Mohammed cartoon creates controversy

by Beacon Staff • February 15, 2006

There's rioting throughout the Middle East. Radical Islamic leaders are calling for violence against infidels. Diplomats and others in European countries fear for their lives. Property has been destroyed and innocent people are dead, with no apparent end in sight.

What's the cause of all this violent chaos? Is it the U.S. presence in Iraq? No. The plight of the Palestinians? Nope. Iran's anger at U.N. pressure regarding its nuclear program? Wrong again. It's about a couple of cartoons.

Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper in Denmark, first printed the political cartoons this past September. One featured the prophet Mohammed wearing a turban shaped as a bomb.

Muslims were outraged, not only because the portrayal of their holiest prophet made a larger negative statement about Islam, but also because he was portrayed at all. Some interpretations of the Quran prohibit any depictions of Mohammed.

The Danish government and Jyllands-Posten refused to apologize for the cartoons, citing freedom of speech.

Several other European newspapers reprinted the drawings, both as a sign of solidarity and as a way for readers to fully understand the controversy.

Predictably, rioting throughout the Middle East soon followed, encouraged by extremist religious leaders. Some Muslims, including many in the West, decried the media for framing the controversy as a clash over civilizations, insisting this is a debate over the responsibility that comes with free speech.

Well, this is as clear a clash between civilizations as I've ever seen.

We have on the one side secular civilization that values freedom of expression versus reactionary extremists who live their lives according to ancient texts.

The fact that these two groups cannot peacefully coexist is at root in the entire war against terrorism, including the War in Iraq and our dealings with Iran.

There is no place for moral relativism when considering this group. Modern secular society is better than any ruled by religion, and if this truly is to be a war to the finish, as it appears to be, then I want secularism to win.

This shouldn't be read as an attack on the entire Middle East or Muslims in general. Fundamentalist faith, which feeds off of ignorance and fear, is always a problem.

The biggest concern right now is clearly radical Islam. Say what you will about Pat Robertson (and I've said it all), he merely suggests that God will punish those he disagrees with-he doesn't incite violence or justify it when it occurs, at least not publicly.

Winning is as much about military success in places like Iraq and Afghanistan as it is about remaining committed to secular values at home.

This means a strong wall of separation between church and state, freedom of speech and expression, progress in scientific fields, and overall rejection of primitive, barbaric thought.

Unfortunately, the U.S. State Department and most American newspapers are not displaying those values or standing alongside the European countries and moderate Muslims who are.

In response to the controversy the State Department replied that freedom of the press is important and all that, but the cartoons were incredibly offensive and such speech rights come with responsibility. Ouch.

Granted, the United States government is very concerned right now with their image in the region.

More disappointing is that the vast majority of the American media, including The New York Times and The LA Times, refuse to reprint the cartoons, opting instead to describe them to readers. I'm very proud to say that The Berkeley Beacon has republished one of the original cartoons, which can be seen on this page.

This was an important decision and one not taken lightly by our staff.

But for a newspaper to self-censor over this controversy, which cuts to the very core of what we believe as journalists, is hypocritical and cowardly.

This is an issue of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to make political statements without fear of violent retribution. Declining to print these cartoons is handing a victory to a group that believes in precisely none of these values.

If the cartoons or our decision to print them offends you, that's unfortunate, but I offer no apology.

That's part of the price of living in a free, open society. The alternative will always be far more offensive.