- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2006

As if the clash between Western and Muslim civilizations weren’t already severe enough, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last week raised the ante by publishing 12 cartoons caricaturing the prophet Mohammed, including one depicting him wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse — prompting enraged Muslim protesters to torch the Danish embassy in Beirut and the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria. The caricatures originally appeared in Denmark in September, and have been picked up by publications throughout Europe.

So why this new provocation? And why now? Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s arts editor, said he believed the media have been censoring themselves when covering Muslim issues.

Now the paper’s editors say they did not expect to create such a furor — even though it’s well known that depicting the prophet Mohammed flies in the face of every known tradition and law that Muslims practice.

They seem to fail to understand that since September 11, Muslims worldwide have found themselves having to fight stereotypes portraying Islam as the “religion of violence.” Even the most liberal Muslims feel the paper was attacking their beliefs. And that ongoing, pent-up tension exploded in Lebanon and Syria. I’m concerned that if the European press interprets their right to free speech as equal to such irresponsible acts as this, it will sharpen and widen the gap between the Muslim and Western worlds. I’m also concerned about the level of European sincerity when they defend the “freedom of press” — so it’s worth looking at how both sides approach the issue.

John Watson, assistant professor of communications at American University, explains that “expressing hatred or disrespect for any religion is protected in the United States.” Protected, that is, for publications; the government can’t do it. Therefore, editorial opinion, either written or drawn, that some perceive as racist or derogatory is not subject to legal ramifications in the United States. Mr. Watson does point out a major difference in how the United States and the European Union approach freedom of speech. “Hateful speech is given the highest protection in the United States, but is against the law in much of Europe,” he says. And regardless of the editors’ intentions when they commissioned and published the caricatures, Muslims perceive them as an act of hatred.

Europe does not come close to the United States with regard to freedom of speech. In 2005, Austrian cartoonist and writer Gerhard Haderer was sentenced to six months in prison in Greece, an EU member country, when he depicted Jesus as a laid-back, binge-drinking surfer in his book, “The Life of Jesus.” The book is a religious satire and playful re-imagining of the life of Christ, yet it is reportedly the first book Greece has banned in more than 20 years. Mr. Haderer became the first artist who fell under the jurisdiction of the European arrest warrant system since it was introduced in 2002. His sentence was overturned upon appeal, but obviously even the “civilized” Europeans found such a depiction of Jesus hard to take.

Filmmaker Nigel Wingrove was not so lucky. His 1989 film, “Visions of Ecstasy,” was a quasi-soft porn movie about the visions of St. Theresa of Avalon an erotic response to crucifixion. The British Board of Film Classification refused to give it a certificate. They couldn’t brand it “pornographic” or prove that its content was blasphemous, but they presumed viewers would perceive it as such and blocked its distribution. Mr. Wingrove believed that his right of expression was violated and took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. In 1996, the court ruled against him.

In one of its most notorious decisions, Otto Preminger Institut v. Austria, the European Court of Human Rights decided that depictions of religion that are “gratuitously offensive” to believers infringe upon their rights and “do not contribute to any form of public debate capable of furthering progress in human affairs.” It also said that securing religious pluralism was essential to any successful democratic society.

One could argue that the Danish newspaper is not acting European, and that the European leaders who say these caricatures are merely “freedom of speech” and that Muslims are behaving uncivilly are applying a double standard. On the other hand, one could also argue that the West should be united in its approach to freedom of expression, given its importance to the Western way of life. These are times when “responsible” journalism should be norm. The American press is not taking such gratuitous shots at Islam, and seems to be taking great pains not to cause such offense to the faith.

Provocation like that undertaken by Jyllands-Posten divides us at a time when we need to unite more than ever. There are ways to satirize and make points that don’t push people apart, but find a way to get them engaged in the debate.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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