Last September, some cartoons about Islam published in a Danish newspaper caused serious offense to Muslims. (To see the cartoons, go here and scroll about halfway down.) A few days ago the paper apologized, but apparently not enough -- the apology was for offending the feelings of Muslims but not for actually publishing the cartoons -- leading to more protests and boycotts, as well as threats of violence.
The media in Muslim countries have weighed in. According to the Christian Science Monitor:
The Arab News of Saudi Arabia calls upon Denmark to legally ban religious hate speech.
Under the headline "Yes, we have the right to caricature God", France Soir ran a front page cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud.
It shows the Christian deity saying: "Don't complain, Muhammad, we've all been caricatured here."
The full set of Danish drawings, some of which depict the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, were printed on the inside pages.
The paper said it had decided to republish them "because no religious dogma can impose itself on a democratic and secular society."
Or can it? Unfortunately, France Soir's demonstration of the value of free speech ended in a fiasco: the paper published an apology and sacked its managing editor.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian Christian paper Magazinet, which also published the cartoons, then took them off its website because of threats. According to The Brussels Journal:
Magazinet also interviewed two leading Norwegian cartoonists: Finn Graff and Morten M. Kristiansen. Graff, who was known in the 1960s and '70s for his satirical drawings of Jesus Christ, said that he does not draw pictures mocking Muhammad. He does so out of fear for Muslims, and also "out of respect." Muslims, he said, are very sensitive about their religion and their prophet, which is something one has to take into account and one has to respect. Kristiansen said he had received many protest letters in the past whenever he mocked Christ. The same applies to cartoons about Muhammad, but lately the protest letters from Muslims had increasingly become threats, including death threats in e-mails from places such as Iran. Unlike Graff, Kristiansen said he will not change his behaviour because of these threats because it is important to defend the right to freedom of expression.
The lesson is that if you want your religion not to be mocked, it helps to have a reputation for senseless violence. Is this the incentive structure we want?
That observation is, of course, quite correct. Christians who protest blasphemy generally do not threaten a violent response (though there were some bomb threats in response to a planned production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi a few years ago). But I would note that the "blasphemy as hate speech" meme is shared by quite a few conservative Christians as well; and, in some cases, this translates into sympathy for even violent Muslim backlash against perceived anti-Muslim blasphemy. Here, for instance, a Christian blogger condemns the cartoons about Islam on the grounds of disrespect:
The cartoons are clearly offensive attacks on the faith of all Muslims and it is not surprising that people are upset (if similar cartoons were drawn about Christians there would be considerable protest and outrage). Thus, it was sad to learn that one of the newspapers that published the cartoons was an evangelical Christian paper in Norway. The editor said he had received death threats and hate letters.
What did he expect? He published hate cartoons and thus should not be surprised to receive hate mail. How does this guy think he can reach out to the Muslims in Norway with the Gospel if he so grossly mocks their faith? Why must Christian newspapers publish tabloid trash? It is time for Norway's Christians to demand the editor leave or to cancel their subscriptions.
And Pat Buchanan recently had this to offer:
When Bush speaks of freedom as God's gift to humanity, does he mean the First Amendment freedom of Larry Flynt to produce pornography and of Salman Rushdie to publish The Satanic Verses, a book considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith? If the Islamic world rejects this notion of freedom, why is it our duty to change their thinking? Why are they wrong?
The "hate speech," "bigotry," and "Christian-bashing" label was slapped on the NBC show "The Book of Daniel" (canceled due to protests and boycotts), which featured an Episcopal priest with a dysfunctional family and a Jesus who urged him to be tolerant of human frailties.
I agree that cheap religion-baiting, and particularly Christian-baiting, has long been in vogue among the liberal intelligentsia, and that it can be very juvenile and tiresome. But there is something dangerous, in my view, about the idea that certain beliefs are beyond criticism, even disrespectful criticism (or irreverent reinterpretation).
Once, in illiberal and authoritarian times, blasphemy was outlawed as an offense to God and the authority of churches. Now, we are hearing calls to outlaw blasphemy as an offense to human sensibilities based on group identity.
In attacking "The Book of Daniel," Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition urged the entertainment industry to treat Christians with the same respect it treats Muslims and Jews. I don't know about Jews; but if the Danish cartoons saga is an example, the way Western societies today treat speech deemed offensive to Muslims is precisely the wrong way to approach speech about religion.
(Cross-posted at The Y-Files.)