No-one paying any attention whatsoever to the news over the last couple of days can have failed to notice the controversy caused in the Muslim world by a number of cartoons published by a Danish newspaper, depicting caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The extent of the protests, however, does remain surprising. Reports today suggest that these include, on top of ordinary protests: a number of boycotts of Danish products; a bomb hoax at the Danish embassy in Syria; and gunmen from the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade occupying the EU office in Gaza, demanding an apology from the Danish Government. Moreover, there has been a startling diplomatic response: Saudi Arabia has withdrawn its Ambassador in Copenhagen, Syria has recalled its chief diplomat, and Libya has closed its embassy there. The Danish Government, whilst refusing to apologise itself, has welcomed the qualified apology - for offence inadvertently caused by "misinterpretations" of the cartoons - issued by the Danish newspaper.
In the name of freedom of the press, a number of newspapers in other European countries - including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Norway - have since republished the images, no doubt fanning the flames of the controversy somewhat. French paper France Soir boldly proclaimed "Yes, we have the right to caricature God!". Spoken perhaps a little too soon, however: the next day, the newspaper apologised and sacked the editor responsible for the headline. For those interested, the cartoons are available on the website of the German daily Die Welt.
The debate has, in general, run along fairly predictable lines, with each side proclaiming its own defence to be unconditional and inviolable. Thus, the newspapers have insisted on their unlimited freedom of expression within the confines set by law, whilst Muslim critics have focused on the doctrinal interdiction on portraying images of the prophet at all. As always with debates polarised in such a fashion, there is little or no prospect of any progress on the issue; and, as always, a mature reflection on the issues involved mujst lead to the conclusion that there are powerful and persuasive arguments on both sides. The only way to make sense of issues such as these is to leave the plain of general abstraction ("freedom of press" v. "no depictions of prophet"), and have a closer look at the content and context of what has been done.
We can, therefore, accept that, while freedom of the press is important, perhaps particularly so in a secular country, it is not and should not be unlimited. This is accepted by all newspapers, who are even now couching their defence of the caricatures in terms of freedom within the limits imposed by law. This, however, strikes me as a little disingeneous, as nobody is suggesting that the Danish cartoons violated Danish law (although they might soon violate UK law, if Blair gets his way; that's another issue); the claim is rather that their publication was unethical or immoral. This claim cannot, as various newspapers have sought to do, be answered by a simple reference to the legality of the issue. The claim that freedom of the press should be unfettered within legal limits, as an ethical or moral claim, amounts to little more than a fetishisation of law; the idea that legal limits correspond necessarily and absolutely with moral or ethical ones. This claim is clearly unacceptable.
Equally unacceptable, however, to the secular mind at least, is the idea that any subject can be absolutely taboo, placed once and for all beyond the critical wit of society. To do so in one case would quickly lead to the castration of the press if any sort of policy or legal coherence was to be achieved. Many secular societies have decided, rightly in my view, that general "conversation stoppers" of this sort have no place in their political and social life; we can, as such, broadly agree with the sentiments expressed by Roger Köppel, editor-in-chief of the German paper Die Welt (one of those that has published the caricatures), that:
It's at the very core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire. If we stop using our journalistic right of freedom of expression within legal boundaries then we start to have a kind of appeasement mentality. This is a remarkable issue. It's very important we did it. Without this there would be no Life of Brian.
These two apparently contradictory considerations should, in my view, form the basis for reflection on this issue; a basis from which an examination of the particular case can proceed. The question of whether the caricatures should have been published thus, of necessity, comes down to a consideration of the quality, content and context of the cartoons themselves. And here, I think, there are some very legitimate concerns: nearly all of the cartoons portray the prophet in a violent light: there is, of course, the infamous Mohammed-with-bomb-for-turban; but there is also another of him, flanked by two women, bearing a huge knife (and a slightly demented expression). In the latter image, the women are completely covered, dressed in black, with only their eyes showing; the prophet is represented in white, with his eyes blacked out (by the piece of material that was cut out of the women's costumes to allow them to see, it seems). In both of these images, we can clearly see the linking of some of the most readily identifiable aspects of Muslim garb - often themselves used in petty racial stereotyping - with fanaticism, violence and terrorism. Most of the other cartoons continue this theme, although not in so striking a manner. Add this to a context of growing fear and suspicion of Muslims, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Western soil, and it is not difficult to imagine that the caricatures may indeed incite racial hatred in some.
And nor is it sufficient for the newspaper to cite "misunderstandings" in the interpretation of the images. We are all responsible not merely for what we say, but also, to some degree at least, for the foreseeable effects thereof within the audience that it is meant to reach. The ethics of what we say and do lies in the type of community that we create with our audiences; which means that we must be wary not only of our own intention, but the ways in which our words can be interpreted also.
A brief example may serve to clarify what I mean here. Think of the racist joke: told by certain people to certain audiences, it is clearly meant in an ironic fashion, and is widely interpreted as such. Told by a different person, however, or to a different audience, it can have an altogether different, deeply bigotted meaning. As we have already had one reference to Monty Python, let's make another: take their song "Never Be Rude To An Arab" - the second verse of which begins with the line "Never poke fun at a nigger". This song, sung by a comedy group known for their liberalism and their irony, and where their audience would be broadly similar in outlook, is quite clearly ironic; it is extremely unlikely that any racist beliefs were created, hardened or deepened as a result. Change the performer, however (to Bernard Manning, for example) or change the audience (to, say, a BNP party meeting), and a quite different meaning is drawn from the song. And just as Manning would be criticised by the Python audience for his performance (as his history of racist jokes would lead them to interpret it in a different way), so we could criticise the Python team if they had performed it before the BNP or Front National, for the foreseeable manner in which it would be interpreted.
All of this to say that the linking of some of the most sacred and recognisable imagery of Islam (clothing, turbans, and, indeed, the prophet himself) in such an explicit, and, it should be said, none-too-subtle manner with fanaticism and suicide bombings, is not particularly responsible given the wide audiences that newspapers may be expected to reach; particularly when the issue becomes a journalistic cause celebre. Perhaps ironically, had it been left alone as a peculiarly Danish issue, it would have been less dangerous - as the conciliatory reaction of Muslim bodies in Denmark to the qualified apology issued by the newspaper involved would suggest. In this sense, the conclusion of Die Welt, that the images represented nothing but a "harmless joke" to Western eyes is perhaps not as straightforward as it might seem.
However, as the current debate in the UK over the proposed charge of the "glorification of terrorism" amply illustrates, the issue of where to draw the line in such circumstances is hellishly difficult to resolve. In the inevitably messy balancing act that must always be performed in the resolution of any ethical question, I am far from convinced that the potential for harm caused by these images outweighs the harm that could be caused by stopping their publication, particularly by legal means. Even for those who would like to have seen such images banned, it must be impossible to conceive of the law that could do this without being far too general in scope (unless, that is, we accept quite particularised prohibitions, such as "no depictions of the prophet", something that few in the West would like to see).
My main concern, then, is not with the fact that many in the Muslim world have been offended by the images, but rather with the quality and politics of the satire itself. Mohammed-with-bomb-for-turban does not strike me as either particularly witty, thoughtful or insightful; and it lends itself to a particular understanding of the current problems with global terrorism that I find both distasteful and incorrect. Whether this was done by the intention or the recklessness of the cartoonist is of little import, given the global audience that the work has now reached; for this, however, the caricatures deserve to be censured, not censored.
That being said, if I saw it on South Park, I' d certainly laugh...