the Epitome of Free Expression
By Rene Ciria-Cruz
New America Media
Why are some Western commentators
casting the controversy over the Danish cartoons
lampooning the Prophet Muhammad as a challenge to
freedom of expression and of the press? They should
instead view the controversy as a challenge to journalists
to renew their sense of respect for different cultures
and religious beliefs.
A series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad provoked
protests across the Middle East after it ran in
Jyllands-Posten, Denmark’s largest selling
broadsheet newspaper. One drawing shows Muhammad
wearing a bomb-shaped turban. Another shows him
stopping the souls of suicide bombers from entering
heaven, saying, “Stop, stop, we’ve run
out of virgins!” Non-Muslims may not understand
the depth of the horror and outrage among Muslims
against the cartoon -- Muhammad is not supposed
to be depicted in any likeness, much less lampooned.
The cartoons ran last September but were reprinted
by other papers. They are Islamophobic, stereotypical
-- the stuff of provocateurs. In trying to discredit
extremists they manage to tar all Muslims. Jyllands-Posten’s
editors have apologized for the lapse in judgment.
But the cartoons’ defenders in West seem to
have lost all sense of proportion by responding
to the explosive protests in the Muslim world as
if to stand up for Western civilization as we know
Some publications in Europe have chosen to reprint
the cartoons as an act of “defiance,”
forgetting that the use of Islam against its followers,
as in the form of sexual humiliation or the desecration
of the Quran, was a method used by interrogators
in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo -- something deservedly
condemned the world over. Are we now to uphold this
tactic as the epitome of free expression because
it was employed against extremists by a free press?
In the face of the fervent hostility that the cartoons
have stirred, some like France’s clueless
Interior Minister Nicolas Zarkozy self-righteously
foist the argument that nothing is holier than freedom
of expression, or at least nothing should stand
in its way.
But this proposition is a myth. No one really adheres
to it, not even in the most liberal quarters in
the West, where there are libel and slander laws
that offer protection to individuals against abuses
arising from unbridled expression. No one is allowed
to falsely cry “fire” in a crowded theater,
and rightly so. No one is free to foment or cause
imminent danger to others.
For journalists, however, punitive laws are not
the only restraints that should matter. There are
rules, written and unwritten, that are supposed
to prevail in the newsrooms of free societies. Editors,
reporters and art room professionals are trained
to use these guides to proper journalistic conduct
in producing their stories and commentaries.
There are no laws punishing bad taste, but journalists
routinely don’t write humorous articles or
headlines about victims of natural catastrophes.
If they do blaspheme, they know it is best to do
it to one’s own god and leave that of others
alone. They know better than to display their wit
at the expense of victims of serious crimes. Who
in the West criticizes such self-restraint as an
erosion of freedom of expression and of the press?
So why is the demand for basic decency and respect
in the depiction of symbols sacred to millions of
people so outrageous to some Western journalists
and officials, especially in a world already inflamed
by faith-based political tensions?
Are we now supposed to stand in ethical defense
of anti-Semitic depictions of Jews by some misguided
Muslim leaders and institutions? Why must tolerance
of outright provocation, or the racist depictions
of peoples and cultures, be the supreme test of
Certainly, in a free society, no one should prescribe
the use of legal prosecution against violations
of common decency, respect and good taste. But that
doesn’t mean the media and its professionals
should freely disseminate religious and ethnic insults
and expect to be defended “as a matter of
principle” when anger from those they offend
rains upon their houses.