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Published: Monday, 2/13/2006

With a free press comes responsibility

The publication of a number of cartoons caricaturing Prophet Mohammed by a Danish newspaper have inflamed the Muslim world. To add fuel to an already raging fire, newspapers in many European countries, including France, Spain, and Norway, have reprinted the offensive cartoons. And all this in the name of so-called freedom of speech!

There is absolutely no justification for the violence carried out in the name of Islam. Neither the Qur'an, the sacred book, nor the traditions of Prophet Mohammed allow that. Instead the religion, selective and out-of-context quotes aside, advocates compassion, mercy, and forgiveness when someone trespasses against a Muslim. The Prophet himself forgave those who had heaped verbal and physical abuse on him during his lifetime. He would be aghast at the magnitude of violence being done in his name.

To a great majority of Muslims the cartoons are offensive. These are the people who do not take to the streets to protest and to destroy. But they are offended just as deeply as the screaming masses on the streets of Jakarta, Cairo, Dhaka, or Baghdad. In a simplistic deduction bordering on stupidity, the media lump all Muslims together and, using the red-hot iron of freedom of speech, brand them as backward and intolerant.

A case in point is the Feb. 4 cartoon published in The Blade. It showed a Muslim complaining to God that the cartoons are offensive. God answers that He is offended by radical Muslims condoning suicide bombings in His name. Perhaps in the mind of Kirk Walters there is an equivalence between the two statements. For the majority of Muslims, including this columnist, there is none. It would be like blaming all Christians for the killings of innocent men, women, and children in Northern Ireland, blaming all Jews for random acts of violence against the Palestinians by a handful of Jewish settlers, or blaming the Hindu majority for the atrocities committed against the minority Muslims in Gujarat, India.

Muslims have the same reverence and love for Mohammed as Christians hold for Jesus, even though Mohammed is not divine. Every child growing up in a Muslim family learns to love, respect, and to follow Mohammed's teachings. This relationship remains intact even for those Muslims who do not follow the religion strictly. So when Mohammed is insulted it affects all Muslims to their very inner core.

Now let us consider the hypocrisy in selective application of freedom of speech. A few years ago the same Danish newspaper now in the center of the controversy had turned down a number of offensive cartoons about Jesus. The reason? It would be insulting to Christians.

Like the Danish newspaper, the press here in America does exercise restraint over what it publishes. They do not publish anything that could be offensive, even remotely, to African-Americans. You will be hard-pressed to find a frank criticism of Jews or the state of Israel. The former will earn a well-meaning journalist the title of bigotry and insensitivity and the latter the all-encompassing label of anti-Semite. How many times have editors and broadcasters yanked something out because it was just "too sensitive"? Call it self-censorship due to intimidation and political pressure, but the result is the same. In democratic France it is a crime to question the Holocaust. When democratic countries start making laws to silence dissenting voices, no matter how distasteful or offensive, they forfeit their right to sit in judgment of others.

Freedom of the press is a sacred privilege, but it comes with some responsibility. The press in western countries does exercise restraint in general, but when it comes to Islam those restraints go out of the window. Some people just cannot get out of the dark ages of their own making.



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