There is no doubt the images were meant to be provocative. In Islam, images of the prophet are strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, I believe that the newspaper’s culture editor, Flemming Rose, was onto something when he told PBS that “The point was that we have some people who submit themselves to self-censorship, and they are doing so not out of respect, but out of fear.”
Here in America, I strongly believe that we should have the right to publish provocative and even obscene material. But few countries have such stringent protections of free speech as we do, and I do think that different countries need to come to terms with what they think is acceptable to say in their societies. For example, I’d fight to defend the rights of American Nazis to spout their idiocy, but I don’t particularly take issue with German laws against letting their own people espouse Nazism.
The case with Islam in Europe, however, is different. It was in November of 2004 that Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered after releasing a film that depicted violence against women in Muslim society and contained a scene in which a woman in seethrough clothes had Quranic verses and whip marks on her body. When Van Gogh died, he was working on a film about Pym Fortuyn, the anti-immigration Dutch politician who was assassinated in 2002. Often cast as a rightist in the Le Pen mode, Fortuyn was openly gay and feared that Muslim immigration threatened the libertarian and libertine values of his homeland.
It is against this background of threats to political and artistic expression that the cartoon stunt should be measured. The cartoons themselves are largely unfunny, but they did their job by provoking precisely the reaction that anti-Islamists would have expected and feared. They prove, if proof were needed, that a spirit of militant intolerance runs deep in the Muslim world.
I sincerely hope that there is a counterveiling spirit in the Muslim world as well — the spirit of plurality, welcome, brotherhood and equality that has made Islam attractive to people of so many different races and cultures, the spirit reflected in the ecumenism of the Mughal emperor Akbar, in the novels of Salman Rushdie and elsewhere. Right now that spirit, if it lives, is buried deep. But things change quickly in times of turmoil.