Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 10 January 2006

The hoo-hah over the publication of cartoon images of Muhammad has been so disproportionate that I’m almost apologetic about bringing it up in this column. Almost, but not quite — because someone has to make the point that the real story is the disproportionality of the hoo-hah.

The most remarkable thing about the cartoons published months ago in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten is that only one of them is funny — the one of the Prophet greeting the suicide bombers in Paradise with the words “Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins”.  The rest of them are at best dull and at worst asinine — the one of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. But that might be because the origin of the cartoons was a complaint by a children’s author that illustrators would only work anonymously on a book explaining Islam to Danish kids for fear of violence from Islamist extremists. Maybe the cartoons weren’t supposed to be side-splittingly hilarious.

OK, the cartoons broke a Muslim prohibition on depicting the Prophet in illustrations. But so what? That prohibition has been broken inumerable times before without anyone making any fuss, not least by Muslims who don’t think it matters very much. More important, to state the obvious, it is not a prohibition most of the Jyllands-Posten cartoonists or the editors of Jyllands-Posten accept. And why should they, any more than they accept Muslim bans on eating pork or drinking alcohol or engaging in extra-marital sex?

All right, I admit that there is a difference, in that a devout Muslim in Copenhagen would not find it hard to avoid inadvertently munching bacon sandwiches, swigging beer or having sex but might easily inadvertently see the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten. Publishing, by definition, is not a simply matter of private behaviour.

It’s clear too, that Jyllands-Posten was deliberately attempting to provoke a reaction when it decided to publish, and by some accounts it seems to have been motivated by a rather crude antipathy to Islam.

I also accept that the cartoons might offend Muslims either because they include images of the Prophet or because a few of them (though by no means all) ridicule aspects of their faith — the ban on depicting the Prophet, the vision of Paradise, the doctrine of jihad (holy war).

But again, in the end, so what? Even if Jyllands-Posten’s provocation was gratuitous and unsophisticated — and I’m not convinced it was — it is entirely legitimate to ridicule religious belief. And much of Islam richly deserves ridicule. The same goes for Christianity, Judaism and every other religion. There is a long and distinguished tradition of ridiculing religion that goes back to the Enlightenment. And no one has the right not to be offended.

Which is not to say that Jyllands-Posten was right to publish the cartoons — just that it had a right to do so, and that that right is worth defending against the far-from-spontaneous expressions of Muslim outrage that swept the world last week. I would have expected Labour politicians in Britain to make this point emphatically and unambiguosly. Instead, we’ve had the grim spectacle of Jack Straw mumbling platitudes about how evil it is to give offence to believers and how important it is for editors to be “responsible”.

The British press has also played a far from glorious role in the affair. No newspaper has republished the cartoons — which is probably sensible given the hysteria whipped up against them by radical Islamists. Publication would place foreign correspondents and other Brits in severe danger in large swathes of the world.

But where were the clear expressions of the inalienable right to publish material offensive to religious believers? OK, there were a few in columns by the usual secularist suspects. The overwhelming majority of pundits and leader-writers opted for rambling on evasively about not pouring petrol on raging fires and the need to understand the depth of religious faith in the Islamic world. Only the Sun admitted — and then obliquely — that a major reason the papers didn’t publish is that they were scared that a Muslim boycott could harm sales.

This is not to suggest that secular democrats should abandon religious tolerance. Respect for the believer’s freedom to choose what he or she believes is another of the great legacies of the Enlightenment that deserves unconditional defence (against, among others, the most radical Islamists). But respect for the believer is not the same thing as respect for the believer’s belief. And if we can’t make it clear that this is a fundamental principle of our society, we’ve got a big problem.

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