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Cartoon Violence Highlights Cultural Divide

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
February 6, 2006

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The Danish embassy in Beirut is a smoldering wreck and at least four people are dead in the worst of the riots raging from Thailand to Somalia (NYT) over cartoons depicting Islam's founding prophet, Mohammed. The fracas began with a series of cartoons—originally published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September then reprinted by several European papers—portraying Mohammed, in itself a blasphemy in Islam. (The cartoons can be viewed on many sites, including on Cryptome, an American site specializing in freedom of information issues.)

The drawings and the decision to publish them raise tough questions about the balance between freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs (Economist). The European papers that published the cartoons have claimed to be exercising the freedom of the press, a commodity the Observer laments is in short supply. But Shujaat Ali, a cartoonist for al-Jazeera tells Der Spiegel the drawings violate "an informal code of ethics among cartoonists in the media." The Washington Post's Jefferson Morley highlights these divergent views on free speech in his international media blog.

The American position has raised eyebrows, too: "We condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "At the same time, [we] defend the right of those individuals to express their views."

Most U.S. media outlets refrained from publishing the cartoons, in sharp contrast to the European media, which published the cartoons in solidarity with the Danes. The American Enterprise Institute asks whether this isn't a somewhat paradoxical stance coming from the "normally stalwart defenders of self-expression" in the American media.

One paper that did publish one of the cartoons, the Philadelphia Inquirer, also ran a piece by columnist Trudy Rubin suggesting this Muslim rage is counter-productive: "Respect for another faith's core religious values can't be a one-way street."

Not all Muslims disagree. But, as an editorial in the Jakarta Post notes, perhaps this wasn't the best time to use this particular vehicle to make a point about free speech. Others, including the Guardian, suggested the riots may be examples of "well-planned spontaneity," a charge echoed by Muslim leaders in Lebanon.

A BBC Q&A provides some background on the dispute and the Financial Times has a timeline of events since the publication of the cartoons. The Index on Censorship, an advocacy site, lets readers have their own say.