Rarely does a debate over free speech include as many people, in as many different countries, as has the Danish "cartoon controversy." In the months after a series of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed were published in Denmark, Muslims in Europe and the Middle East have responded with boycotts and angry demonstrations. This week the tension escalated, after several European newspapers reprinted the images. Bob discusses the flap with Susan Caskie of The Week.
XENI JARDIN: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Xeni Jardin.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. There is no such thing as a global First Amendment or an international protocol on free speech. This has been crystallized in the fallout over a set of Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The cartoons were first published in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September, and among other things, one depicts the prophet with a bomb-shaped turban. Muslims were shocked to see the images. It is against tradition to depict the prophet in any way. The newspaper apologized, and for some Muslim leaders in Denmark, that apology was good enough – but not for others in Muslim countries. Throughout the Muslim world, there have been boycotts of Danish goods and demands for more apologies from the Danish Prime Minister. This week, papers throughout Western Europe reprinted the highly controversial images. Arms have been raised and death threats issued. Susan Caskie reads the papers from around the globe for The Week magazine. Susan, welcome back to the show.
SUSAN CASKIE: Thanks. It's good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me why these newspapers reprinted the offensive cartoons this week and why Jyllands-Posten published them in the first place.
SUSAN CASKIE: It started last September when a Danish children's author, Kare Bluitgen, was complaining in Danish papers that he had been writing a children's book about the life of the Prophet Mohammed and he couldn't find any illustrators. It's forbidden in Islam to depict Mohammed, even in a favorable manner. So, Jyllands-Posten issued a kind of a challenge to cartoonists in Denmark, and they got 12 cartoons, some of which were very inoffensive; others, like you mentioned the one with the turban as a bomb, more offensive. That was September of last year. And the head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is a group of Muslim countries across the world, began talking to Danish diplomats and Danish editors saying “Well, we're offended by this as Muslims and we would like some sort of apology.” There were months of negotiation and discussion before finally the Muslim countries said “Well, we're tired of waiting for this apology.” And this week is when a few demonstrations began breaking out.
BOB GARFIELD: And at that point, this fairly obscure event had turned into a news event.
SUSAN CASKIE: Exactly. A Norwegian paper took up the cause and republished the cartoons out of solidarity with the Danes, and then more protests started. And then this week, on Wednesday, a French newspaper, France Soir, published the cartoons, and it caused an outcry among French Muslims. So that very night, the managing editor of France Soir was fired. And the next day, the editor-in-chief wrote another editorial saying, "We would have done the same thing if it had been the Pope being mocked or a rabbi being mocked, and we stand by our right to do this." And that's when all of Europe pretty much ignited, at least the European journalistic community. On Thursday, we started seeing the republication of these drawings in German newspapers, in Dutch newspapers, in Italian papers.
BOB GARFIELD: Publishing the pictures just to explain what all the commotion was about, no?
SUSAN CASKIE: Partly to explain what the commotion was about; also partly to demonstrate their right to do so. Almost in every case, the publication of the drawings was accompanied by a sort of hand-wringing editorial where the editors would say, "You know, we discussed long and hard and we anguished about this, and we decided we're going to run it because even though it's offensive, we have this right to free speech.”
BOB GARFIELD: Let's just assume that at best, it was a foolish decision to run the original cartoon, because, after all, it was a bit gratuitous. But in the West, we're accustomed to greeting editorial judgments by firing off a sharply-worded letter and not by burning flags and saying, "Death to Denmark." [LAUGHS]
SUSAN CASKIE: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: I got to tell you, it's a phrase I never really thought I would hear chanted. What is the difference between Muslim cultures and Western culture that permits this kind of reaction to a newspaper's decision to print something?
SUSAN CASKIE: Part of it is just the perception of what the role of the press is and to what extent is a press free. Certainly in most of the Arab world and to a lesser extent in other parts of the Muslim world - Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan - the press is not particularly free, and this means that whatever is published in the newspaper is also sanctioned by the government. So for the Arab populations that are offended by a cartoon in a Western paper, they're going to assume that the government of that country is behind it. And so there is not a distinction being made between the Danish journalists and the Danish government. And, in fact, the Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, came out and said, "Look, I'm sorry that Muslims are offended, but my government had nothing to do with this. You know, we have a free press here, and I think it was tacky of them to run it, but it's their right." But that has not appeased these populations at all and there's continued calls for boycotts.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder if the Western European press, which has notably been so, you know, I guess sympathetic to oppressed Muslims around the world – have you noticed a sort of loss of patience with the world community of Islam over this kind of reaction to what we, here in the West, see as just sort of daily journalism?
SUSAN CASKIE: Yes, definitely, there's been a loss of patience. In fact, several of the editorials even mentioned that. They said, you know, we've put up with demonstrations against this and that, but when you start to threaten people with death because they are cartoonists illustrating something-- many of them invoked the image of a line in the sand and said, "Look, we're willing to be sensitive, we're willing to be tolerant, but you, our Muslim populations, have to be tolerant as well. And in this society, we have a right to free speech, you have a right to say you're offended by it, but that's where it ends.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Susan, thank you very much.
SUSAN CASKIE: Thank you. It's great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Susan Caskie is the international editor for The Week magazine.