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February 8, 2006
Column #1,276
Free Press Vs. Religious Intolerance
by Michael J. McManus

How could cartoons spark the burning of Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and the killing of a Catholic priest in Turkey?

The Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, hired cartoonists to draw pictures of Mohammad they knew would be offensive to Muslims. One cartoon portrayed the founder of Islam as a terrorist, with a bomb in his turban. In another, Mohammad tells a line of suicide bombers waiting to enter heaven, "Stop! Stop! We have run out of virgins."

Why were they purposefully provocative? Editors felt that "Muslims should not be exempt from criticism," says David Newton, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Yeman. "It was very foolish.  Even here we have the right to free speech, but some things are not right to publish. We don't give the names of teenagers accused of crimes or rape victims."

European countries are disturbed by the number of Muslims who have immigrated there, who are far more religious than secular natives. The cartoons stuck their finger in the eye of Muslims, as if to say, "If you don't like it here, go home."

Eight Arab ambassadors met with the Danish Prime Minister last fall and asked him to criticize the offensive cartoons. He refused, citing freedom of the press. That sparked a boycott of Danish products across the Middle East, a legitimate non-violent form of protest. European newspapers retaliated by republishing the cartoons in France, Germany, Bulgaria, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland, Hungary, New Zealand and Poland.

European editors argued that what they might not have published initially, became newsworthy. However, the continent-wide smear of Islam outraged pious Muslims, which was then exploited by political and religious leaders who organized demonstrations that clearly got out of hand. The Syrian Government, criticized by the UN for its involvement in the killing of a former Lebanese Prime Minister, curried favor with Muslim extremists by letting them burn embassies.

Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt .makes a stronger charge: "Syria is stirring trouble in the region.  It is very bizarre that a so-called secular totalitarian regime that controls everything was not able to control those demonstrations," Jumblatt told "The violence and burnings in Lebanon were the work of Syrian soldiers and workers dressed in civilian clothes," said the head of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party.

European journalists correctly assert that tolerance is disdained by people who demand it of others. Saudi Arabia does not even allow one church to be built for foreigners, yet foreign newspapers are expected to respect Islam. The Christian population of Israel and Iraq has withered. Five of 130 Christian Assyrian churches were burned in Iraq last weekend.

Yet can anyone rationally expect Muslims to become more tolerant when their faith is trashed, not by one newspaper, but by the media of ten nations?

However, the issue is larger than the clash of Western freedom of the press vs. Muslim sensibilities. There is a growing sense of anger and helplessness across the Muslim world. Their countries seem permanently backward compared to the West, with few job opportunities. Their  governments are often corrupt, and are usually ruled by kings, not elected leaders.

Even when there is the rare election, as in the Palestinian territories, corrupt moderates were ejected in favor of the militant Hamas who calls for the destruction of Israel. Why? The Bush Administration was not an honest broker between the Jews and Palestinians. We raised no objections to Israel building a wall that makes it almost impossible for Palestinians to work in Israel, as in the past. The people simply voted against their ineffectual leaders.

Our invasion of Iraq is the major issue across Islam. "You can't go kicking the hornet's nest and then complain about how hornets are biting everyone," says Jim Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute.

No newspaper in the U.S. has published the cartoons, nor any TV network. I believe this is commendable self-censorship. Anyone who really wants to see the images can go to However, the American press recognizes the inflammatory nature of the cartoons, and has chosen simply to describe them.

Muslim immigrants to the U.S. have as much opportunity as any other immigrant unlike the situation in Europe where Muslims feel like blacks in the pre-Civil Rights South.

The remarkable result is that there has not been even a single car bomb in America since 9/11.  How can that peace be exported?

In Israel, we must become genuine brokers for peace, opening up thousands of jobs for Palestinians if they renounce terrorism. In Iraq, we must begin to draw down troops.

And we must pray for peace as well as work for it.

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