The internet seems to be exploding with Mohammed cartoons and images. It started with a publication of some Mohammed cartoons in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. Some of the cartoons were reprinted in a Norweigan publication in January 2006. Other publications followed suit, some to their immediate regret.
The controversy has now escalated with further republication in the mainstream media around the world and predictable Muslim worldwide outrage, as reported in the U.K. Telegraph, the Guardian, BBC News, CNN.com, Yahoo! News, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.
The internet is also swimming with the Danish cartoons, old Mohammed images dug up from search engines, as well as newly minted Mohammed images, some of them photo shopped and deliberately insulting. I will spare you the details. Imagine the most insulting image of Mohammed you could easily photo shop. Think bathroom humor. Yes, someone has already done that or is probably working on it right now.
I can understand the free speech concerns that underlie the Western outrage at Islamic censorship of cartoons of Mohammed. By the same token, there is little to be gained from giving a big "poke in the eye" to Muslims by publishing, republishing or linking to multiple cartoons and insulting images of Mohammed.
Publishing and republishing cartoons and insulting images of Mohammed does not advance our goals in the war on terrorism, unless one of our goals is to show that we couldn't care less about the religious sensibilities of Muslims.
What republishing the images will do is to offend not only power-hungry, violent Islamicists, but also some innocent Muslim men and women who do not currently bear the West ill will, but who genuinely believe that publishing images of Mohammed is blasphemous.
Lest we forget, we count a growing number of Muslims among our friends and allies, including tens of millions in Afghanistan and Iraq and, to a greater or lesser degree, the leadership in Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Libya, to name a few. This is no small achievement. It is the product of years and decades of diplomacy and negotiation.
Some of these allies, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait, were won at the cost of thousands of lives and literally hundreds of billions of dollars. That isn't to say that the cost was not worth it. Tens of millions live in freedom today who otherwise would still be living under tyranny. These allies are priceless when it comes to our national security.
And yet some of that goodwill in the Muslim world, won at such a high price, will rapidly evaporate if too many in the West engage in unnecessary attacks on the religious and cultural sensibilities of our Islamic allies. Few Muslims will make fine-line distinctions between the government of the U.S. or any other Western nation, the mainstream media, and the blogosphere. If any of these in the West offend, all will be seen as involved. The hard-won diplomatic gains that the U.S. and the West have achieved can be quickly squandered. There is no good reason to make it difficult or impossible for our Muslim allies to stand by us by putting them in a position where they must step back for reasons of religious conscience or simple dignity.
I can imagine legitimate purposes for some of this expression, such as the original cartoon that showed Mohammed wearing a turban resembling a bomb. The cartoon illustrated a valid point about the current unholy alliance between Islam and terrorism. But as the internet now explodes with more cartoons and images of Mohammed, some of them insulting, this is one instance in which I think the mainstream media are right not to follow suit.
You don't score points in a debate, nor do you win a lawsuit, nor do you advance to victory in a war, by insulting your enemies. Indeed, it is much easier to win a war, or a lawsuit, or a debate, if you can manage to leave open enough room for your adversary to save a little face and concede gracefully in the end. It's not always possible to avoid stirring up blind fury in one's enemy, but to the degree that you can achieve it and at least keep the blind fury to a minimum, victory is that much easier.
Sure, it's possible that if you flood the world with insulting images of Mohammed, the billion or so Muslims on earth will eventually become numbed to the whole thing and "get over" their sensitivity. However, that seems like a bit of a "hail Mary" strategy (if you'll pardon the religiously mixed metaphor). Even if it worked, it might take decades. The simpler approach is to simply avoid giving unnecessary offense.
Yes, I also know that some of the Muslims most likely to take offense are our enemies. But it's not their abhorrence of publishing images of Mohammed that is the problem. It's their willingness to deliberately kill men, women and children, also known as terrorism, that is the problem. Let's save our fire for what matters.
It doesn't mean that we need to appease. Appeasement means avoiding confrontation at any cost. We don't need appeasement; we need to directly confront and defeat terrorism, period. But we would be wise to choose our battles. Petty insults are not worthy of us. We are engaged in serious business of fighting genuine evil, while working with allies to accomplish genuine good.
In this, I think the Bush Administration has it right. While showing well-deserved contempt for terrorism and tyranny, President Bush has shown almost exaggerated consideration and respect to our Muslim allies and to Islam in general. That has frustrated and perplexed many in America and the West, for it is easy to see what appear to be roots of violence in the Koran and it is also obvious that much of the kindness and respect paid to Islam has not been reciprocated. But when it comes to the long-term security of America and the West, it is still a winning strategy.
No, I don't advocate censorship. I do advocate discretion. Freedom of speech includes the right to say and publish things that are pointless and needlessly hurtful. That doesn't mean it's a good idea.
Updates 2/6/06-2/9/06: When I started blogging about this issue on February 2nd, I was not aware of anyone else in the blogosphere who was questioning the tactic of deliberately taunting Muslims by republishing Mohammed cartoons on the internet and photoshopping even more offensive Mohammed cartoons. It bothered me enough to write about it even though I knew I was swimming against what then seemed to be a strong tide. I am comforted to see that a growing number in the blogosphere are coming to similar conclusions, including Hugh Hewitt, Jack Yan (here and here); Steve Miller; INDC Journal; the Anchoress; Neil Stevens; Rick at Brutally Honest; Rick Moran at Right Wing Nut House; And Rightly So!; Jim Gergahty at National Review Online, reporting from Turkey; the Hedgehog Blog; and Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost.
A partial list of others in the world who have expressed similar ideas about republication of the original cartoons (with little attention to the internet) include the United States State Department, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw (freedom of speech does not mean “open season” on religious taboos); our ally Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (“Any insult to the Holy Prophet—peace be upon him—is an insult to more than a billion Muslims"); our ally Jordan's King Abdullah; Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak; the Guardian; Ben Macintyre at the U.K. Times; the Vatican; and Bernard-Henri Levy at OpinionJournal. And a Muslim American, Reza Aslan, offers her point of view at Slate.
Just to be very clear (because sometimes people read blogs quickly and miss part of the point), I don't think anyone should boycott anything Danish. The Danish government didn't print the cartoons and there is freedom of the press in Denmark, as there should be in every nation. Nor is the publication or republication of the cartoons by any media anywhere in the world an excuse for violence. Well, actually it is an excuse for violence. But that's all it is -- the latest excuse.