Unfortunate choices: ditch free speech or offend Muslims?

by Brian Clarey

For the record, I probably would have run the cartoons.

Probably. But then again, maybe not.

I’m speaking, of course, about the spate of ‘anti-Muslim’ cartoons that ran last September’… in newpapers in Denmark’… and subsequently set the Islamic world aflame.

People are dead, to be sure, but of more importance to the guys in suits who pull the strings is a trade embargo between Iran and Denmark, instigated because of a pen and ink drawing of a guy with a bomb in his hat.

Fortunately for me an alt-weekly is not the preferred forum for day-to-day news like this, and even if I did want to run the cartoons (and it would be awfully tempting to do so) most people who wanted to would have already seen them by the time our paper hit the streets.

I don’t envy the editors who had to make that choice, were forced to weigh the equally compelling arguments of responsibility to inform versus the risk of alienating an entire swath of readership, perhaps even inciting violence.

In the end, for me, the question would be this: ‘“Do the readers need to see the cartoons in order to fully understand the story?’”

In this case my answer would be ‘“yes.’” But it would be a tough call and one I’m glad I didn’t have to make.

Now, if the subject of the piece were, say, crystal meth, as it was in a recent edition of the New Times of San Luis Obisbo, Calif., and say the debate was over whether to print a working recipe for the drug’… well even I would have to take a pass on that one, especially after applying the same criterion.

As it happened in the cartoon fiasco, some editors went one way and some went the other. Some quit their jobs over it and others were asked to resign. Others lived to fight another day.

But the real lesson about freedom of speech here is not about the editors who did or did not run the offensive cartoons. We can learn much from the bloody aftermath.

The riots started in earnest earlier this month, like five months after they initially ran. The time lapse says something about the free flow of information in the Arab world.

There is no freedom of speech in most Middle Eastern countries ‘— they don’t understand the language and implications of our cherished inalienable right. And many pieces of information they get are spoon-fed to them by their ‘benevolent’ leaders, who have it in their best interests to keep the people, shall we say, sparsely informed.

How many of the protesting Muslims truly understand the context of these ‘offensive’ cartoons? How many know their true source.

There have been a few deaths in the protests, the aforementioned trade sanctions, armed standoffs and primitive attacks on foreign embassies in Arab countries. The Danish embassy got hit, to be sure, but also outposts from other members of the European Union. We’re taking some of the heat for this, too, which is ironic because this time we had nothing to do with it.

In Iran, the Ayatollah Ali Khemeni is calling the cartoons a ‘“test’” of their fortitude by the West. He also told his people that the drawings were payback from Israel after the election of Hamas in Palestine, which happened four months after they were initially published, by the way, but if you’re doling out firebombs, might as well include the Jews, right?

Personally, I think the Muslims could stand to learn a little something about humor in religion from the Jews. And something about the role of freedom of the press from the US and Denmark.

But then again’….

By blaming the US and the Jews for the offending cartoons, what Iran is doing is mobilizing a people to violence under false pretenses, in effect going after the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Maybe they’re already paying attention to how we do things over here.

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