Friday, February 24, 2006

About 150 conservatives, liberals and libertarians gathered peacefully yesterday in front of the Danish Embassy — at the behest of author Christopher Hitchens — to support free speech and protest Islamic radicalism.

“We are not for profanity or for disrespect, but we are … without any conditions or any ifs or any buts, for free expression in all times at all places,” said Mr. Hitchens, a former Marxist who in recent years has become more conservative and is now one of the most prominent defenders of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Mr. Hitchens proposed the demonstration in a column he wrote Tuesday about the ongoing violent reaction in Europe and the Middle East to cartoons, published in a Danish newspaper, that mocked the prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam.

Only three major U.S. newspapers — the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Austin-American Statesman in Texas and the New York Sun — have reprinted the cartoons.

A State Department spokesman called the cartoons “offensive to the beliefs of Muslims” and said that a free press “must be coupled with press responsibility.”

Tony Blankley, editorial page editor for The Washington Times, which has not published the cartoons, attended the rally.

“The paper has not made a decision yet” about the cartoons, he said.

After an hour of conducting interviews and signing books, while a growing crowd occasionally chanted “We are all Danes now,” Mr. Hitchens climbed on top of a tree stump to address the crowd, which included blogger Andrew Sullivan and Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol.

“I hope and believe that Danish TV will have some more agreeable features, such as your own, to show, instead of the faces of violence and hatred and fascism,” Mr. Hitchens said. “I think I could just close by saying, solidarity with Denmark, death to fascism.”

Mr. Hitchens called the rally “the most respectable protest I’ve ever attended, much less organized.”

Muslims in Europe and across the Middle East have held violent protests against the cartoons, including the burning of embassies and clashes with police.

In Nigeria alone, more than 100 people have been killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians.

Muslim clerics from Europe have been charged with taking the cartoons, originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September, to the Middle East to incite Muslims there.

Ahmed Younis, national director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, disagrees with Mr. Hitchens and others’ argument that free speech is under assault.

“Publishing cartoons do not educate us in the least,” he said, “Anyone can find these cartoons online. There’s no need to re-publish and incite to protect free speech. Hitchens is making it about freedom of speech. If we really want freedom for the West, let us not bolster the ability of terrorists to bring more people into their camps.”

Said Mr. Hitchens: “More and more, the media is pictorial. This is a story about images. That they won’t show the images is a negation of the whole point of mass communications in the first place. … They cannot bring themselves to represent the image that’s the source of controversy? This isn’t even cowardice. It’s complete capitulation.”

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