The extremist leaders who have stirred up their mobs did so because they are fighting a battle of their own, in the Muslim world, against moderates, and these cartoons were a useful catalyst for enraging more Muslims and converting them into a hateful mob. The cartoons were an excuse. The battle is not over "sensitivity" to a religion -- you think these people are sensitive to your religion? You think the masked guys storming embassies with firebombs, the wild-eyed guys firing their AK-47s in the air and chanting, "There is no God but Allah," you think these guys believe in mutual tolerance and respect? You think they're merely in favour of creating slightly stricter press restrictions on religious offence, maybe a broader definition of hate speech?
They are saying: Your religion is wrong and ours is right. You are an unbeliever and you are going to hell. This is not about argument; this is about simple power. They are saying: If you insult us, we will kill you. They are not trying to convince you of anything, they are trying to frighten you.
And boy, have they been effective. Our media has completely muzzled itself. They say they do not want to be needlessly offensive. But I say it's a question of courage. If we had printed all the cartoons, in all their goofiness, on the front page of every newspaper in North America, we would have provided far too many targets to firebomb (at least all at once). More importantly, we would have expressed solidarity for a fundamental principle. As it is, we have been cowardly and ceded a point, which is now going to stand as a precedent.
And what a terrible precedent it is: that religion is out of bounds for criticism. All the fundamentalists of every religion are going to be delighted by this one. The Christians, believe me, are going to be right behind the Muslims on this one. Remember how they started arguing during the gay-marriage debate? Hey, they said, that's not fair. By disagreeing with me you're disrespecting my religion, and religion is sacred; that's offensive. It's anti-Christianism! It's Christophobia! Your support for human rights is actually hate speech!
Religious fundamentalists can now quote several figures of authority -- the British Foreign Secretary, the U.S. State Department -- whose appeasing statements about "sensitivity" can be used from now on as ammunition in the next protests. (It's offensive to my religion to have my daughter in the same classroom as boys; offensive to my religion to have girls who wear tight pants in the classroom . . .)
Were the cartoons insensitive? Yes, two of them at least could have been predicted to cause offence. Maybe three. The newspaper that ran them is a conservative one, and it did so as a provocation (they have since apologized).
The offensive drawings tarred an entire religion with extremism and that's not accurate. But it's legal in every civilized democracy. Editorial cartoons are very often dumb generalizations, very often a place for the expression of emotion and stereotype rather than of reasoned argument. (It's the job of the editorial cartoonist, for example, to point out the obvious and depressing fact that the recent behaviour of the mobs corresponds exactly to the stereotype of the hell-bent Muslim portrayed in the supposedly vile cartoons.)These particular caricatures were not nearly as crassly racist as the average anti-Semitic cartoon or TV show run regularly in Arabic media. What can we do in this new world war? Should we try to reason with the people who are explicitly anti-reason? Should we try to make concessions, to change the oldest traditions of democratic society so as not to anger them more?
Appeasement of religious fascism is naive. A society that attempts to be conciliatory in the face of naked bullying is a society in which, in Yeats's prophetic words, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."
I have excerpted far more than I normally would but it was almost impossible not too. Now that is what I call a media critic.