What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…The Muhammad Cartoons

Posted: February 21, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

After the Danish daily newspaper, Jylands-Posten, and several other European newspapers published 12 cartoons of the founder of Islam, Muhammad, beginning last September, protests have risen to a crescendo throughout the Muslim world in countries such as Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia, and in Western countries with large Muslim communities, such as Great Britain.

To many Muslims, the cartoons are prejudicial and grossly insensitive to their religious sentiments. To many in the West, the larger issue at stake is freedom of speech and the freedom of the press to print materials, regardless of whether they may be offensive to one group or another. Underlying the debate is where the line between freedom of speech and responsible use of that freedom lies.

Michael Krauss, professor of law, believes that the violent reaction of some of the Muslim protestors reflects the nature of the societies in which many of them live, as well as the system of governments in place in their countries.

“The first major issue involved is the conflation of a newspaper with a nation,” he says. “For anyone to assume that a newspaper cartoon represents a nation is to assume that the nation where the cartoon was published is a dictatorship. And of course, that’s not so, that’s self-evidently not so for Denmark and Norway. But it seems that there are populations incapable of separating the two intellectually. That I think is a testimony to their own cultures.

“It would be unimaginable for Americans to want to destroy Danish property because one Dane did something. So, one has to believe that that proclivity means that the protestors cannot believe that this was done without the endorsement of the government, and that only makes sense if they themselves live in countries where the press cannot produce anything without the endorsement of the government.”

Krauss also sees the protests as hypocritical, since anti-Semitic cartoons and descriptions published in the Arab and Iranian media are accepted by these communities. “The hypocrisy is a second level of irony in this situation. Obviously, in these countries where these protestors themselves live, which are dictatorships, cartoons that make the Danish cartoon pale into insignificance are published with impunity, regularity and lack of protest,” he says. “So these are totally distinct issues – both of them are objectionable and both exist apart from each other.”

Peter Mandaville, associate professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs, sees the incident as a cycle of mutual escalation. “Muslim voices who respond to the cartoons with cries of blasphemy or idolatry confirm European suspicions that Muslims are extremist and antimodern,” he says. “In turn, the decision by certain French editorial outlets to flagrantly pour oil on the fire by reprinting the cartoons at the height of the outcry simply confirms Muslim suspicions that the West is inherently anti-Islamic.”

Mandaville questions the claims by the European media that the issue is primarily one over freedom of speech.

“The European claim rings a bit hollow and, frankly, rather hypocritical to my mind since there is in Europe a strong tradition of sensitivity towards hate speech that doesn’t seem to be coming into play here,” he says. “I think that on the Muslim side we’re seeing the situation being exploited by ‘hate entrepreneurs’ in various settings, who are using this event to gain political capital.”

Sumaiya Hamdani associate professor in the Department of History and Art History and the director of the Islamic Studies minor program, questions the racism on both sides of the issue.

“Some people have expressed outrage at the Muslim reaction to the racist cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, arguing that the violence and demonstrations that the cartoons elicited among Muslims are not only an overreaction, but hypocritical, considering the publication of anti-Semitic cartoons and statements in Muslim and Arab periodicals,” she says.

“On the one hand, they’re sanguine about racist images and comments against Islam in the Western media, because they argue it is an entitlement of freedom of speech. On the other hand, they’re outraged by racism elsewhere, which they believe has not elicited enough condemnation. In blaming the victim, they are engaging in hypocrisy themselves, and in a gross misrepresentation of the facts. When racist cartoons or defamatory speech appears in the media about Jews or African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans, it is rightly condemned and censored.”

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