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February 10, 2006

Standing up for the First Amendment?

Roy Meachum

Today's world seems nearly equally divided between protectors and critics of an obscure Danish publication that printed cartoons lampooning Muhammad; one drawing depicts Islam's chief prophet with a turban made up of bombs.

Protests so far have taken about a half-dozen lives, destroyed property worth millions and brought about a boycott that has cost western nations, including United States businesses, millions more.

As it turned out, the furor started with the author of a children's book dealing with the life of the founder of Islam. Understanding what happened next requires at least a brief background.

The tiniest Scandinavian nation is so small that seemingly everyone knows everybody else; while that might not be literally true, I found, during my years in Europe, that no one in the journalism profession, for example, enjoyed anonymity. They might not know farmers and cheese makers, but all writers were well acquainted with each other's work.

Not being able to find an artist willing to provide illustrations, the book's author sought assistance from friends at Jyllands-Posten, a daily newspaper known but to fellow Danes. The editors decided to run a contest. Why they chose to recruit political cartoonists remains a mystery. But their entries poured in.

Muslims have always taken their prophet seriously; above all else they fiercely resent any and all attempts to present Muhammad's likeness. In fact, emulating the Old Testament, Islam strictly forbids any graven images. That means not only human beings but inanimate objects: flowers, food and even furniture, for example.

Rising up from Mecca, once the province of innumerable idolatries, the "new" religion erred on the side of caution. Carving or painting the prophet's image, it was reasoned, could tempt his followers to render offerings to him, rather than the One God, whom they know as Allah. Publishing the cartoons, under these conditions, absolutely guaranteed at least some Muslims would be offended.

Denmark is a small country, as I said, constantly in need of calling attention to itself. Publishing the cartoons might very well have little impact on the outside world. But the editors figured they might attract new subscribers and admiration for their bravado in pushing material that they might justify on their free speech license.

Initially, protests came from Islamists in neighboring countries. Their demonstrations generated little notice. Not until the foreign ministers from all 57 Muslim nations gathered in Saudi Arabia was the decision made to serve notice on the rest of the world that the cartoons were insulting to one and all. That was in late December.

Facing unrest and near-rebellion, Arab governments, in particular, proceeded to divert discontent for various reasons, including the failure to provide access to democracy, and focus their national rage on the cartoons. Having let loose the dogs of war, as Shakespeare put it, they are considering now how to bring the situation under control.

At the same time, confronted with ever-increasing turmoil and defiance from Muslims, various European publications are displaying solidarity with their Danish colleagues by printing the cartoons, under the free speech banner. Nonsense! How totally irresponsible!

There's never been a clearer case where the press was more obliged to follow the "fire" principle: Shouting fire in a crowded theater is forbidden because it could cause a stampede, killing people.

With the death count already climbing, reprinting the material almost certainly assures the greater loss of lives and more damage to property and nations' reputations. With their xenophobic attitude Muslims barely differentiate among non-believers; they lump most Christians together and blame them all for acts of prejudice against Islam, including supplying weapons for Israelis to use against Palestinians and the invasion of Iraq.

Put simply: The humiliations suffered because of incendiary cartoons are totally unnecessary in a world desperately searching for peace. The last thing anybody needs is the pretentious posturing that freedom of speech is the real issue. Because Islamist radicals choose to mangle the truth gives the west no excuse to do the same.

There are other and more serious problems. We witnessed the mob fury over Newsweek's reporting American interrogators had flushed Quran pages down Guantanamo's toilets and survived. We simply cannot allow ourselves to slip down in the muck and mire that our opponents to wallow in.

And Jyllands-Posten's editors should have their bottoms spanked for inflicting on the rest of us such childishly destructive behavior, especially when their juvenile attitude has cost real people their lives.

For shame!

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