Words are powerful. But when it comes to the power to provoke or incite, nothing compares to images. When those images depict religious matters, especially in a critical way, the results are neither predictable nor, in some instances, containable.
That is clearly evident in the sometimes-violent protests by Muslims outraged by depictions of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper.
Muslim protesters took to the streets in dozens of countries around the world in recent days. Danish embassies in Lebanon and Syria were burned. More than a dozen protesters have been killed and many more injured. The Taliban has offered a reward for the death of those responsible for the initial publication of the cartoons, according to the Afghan Islamic Press.
In France, Germany, Italy, Norway and Austria, newspapers and magazines have republished the cartoons in an attempt to make the point that the limits of free speech must not be dictated by those who might take offense, drawing rebukes and calls for responsibility and restraint by Western officials.
Some editors have gone into hiding, some have been fired and some have resigned over the issue. The government printing license for an East Malaysian newspaper that republished the cartoons was suspended.
At the outset, American journalists were conflicted bystanders to all of this. But as a smattering of U.S. newspapers began to publish the cartoons and a few editors criticized the Associated Press for not distributing the images, the debate over responsibility and free speech sharpened.
This is not a new debate, of course. Since the days of Thomas Nast and his post-Civil War “graphic vendetta” against Boss Tweed, controversy over cartoons and caricatures has been frequent and passionate in the United States.
In 2002, political cartoonist Doug Marlette drew a man in Middle Eastern dress driving a truck hauling a nuclear warhead with the caption, “What Would Mohammed Drive?” He thus managed to anger both Muslims, who were offended by the invocation of Muhammad in this context, and Christians, who were offended by the play on the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign.
Marlette’s newspaper, The Tallahassee Democrat, was deluged with more than 20,000 e-mails. Despite death threats, Marlette refused to apologize, explaining in a later article that “I have outraged Christians by skewering Jerry Falwell, Catholics by needling the pope, and Jews by criticizing Israel. … No one is less tolerant than those demanding tolerance.”
More recently, a Tom Toles cartoon in The Washington Post, depicting a limbless soldier while lampooning Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s statements about troop strength and readiness, drew a heated letter to the newspaper signed by each of the Joint Chiefs of Staff decrying what they called insult and injury to the troops.
In 1983, Hustler magazine’s publication of an ad parody regarding religious leader Jerry Falwell resulted in a 1988 Supreme Court decision invoking the long history of “outrages” provoked by political cartoonists and declining to uphold a claim for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. In that decision, the late Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that “The art of the cartoonist is often not reasoned or evenhanded, but slashing and one-sided.”
Thus, while the Constitution and court decisions clearly support the right to publish such material, publication and republication of the Muhammad cartoons have split even staunch advocates for speech and press freedom in the United States.
Peter Sheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said in a statement: “To fail to show readers the images that have triggered this outpouring is to accede to the censorship of the mob.”
But First Amendment attorney Terry Francke says that simply describing the cartoons is sufficient for professional coverage of the controversy: “Sometimes a few words are worth a thousand pictures, especially when the controversy is about ‘the very idea’ of a certain act of expression.”
Despite the division on the issue, the American dialogue takes place without the specter of government interference looming over it. That is not the case elsewhere.
As some Muslim leaders and organizations attempt to explain and prevent the deep insult to their faith caused by the cartoons and call for moderation in the protests, extremists and some Middle Eastern government officials attempt to hijack the issue for their own purposes.
For their part, Western leaders’ initial response to the violence and protests by government was to call for restraint and responsibility on the part of the press. More recently, French President Jacques Chirac criticized publication of the cartoons and said, “I condemn all obvious provocations which could dangerously fuel passions.”
And Franco Frattini, the European Union commissioner for justice, freedom and security, called for a code of conduct in which the press would exercise “prudence” when reporting on Islam and other religions. The London Telegraph quoted the former Italian foreign minister as saying that by agreeing to such a code, “the press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right.”
Calls for self-regulation are viewed with caution, if not outright suspicion, by free-speech advocates because they frequently turn into a roadmap to regulation. That concern is especially relevant in this context.
Censorship is historically and inextricably linked with religion. It is only in modern times that censorship has been directed at political and cultural speech. Since language was invented, the leaders of all faiths and followings have attempted to protect dogma and status by restricting the speech of their followers. Dissent, therefore, most often appeared in the form of art and caricatures, since the artist could use it to make his point more sharply than in words — or to cloak the defiance in ambiguity to ward off retaliation.
We are right to worry about expression that crosses a line. But we also must concern ourselves about the difference between responsibility and fear and the danger of sensitivity becoming silence.
Nothing controversial or offensive — which is to say very little of consequence — gets said if the presumed or actual reaction of some listeners determines the boundaries for all speakers.
Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: email@example.com.