UNFUNNY CARTOONS

February 10th, 2006

What a colossal set of misjudgements and unintended consequences have been set in motion by the Danish cartoon controversy!
The Danish paper that originally published the cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed had the law and western tradition of free expression on its side. What it didn’t have was much common sense, editorial judgement or taste.
The cartoons, after all, are sophomoric, crude and deeply offensive to some observant Muslims. It was silly to publish them in the first place. If the point was to reinforce freedom of expression in Denmark, it was a point that didn’t need reinforcement. If the point really was to embarrass the Danish government, it certainly succeeded in that. U.S. news organizations that decided, after some debate, not to run them were right. It would have been a needless provocation when the images are so widely available on websites everywhere.
I recognize that the violent and murderous mob reactions around the globe have been at least partly aggravated by political groups and even governments that want to underscore the yawning cultural gap that separates the Arab and Muslim world from the west. Think of those that would benefit from persuading the “Arab Street” that indeed the west is on a “crusade” to demean and diminish muslims, and you have the list of agitators.
In Doha, Qatar, last week, I was interviewed on Al Jazeera television about the controversy. The anchor asked me if I thought the international community could or should pass a law or convention barring the publication of patently offensive commentary like the cartoons. No, I said, it couldn’t and it shouldn’t. Each side — the west and the Aram and Muslim world — will have learn to live with the traditions and philosophy of the other. Besides, what we really need is an international law legislating good judgement, respect and taste on the part of journalists and politicians alike. I’m afraid that is too much to hope for.


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