In September of 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published several editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Many of these cartoons were inflammatory, and portrayed Muhammad in a bad light. For example, in one of the more widely circulated cartoons, Muhammad is shown wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. These cartoons angered Muslims, not just because they presented the founder of Islam in a negative way, but also because within Islam, it is blasphemous to depict him period.
The cartoons led to protests Denmark, and a tour of the Muslim world by Danish imams to further publicize what they viewed as discrimination. Their tour, coupled with the republication of the cartoons in other papers around the world, led to violent protests in Muslim countries. The journalists involved received death threats, among them a $11 million bounty offered by Haji Yaqoob Qureishi, a minister in Uttar Pradesh state government in India for anyone who beheads the cartoonists.
The controversy surrounding the cartoons raises several important issues about free speech and religious tolerance. What is the responsibility of a Danish newspaper to respect the religious dictates of a religion not their own? Was the Muslim response valid and justified? Should there be limits on free speech and satire? Is Islam a violent religion by its very nature?
When broaching important and heated topics like religion, any reasonable person should maintain a level of caution. People feel very strongly about faith, and as a person of faith, I can understand the impulse to protest the unfair treatment of the religiously observant. The secular West has become all too accustomed to a free reign when it comes to vilifying religion, and frequently overgeneralizes and misunderstands the faithful to its own detriment.
By the same token, religious people are not exempt from criticism simply because they are religious. It would be improper for someone to hide behind their faith as an excuse if he or she is doing something wrong, particularly if that wrongdoing is motivated by religion. It is ironic that the Danish cartoons depicted Muhammad as the leader of a violent religion, and in response, Muslims violently protested the cartoons. The attitude seems to be, "Don't call me violent, or I'll kill you."
The newspaper would have done well not to use the blunt instrument of the editorial cartoon, and instead published a reasoned editorial column regarding Islamic fanaticism. While I am sure this would have generated a negative response in the Muslim community, it would have at least been a more enlightened approach. Intelligent people should be able to discuss religion without resorting to satire, which can be disrespectful, or violence, which is almost never the proper response.