival of decorum in Slate?

The question not being ventilated with sufficient thoroughness is: What are Muslim leaders doing to dissociate their faith from the ends to which it is being taken by the terrorists?