And the reactions of the Western media generally have been almost as harmful, particularly toward moderate Muslims' attempts at peacefully registering their extreme distaste for the cartoons. For example, why do Western media portray large-scale protests and boycotts—time-honored tactics used by many other religious and ethnic groups--as undemocratic when Muslims engage in them?

Nor is the Western press helping to contextualize this controversy by pointing out America's own less-than-sterling recent record on free speech. Let's remember that the U.S. government has admitted targeting al-Jazeera news bureaus, and has both arrested and detained without trial journalists who were reporting news that challenged the official American version of events, particularly in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Is there editorial rationale for painting the founder of Islam as a bloodthirsty terrorist?...
Read more on page 2 >>

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It is certainly true, as the French newspaper Le Monde argues, that Western laws permit religions to be "freely analyzed, criticized, and even subjected to ridicule." But what editorial rationale is there for printing a picture of the founder of Islam as a bloodthirsty terrorist? How does it fulfill the role of the press in a free society? Just because a paper has the right to free speech doesn't mean that it should print insulting images that have no relationship to the reality of the situation they're meant to represent.

Another age old misconception about Islam is at the root of this controversy: the idea that Muhammad cannot be depicted visually in Muslim tradition. Jyllens-Posten's editor apparently felt that it was worth the time, money, and inevitably hatred the cartoons would generate to challenge this taboo.

The reality is, however, that the Prophet has been depicted by Muslim artists across Islam's history, particularly in the medieval period. Had the editors of Jyllands-Posten or any of their European colleagues who are so worried about free speech actually taken the time to understand the history of Islamic art and Muhammad's role in it, they would have learned that the issue is much more complicated than their simplistic conceptions about Islam allowed. (The general understanding in Islam is that Muhammad--like other Muslim prophets and, not surprisingly, God--cannot be depicted visually because to do so could lead to idolatry.) But since the editors' goal was apparently not to educate their readers but rather to prove they weren't afraid to provoke Muslims while defending freedom of expression (how it was threatened by the prohibition against depicting Muhammad no one has explained) yet another chance for dialog was turned into an opportunity for spreading anger and distrust.

In this context, the motivation of newspaper editors across Europe who have reprinted the cartoons "in solidarity" with the Danish newspaper are especially perplexing, as are their comparisons of the depictions of Muhammad to caricatures of a priest or rabbi. Exactly what are they supporting? It's hard to tell.

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