So the world is burning because someone drew some cartoons. People have actually died because of cartoons. If it wasn’t so tragic you’d have to laugh at the ability of human beings to find ever more trivial excuses for conflict and mayhem.
When the story of the Mohammad cartoons first broke, I like many in the West thought it was a simple case of freedom of speech and those who were offended needed to lighten up. Remember I’m about as unreligious as it’s possible to be, I don’t like organised religions of any kind. My gut instinct when someone pokes fun at a god (any god) is to see the humour in it, and to have little sympathy for the offended worshipers.
But as the story grew I did what I should have done in the first place. Something that very few in the “civilised” West seem inclined to do. I thought about it. I tried to understand whether this story might be about more than freedom of speech and over sensitive religious fanatics.
Some will claim that the reaction of Muslims is over the top. They will point out that similar cartoons about Jesus would not have resulted in riots and deaths. They will say that the reaction of Muslims is the problem here not the cartoons that provoked the reaction. They will say that we in the West accept that satire though sometimes close to the bone should always be free to go where it wants, and push the limits of taste. Many will say this, but how many actually mean it?
“Would we accept comedy about the victims of 9/11, or the Madrid or London Bombings? How about the victims of the Tsunami?” I’m not talking about jokes that circulate via e-mail that we laugh at with a slight feeling of shame. I’m talking about the reaction to a Newspaper publishing such jokes. Would any editer do it, would they or the cartoonist or writer keep their jobs?
Remember the outrage at Kevin Myers “Bastards” column? How many defended his right to freedom of speech? Who dared tell us all to lighten up?
Ian Paisley recently accused our President of being dishonest. Ian Paisley is an old man and even his own followers know that he has become a parody of himself. Despite this our government let it be known in no uncertain terms that his comments were offensive and untrue. Is our President really more deserving of protection from freedom of speech than a God worshipped by Millions of Muslims?
Which is more offensive, the claim that our President tells lies, or that Mohammad is portrayed as a terrorist?
Some years ago a British soap carried a story line in which some characters visited Ireland. There was a scene with a slightly stupid man driving sheep. It was kind of funny in the stupid way that soap operas try to be. The phone lines of Irish radio shows were lit up for a week with complaints about the British portraying us Irish as Stupid. Where was our love of freedom of speech? Where was our ability to look on the funny side?
To understand how Muslims feel about Mohammad it makes no sense to consider how we in the West feel about Jesus. Huge numbers of people in the West have no love of religion at all. Many who are religious treat it as a slightly annoying weekly duty rather than a way of life. Some of the most unchristian people I’ve ever met will claim to be devoutly christian. It makes more sense to compare the relationship between Mulsims and Mohammad with how a Westerner feels about their Father, Mother, Brother or Sister, and even that doesn’t fully capture the depth of feeling that some Muslims have.
Any newspaper that wants to publish these cartoons has the right to do so, but it should be seen for what it is. A deeply offensive act. An act that causes a level of offense that those same editors would not be willing to inflict on their Western readers.
This story was never about freedom of speech. I’ve heard many people say that these cartoons should not have been published, but I’ve heard noone claim that newspapers should be prevented from publishing them.
The only censorship at issue here is self censorship. Which newspapers have the integrity to see these cartoons for the provocative offensive images that they are, and choose to exercise their freedom to not publish them? And which newspapers choose to try to exploit this story to sell a few extra papers and then hide their motives behind rubbish about freedom of speech?
So far The Star is the only Irish publication to publish them and we can be thankful that the majority of Editors have taken the more enlightened path. If The Star truly believed Freedom of Speech should take precedence over sensationalism it could have published an editorial Reserving the right to publsih, but explaining why on this occasion it felt it was inappropriate.
John Waters has suggested that when threats of violence are issued the only correct action is for all editors to publish. His logic has a certain appeal. It’s a perfectly understandable approach to intimidation to attempt to confound those that would imtimidate you. But Mr Waters logic falls down on this specific case.
If newspaper editors are to be free to publish they must also be free to not publish. In a free society the decision of an editor must be his and his alone and he must be accountable for it. If attacked for publishing an offensive item he can not claim to have been forced to publish against his will, regardless of whether the pressure came from a government, a religion, or a union of journalists.
Mr Waters logic also falls down on another front. He fails to acknowledge that those who are promoting violence in the Muslim community are actually delighted to see Western newspapers carrying these images. It provides them with ammunition for their campaign to portray the West as the enemy. Publishing these cartoons gives comfort to those that we abhor, while offending the many millions of Muslims who protest peacefully and who share enough common ground with us to offer the best chance for dialogue between two very different cultures.
If we automatically react to intimidation by publishing such material, we create a tool for the small group of fundamentalists who want to keep our two civilizations apart. All they need to do is order us not to print something and we would be bound by some arbitrary oath to print it.
In the rush to defend our freedom to speak, we shouldn’t forfeit our freedom to use restraint.