Cartoons and their context


General Culture

It’s somewhat interesting that US newspapers haven’t reported much about a row between European newspapers and what appears to be the larger Islamic world, concerning a set of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. I’m not an expert on world religions, but as far as I know the prophet is not to be depicted, so the outrage is quite understandable. For the latest news update about this see this page. This whole affair is quite interesting to watch, especially since there has been a lot of cheap, simplistic posturing going on about “freedom of speech” (hence my surprise US newspapers didn’t chime right in). The Guardian has just published an excellent Leader about this.

Excerpts: “The right to freedom of speech which allows newspapers to publish such provocative cartoons has been hard won, is inextricably essential to liberty, must be robustly defended and has sometimes to be controversially asserted. If free speech is to be meaningful, moreover, the right to it cannot shirk from embracing views that a majority - or a minority - finds distasteful, even on occasions bitterly so. […] But that is not the end of the matter. There are limits and boundaries - of taste, law, convention, principle or judgment. All these constraints matter and cannot be automatically overriden by invoking the larger principle. […] newspapers are not obliged to republish offensive material merely because it is controversial. […] Every newspaper in the country regularly carries stories about child pornography, yet none has yet reproduced examples of such pornography as part of their coverage. Few people would argue that it is essential to an understanding of the issues that they should do so. […]

“Context matters very much in the case of the cartoons of Muhammad too. It is one thing to assert the right to publish an image of the prophet. As long as that is not illegal […] then that right undoubtedly exists. But it is another thing to put that right to the test, especially when to do so inevitably causes offence to many Muslims and, even more so, when there is currently such a powerful need to craft a more inclusive public culture which can embrace them and their faith. […] Yesterday’s acquittal of two British National party officials on race hatred charges for attacking Islam - and the triumphalist scenes as the two freed men emerged from court - are part of the context that must be weighed in asserting any right to publish cartoons that offend Muslims. So too is the political situation in Denmark itself, where the cartoons were first published, and where a large and strongly anti-immigrant party provides part of the parliamentary coalition supporting Denmark’s centre-right government. What is the message that is being sent, both in the BNP acquittal context and in the Danish context, by insisting on publishing such images? Those questions cannot be ducked - and nor can the answers.”