Acton Institute Powerblog

The Mohammed Cartoon Controversy

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The European press and the blogosphere have been full of stories over the last few days about the controversy started by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. There’s enough material out there that readers of the Acton blog don’t need a full run-down here. (See, for example, the Brussels Journal and Michelle Malkin.)

But since the issue concerns both religion and liberty, how can we not address it?

Yes, there is a right to free speech, which certainly includes the right to examine and criticize religious opinions and beliefs.

Christians are certainly used to having their beliefs examined publicly, if not caricatured and mocked, and there are several Christian groups who organize letter-writing campaigns and boycotts in response to those who cross the line of decency and respect.

But the reaction of some Muslim groups has been much more violent and is intensifying. The cartoons of Mohammed that are causing all the uproar do not seem to me to be all that shocking, but it’s clear that many Muslims are offended by any portayal of their prophet.

What’s missing from this debate is some kind of normative standards for civil discourse, something which has been missing from the Western media for some time. The right to free speech is not absolute; recall Lord Acton’s definition of the proper use of liberty, doing what one ought. And religious believers have a special obligation to treat others charitably, even and sometimes especially those who disagree with us.

Now, I am NOT arguing for any kind of government control of what is or is not decent or respectful, and I refuse to put these words in ironic “smart quotes” because I believe that decency and respect actually do exist. But a free and virtuous society definitely requires citizens and media who are able to regulate and restrain themselves. I personally find it hard to pick a side in this controversy. Sometimes the civil libertarians can be just as fanatical as the Islamists.

Kishore Jayabalan Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C. and then graduated with an M.A. in political science from the University of Toronto. While in Toronto, Kishore interned in the university's Newman Centre, which led to his appointment to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York. Two years later, he returned to Rome to work for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the Holy See's lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control. As director of Istituto Acton, Kishore organizes the institute's educational and outreach efforts in Rome and throughout Europe.


  • [i]”Sometimes the civil libertarians can be just as fanatical as the Islamists.”[/i]

    Yeah, those civil libertarians have gotten quite adept at kidnapping and beheading their victims in order to achieve their political objectives.

  • From media blogger Ron Franscell at

    OK, it’s not really news that radical Muslims are mad and want to kill people … that’s just every Thursday for Osama and his boys.

    But it’s kinda funny that they now want to blow up anybody who laughed at that cartoon. It’s funny to think of Denmark as a threat to Islam, isn’t it? Denmark isn’t even a threat to Finland.

    I wonder: How can a culture that justifies crashing planes into buildings or beheading innocents find a piddling editorial cartoon too offensive?

    Hunting for logic in the madrassahs of the Muslim world is fruitless. Logic is a head-thing, and radical Islamists listen only to the sour bile in their guts. We have Muslim media (al Jazeera) airing decapitation videos for the simple reason that radical Islamists know beheadings are highly provocative to Westerners … but now radical Islamists are going (slightly more) insane over a newspaper cartoon?? Man, they need to cut back the caffeine in that Turkish coffee.

    If Muslim countries wish to ban such idolatrous art, let ’em. But most Muslim nations put more energy into organizing “Death to America!” parades than election days. Why waste time debating issues when you can simply blow up the opposition? Why write a letter to the editor when you can just shoot your rival? Face it, terrorists generally aren’t good listeners (or cuddlers, for that matter.) But, hey, it’s their little corner of Hell, and if they wish, they should be free to set the thermostat on “high.”

    But a lot of nations in this world still have free presses, free expression, and really wicked editorial cartoonists. Radical Islamists with 12th century sensibilities have already made a too-big dent in the 21st century … and when they arrive at democratic government offices and newsrooms with loaded weapons, they’re no better than the “devil-dogs” they so gleefully decapitate. Haven’t they seen how George Bush is portrayed in cartoons? And how long do you think before “South Park” has a Mohammad character dancing nekkid with 72 virgins?

    Oh well. Editorial cartoonists’ only reason for living is to get under somebody’s skin. And now, one Danish cartoonist has found some readers who want to get under his skin … with a scimitar.

  • Patricia Seeley

    If it’s really about freedom of speech, and we are in Iraq to bring them our version of democracy, why aren’t any US newspapers publishing the cartoon? It’s because they don’t want to be the reason for another reason to hate the US and it’s money–they would lose readership. Wimps. Principles except when it’s convenient. I had at least expected the Onion to go ahead with it!

  • Ted Krasnicki

    The reaction of the western media to the recent violent uproars in the Islamic world over the publication of cartoons that Islam considers blasphemous shows how hypocritical the media are. Many of the media have all of a sudden become very apologetic for offending people’s religious beliefs, with most now being ultra careful not to offend Islam in any way.
    But how often have we seen and continue to see much worse blasphemy against Christianity in the western media particularly on television and at the cinema, citing freedom of speech as their principle? But with not a hint of violence from Christians, the media go on their merry way offending their religious beliefs, dismissing anyone who does peacefully object as being an intolerant right wing religious fanatic. So despite the great ideals of freedom of speech and secular democracy that the western media claim to uphold, violence does ultimately work and they hypocritically apply their ideals accordingly.

