Headlines were made in 1963 when it was revealed that U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith had named his family cat “Ahmed,” which is one of the forms of the name “Mohammed.” Protest meetings were held in several cities in Pakistan, and Muslims charged Galbraith with deliberately insulting their faith. The deputy speaker of Pakistan’s national assembly said that if the charge were true it was “much more serious than American arms aid to India.” As it turned out, the pet was named Ahmedabad, after the city in which the cat was presented to the ambassador’s children. To stifle the controversy the Galbraiths renamed the feline “Gujurat.” International crisis was averted.
A quaint tale of diplomacy amongst prickly people four decades ago. Yet look at today; because of some editorial cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed, embassies burn in the Middle East, demonstrators march in Europe praising terrorism, and cartoonists go into hiding to avoid sharing the fate of slain director Theo van Gogh–or Salman Rushdie, still living but, alas, still writing.
People have a right to be upset when they feel their sensibilities have been insulted. Editorial cartoons, which thrive on caricature, frequently press boundaries of taste and temper. Drawings that are clearly ethnic slurs–of the type that are commonplace in the Middle Eastern press, usually featuring outrageous and insulting stereotypes of Jews and occasionally Africans–ought rightly to be denounced. The cartoonist has his right freely to express his biases, and those he has offended have a similar right to voice vigorous criticism, albeit through peaceful means. When the Washington Post recently published an unsavory cartoon exploiting the image of those wounded in war, the joint chiefs of staff made their objections known in a strongly worded letter rather than, for example, launching an air strike on the paper.
But why is it that when the Muslim community is involved riots break out, threats are made, fatwas are issued, and helpless flags are visited with myriad indignities from stompings to burnings? Is this the impression they want to make on the world, that they are a backward, violet, emotional people, not ready for prime time on the global stage? Clearly not everyone approved. The Saudi grand mufti called for calm. A prominent cleric in Qatar asked Muslims to “show their fury in a logical and controlled manner.” Yet many others in the region lectured the West that freedom brings responsibility, and if people are driven to violent outrage by these cartoons the fault lies with those who incited the unrest, not with the pious rioters.
I cannot say I was pleased with the State Department’s response to the controversy, saying that the cartoons were “incitement,” in effect agreeing with the rioters’ justification. (Note to Foggy Bottom: Osama bin Laden uses the same rationalization for his actions, as do most terrorists. Wake up.) And the less said about former President Bill Clinton’s moral relativism between this and the Holocaust the better. I was also disappointed to see a representative of the Polish government call on the media to apologize, saying the press has a “duty to apologize to those who felt offended.” If such a duty actually existed, editors and reporters would have time for nothing but acts of contrition.
It is not up to the press or liberal societies in general to issue apologies under threat of violence for the products of free expression. Nor should we be swayed by the views of a violent minority–it will only encourage them. Those who truly incite should be treated accordingly. Democracy is not a suicide pact; no free state is obligated to give sanctuary to those who seek to destroy it. One wonders why the masked cowards who paraded in London praising the July 7 subway bombers and 9/11 hijackers while promising more to come have not been arrested and deported to a country that better appreciates their subversive sentiments.
Meanwhile in his weekly sermon, Iranian cleric (and former president) Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani explicitly linked the publication of the cartoons with the effort to deny Iran nuclear capabilities, saying they are just another move in line with an overall anti-Muslim plan. “What else do they wish to communicate when they depict the Prophet’s turban as a bomb?” he said. “They are currently depicting the Muslims as terrorists and intolerant. By doing so, they intend to justify the decisions that they are going to take against us [in the United Nations].” On cue, protests erupted across the country. While it is silly to suggest that Danish caricatures published months ago are somehow part of a coordinated plot to test Iranian resolve, the turbulent response to them does raise a pertinent question: Do we really want people who are this mercurial to get their hands on nuclear weapons? If they get this upset over some silly drawings, imagine their response to something serious, like John Kenneth Galbraith’s cat?
–James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.