Thursday, February 2, 2006

Despite recent elections, youth uprisings and a general antipathy toward its authoritarian leaders, the Muslim world still has much to learn about freedom. And who better to teach it than France? Seriously.

The proverbial “Muslim street” has been up in arms recently over 12 unsavory cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad which were originally published in a Danish newspaper last September. On Monday, Palestinian gunmen stormed the European Union office in Gaza, saying their anger over the cartoons made them do it. Several Muslim nations have withdrawn their ambassadors from Denmark, because, as the Syrian state news agency said, publication of the cartoons “constitutes a violation of the sacred principles of hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims.” Muslims everywhere were urged to boycott Danish products.

Then Europe fired back. Newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain and Switzerland showed their support for their Danish colleagues by reprinting several of the offending cartoons. In Paris, the front page of France Soir ran a banner headline declaring: “Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God.” Provocative? To be sure. “No religious dogma can impose its view on a democratic and secular society,” the newspaper said. True, too.

European defiance hasn’t come without a price. Several cartoonists were threatened with death. In Denmark, where in 2004 filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered for his critical film about Islamic societies’ treatment of women, this can’t be taken lightly. The Egyptian owner of France Soir sacked managing editor Jacques Lefranc yesterday for publishing the cartoons. In the Middle East, radical Islamist groups are threatening the lives of Danish tourists and diplomats unless the Danish government apologizes. Norway closed its West Bank mission due to mounting threats and yesterday Palestinian gunmen took over the EU office in Gaza.

While all of this seems like a sad parody of cultural differences, it is deadly serious. Refusing to apologize, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, “I can’t call a newspaper and tell them what to put in it. That’s not how our society works.” For whatever reason, the Muslim protesters, gunmen and governments don’t understand this fundamental element of Western civilization, even as their own news outlets consistently portray Christian and Jewish icons in a derogatory manner.

Freedom to say what you please, as long as the disrespect is peaceful, is a freedom that must be defended without caveat or footnote. The sooner the Muslim world appreciates this, the sooner they’ll be fully accepted in the community of civilized nations.

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