RELIGION: Is the right to be offensive the issue?
Jane Novak

February 4, 2006

Years ago, American society slowly and voluntarily gave up the use of the word `nigger` to describe African-Americans. The word is racist, insulting, and legal. It hurts people`s feelings, and that was reason enough for a nation to stop using the word. That`s also reason enough not to publish hurtful cartoons.

Integration is a process that begins in conflict that leads to awareness and ultimately adjustments. Thus it may be an encouraging turn of events that western people and Muslims are having a heated discussion about the publication of derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Both are standing for very sensitive and core values of their societies: respect for the prophet Mohammed on one hand and freedom of the press on the other.

Freedom of the press is what most westerners consider the primary bulwark against tyranny, and they consider free speech as perhaps their most fundamental right. Thus many have been willing to accept ridicule of their own beliefs as a necessary cost of free speech, including `art` depicting the Virgin Mary smeared with cow dung, and television comedy shows that satirize Jesus as a cartoon figure on a weekly basis. But this does not mean that others would make this same choice. In fact while any depiction of the prophet Mohammed is considered blasphemous according to Islam, so is any depiction of Moses, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary.

Some see Muslim outrage at the cartoons fundamentally as an attempt at censorship. While Western values include acceptance of religious diversity, and many personally have high regard for religiosity of all types, in an overblown reaction, some have framed the cartoon controversy as an attack on the essence of western civilization, free speech, with headlines like `Global Lynch Mob Attacks Free Speech.`

But important as the right of free speech is, it should not be used to insult or provoke other people. And there are millions of deeply insulted people who remind that the essence of civilization is civility, and that gratuitous insults are mean spirited and hurtful. Muslims in general are an extremely devout people with a deep and intense respect for the prophet Mohammed, a fact they expect that Westerners would know and take it into consideration, and many do.

Western groups boycott products for a variety of reasons but often to assert their values, and it is an effective and peaceful way to influence business practice. When millions of Muslims boycott a country for insulting the prophet Mohammed, it should be seen for what it is, an expression of hurt and an assertion of values. The cartoons are perceived as, and may have been, a taunting and deliberate provocation on behalf of the newspaper. One woman said, it `showed that they care little for our feelings.`

But because several European newspapers are asserting their right to be rude, it does not mean that they represent all western people in this regard.

The positive statement somehow being missed is the rejection of the depiction of Islam as a violent religion. The picture of the prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban implies that Islam promotes terrorism and that has infuriated millions of Muslims. Those Western `experts` who selectively quote from the Koran or Hadiths to make their case as to `the danger of Islam` should take care to listen to people like Isma, a female protester in Yemen, `We don`t want to fight them. We are here in peace to express our love for our messenger.` This message should be received with friendship not belligerence.

It is difficult to overestimate how personally and sincerely many Muslims feel insulted. But listening to the people of the Middle East is extremely difficult when their voices are drowned out by extremists and censored by their own governments. The message of the protests, anger and dismay at the mischaracterization of the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist has been nearly obscured by the vitriolic rhetoric of extremists who are exploiting the incident for their own political purposes. A sign saying `Behead all those who insult Islam` cropped up at one demonstration.

Some Islamic countries have laws prohibiting criticism of the nation`s ruler and also the rulers of `brotherly` (Muslim) nations, making it difficult to understand the poverty, corruption, repression, torture, and censorship that exist in some countries. Communication with the West is actively discouraged through many means including internet censorship and laws against publishing abroad.

But one thing that can be understood from the protests is that most Muslims accept the concept of the legitimacy of civilian immunity from terrorists. Many also feel civilians should be immune from foreign governments occupying or bombing them and their own governments attacking them with impunity. One premise we all may agree upon is there are many kinds of terror that civilians face, and they all are equally illegitimate. Another may be that good manners are important.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst who lives in New Jersey.