Cartoon violence: Whats wrong with this picture

As Muslims worldwide stage violent protests over the Danish political cartoons that mocked the prophet Muhammad, we in the West can only shake our heads in amazement. How can something as innocuous as a few cartoons spark such homicidal rage?

It’s an important question to ask, since an inflamed Muslim world is a matter of concern to all.

Clearly, ridiculing Muhammad strikes at the deepest part of the Muslim soul. To better understand the reaction, we must imagine how a Christian would feel about a cartoon depicting Jesus as a lecherous bumpkin, or how a Jew might feel seeing, oh, say any of the countless anti-Semitic cartoons that run in Arab newspapers regularly.

The Christians wouldn’t like it, and neither do we Jews like such viciousness. But we know of no incidents where Jews rampaged, rioted, burned and killed over it.

Most of the commentary about the cartoon incident centers on the balance between a free press and reader sensitivities. This week we have heard sanctimonious voices trumpeting the West’s glorious traditions of free and open debate. But we should not take too much stock in that. There are far too many examples of tyranny, censorship, intolerance and racism in the history of Western nations for us to feel smug. It wasn’t so long ago that Europe was the world’s vortex of anti-Semitism, and it still has a big problem with it.

However, in our view, the salient hypocrisy of the contretemps rests squarely with the protestors, who demand of the West a measure of respect, openness and tolerance that does not exist in their own Islamic societies.

This week, Iran’s president announced a “Holocaust cartoon contest,” ostensibly to see who could come up with the most hideously Jew-baiting, Holocaust-denying drawing. Moreover, the country’s top ayatollah blames Israel for the offending Muslim cartoons, claiming that the Jews planted them in Danish newspapers in angry reaction to the Hamas win.

Never mind that the cartoons originally ran months before the Palestinian elections.

What should we in the West do about that? First, we urge peaceful protest, without threats of violence. Talk of lethal revenge is way beyond the pale. Secondly, we must stand firm in support of a free press. As Tim Cavanaugh, Web editor of Reason magazine, wrote in an online commentary: “If freedom of expression isn’t dangerous, it isn’t worth defending.”

Meanwhile, we sympathize with Muslim outrage over a perceived insult to their holiest figure. We grant Muslims the right, even the need, to peacefully express their disgust. But until Muslim societies grant to other faiths the same tolerance and respect they are now violently demanding of the West, our sympathies are limited.