  • The Clash to End All Clashes? Making sense of the cartoon jihad
    by Daniel Pipes in National Review Online February 7, 2006

  • l.a.

    I am in no way supporting the actions of the radical Islamists in reaction to the now infamous cartoon and I am not denying the democratic right to free press. But this cartoon in particular did not only mock Islam, it labelled Muhammed as a terrorist, which is not only offensive, but perpetuates the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists. As a Muslim, it is painful to see that because of the radical actions of some who wrongly associate themselves with Islam, our greatest prophet is brought down to the level of those disgusting human beings who go against the teachings of Islam and still claim to be acting in Allah’s interest. The violence that has erupted is inexcusable and has been urged on by the governments of radical Islam like Syria and Iran and does nothing to convince the world of the beauty in the faith of Islam. But on the other hand, Muslims worldwide have been dealing with such widespread hatred and prejudice, that publishing a cartoon of that nature is easily seen as yet another attack on the faith as a whole. We have been marginalized and what the world expects of Islam has become what they see of it. It is not right, but it is not as simple as saying that Muslims should just ease up because all faiths have been mocked. If for no other reason, European publications should not have been so quick to reprint the cartoon not because they are caving to the violence but because, in the interest of all, they should want a peaceful resolution. They would be bigger for it. Defend freedom of the press and all it stands for, but this cartoon has done nothing but incite more hatred of radical Islam to the West and of the West to all of Islam. To those who say it is hypocritical to not offend one faith while allowing others to be mocked, I say that you are right. If Jesus or Moses or Buddha had been depicted as a terrorist or anything of that sort, I would be equally offended. It is one thing to question the teachings or practices of a faith because of personal moral beliefs and entirely another to make unfounded accusations that do nothing but fan the flames of intolerance.

  • One of the religion beat’s favorite canards is to implicitly equate what it calls American Christian “fundamentalism” with what it calls Muslim or Islamic “fundamentalism.” After all, both are simply species of the genus. For

  • s.z.

    “OK, it’s not really news that radical Muslims are mad and want to kill people … that’s just every Thursday for Osama and his boys.”

    I was jus wondering that islam came some 1400 years back. what these violent, terrorists people have been doing since then? wh did not these mad people crush the entire world in so many years .

  • Anna Aminzadeh

    I absolutely disagree with Ron Franscell. I think you’re being brainwashed by what the United States is feeding you. It’s funny how your so quick to judge that all this bombing of the towers has happened because of muslims. I bet you wouldnt have even thought that if CNN hadnt kept portraying them as monsters who are hungry to kill the people of the United States. I wouldnt expect you to understand-I’m assuming your not muslim. therefore you cannot place yourself in our shoes. I was a muslim and i didnt convert just because of what happened post 9/11, but because i couldnt understand the prayers. I am under this firm belief that MUCH of the violence that has occurred had some sort of government relation involved to further portray the muslims as killers, and not as human beings. I find it ironic how you critize the beheading of people in the middle east (not to say that it is right) but cannot open your eyes to what the media ISNT feeding you, what they DONT want you to know. i found this site that showed how the United States soldiers are killing these poor innocent people, literally cutting open their throats (and yes i saw all of this) and having the blood gurgle through the cut from their throats! So technically we are just as animals as they are. They just have a different of showing it, and we have a good way of emphasizing their “animal” like qualities. What the United States does to these people is not free them, we havent seen freedom for the Iraqis in such a long time! They promised demoncracy in Iraq and now three years later we see more blood. Its about their own sick economic benefit. Their hunger for money, money and more money. Iraqis are now fighting each other. Oil is quietly being drained into foreign power countries like the United States. The reason why the Mohammed Cartoon brought such a controversy was because it was a lose-lose situation for the muslims. If they DIDN’T react, then the cartoon would be looked at as a joke…and people would laugh at other people’s religions. Mohammed is like God. If someone stuck a picture of God being a terrorist, there would be MORE of a riot than what happened just recently. If they DID react (which in this case they did) they would be portrayed as killers, crazy, insane type of people.
    You only look at the surface of things and blind yourself to what’s behind the curtains…the people who control your country the people who control who dies who stays alive who to brainwash-which is the general population.
    i believe that most of these bombings of the masses were done by HIRED muslims probably for some secret force, to further humiliate and degrade muslims. This is disgusting, and i hate how none of you know how it feels because you do not face it everyday.

    I hope that soon you will see what I’m talking about.