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Mohammad Cartoon Controversy: The Jihad Against Free Speech

Mohammad Cartoon Controversy: The Jihad Against Free Speech

10 Mins
March 1, 2006

The West once again has been forced to confront the clash of cultures. Muslims worldwide rage and riot over Danish newspaper cartoons that, in their eyes, commit the double sin of depicting Mohammad and satirizing him disrespectfully. Many Muslims consider any illustration of their prophet to be an insult to their religion. Of course, other religions often find their ideas and icons satirized or criticized.

Yet rarely do they respond with death threats, riots, arson, and murder.

There’s a noteworthy irony in the violent Islamic reaction to the publication of the cartoons. The editors of the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten printed them to illustrate a story about self-censorship by the European press over fear of offending Muslims, who now make up substantial minorities in EU countries. Part of the story concerned the difficulty that a Danish author had in finding any artist to illustrate his educational book about Mohammad and Islam, intended for Danish children. So to make that point, some of the cartoons associate Mohammad’s image with terrorism and intimidation. The violent response by radical Muslims simply confirms the grim message of the cartoons.

All this follows on the heels of the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, the summer riots in France by North African Muslim immigrants, the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands for criticizing Muslim mistreatment of women, and a long string of death threats and fatwas issued by Muslim clerics against perceived enemies—including, most notably, author Salman Rushdie. The new threats against the artists, editors, and publishers responsible for the caricatures of Islam’s founder is raising the level of awareness in the West, especially in Europe (where it most needs to be raised) that the civilized world is truly under assault. More and more Western commentators see the threats, the burning of embassies, the killings, and the destruction of property in the Islamic world as an insult, too: an insult to the most basic civilized standards.

There are three principles implicitly involved in the current cartoon controversy: free expression, tolerance, and sensitivity. While related, these principles are not identical. Free speech concerns politics, while tolerance and sensitivity concern social relationships and moral evaluations of our fellows. The distinctions and relationships between these concepts must be understood if we in the West, to say nothing of those in the Islamic world, are to get a clear picture of what is behind the cartoon controversy.


Many in the West have been appalled by the reaction of Muslims to the publication of the Mohammad cartoons, which seems out of all proportion to the alleged offense. But while they defend the principle of free speech, many Westerners also think that the principle of  “tolerance” requires that we take care not to offend the religious sensitivities of others, as a matter of respect. After all, wasn’t there an uproar in the United States over an art gallery photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine and a portrait of the Virgin Mary made in part of elephant dung? Didn’t American conservatives—who criticize extreme Islamists—demand that Christians not be insulted and offended?

Now governments in the West, in the name of tolerance and sensitivity, are banning certain speech as “hate crimes.” On February 23, for example, a German man was convicted after the London subway bombings for printing up toilet paper with the word “Koran” on it and calling the Koran a “cookbook for terrorists.”

So just who should be tolerant of or sensitive to whom, and for what reasons?

A free society implies a free market in ideas, including philosophy, art, politics, and—yes—religion. Even the most sacred beliefs of individuals can be challenged.

But why? Why should such freedom be allowed at all?

The human mind is the vital tool that allows us to discover how to survive, achieve values, and flourish. But thinking does not occur automatically, or collectively; we must each choose to focus and employ our own minds. Others ultimately cannot think for us. As individuals, we must exercise our independent judgment concerning how best to meet our needs and direct our lives.

Of course, we can learn a lot from exchanges of ideas and knowledge with others. Living in society also offers us many other rewards, through commercial cooperation, artistic and social endeavors, and the like. But on what principle should relations with others be based? There really are only two choices.

Those of us who value freedom must not succumb to fear and intimidation.

We might deal with each other based on mutual consent. We would thereby attempt to secure agreement and cooperation with others through persuasion, giving them reasons to cooperate with us, based on their own self-interest. In a society based on this principle, individuals would be free to exercise their independent judgment and to speak their minds without restraints imposed by force.

By contrast, we could deal with one another by means of physical force and compulsion. The physically or politically strong would oppress others. Free thought, appeals to reason, and free expression would be dangerous to those with power, and thus would be restricted or stamped out.

But such practices would limit all the creative fruits of human intelligence—and the entire legacy of human achievement. A society based on force and compulsion cannot remain modern and productive. Where minds are not free to discuss, share, and actualize ideas, society at best can progress in fits and starts, and usually stagnate.  

An order is civilized to the extent that it is based on the principle of mutual consent and reason; it is savage to the extent it is based on the principle of force, with intimidation, fear of enslavement, brutality, and death replacing rational arguments.


The recent destruction of one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims, the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, possibly by rival Sunni Muslims, is just another example of the religious intolerance manifest in the reaction to the Mohammad cartoons.

Sadly, throughout human history members of most religions have tried to force others to convert to their faiths or to follow their practices. Christians for millennia exercised religious dictatorship over much of Europe; during the Middle Ages there was more religious tolerance in the Islamic world. Western Europe was characterized for centuries by religious intolerance and warfare. Many people were incensed, for example, over the issue of whether the bread used in the communion was only symbolic of the sacrifice of Jesus, or whether it trans-substantiated—that is, became the actual flesh of Jesus. During the 1600s, tens of thousands of French Protestants—Huguenots—died in the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre at the hands of Catholics, and at least two million were slaughtered in that country during the religious wars of that period. As many as half a million Irish Catholics died from Oliver Cromwell’s onslaught. The Thirty Years’ War resulted in perhaps seven million deaths or as much as twenty percent of the population of the Germanic states.

In all of this carnage the believers no doubt sincerely felt that what they were doing was all in a good cause. But their legacy of bloodshed demonstrates why feelings that clash with reason should have no respect, and no consideration.

This cycle of violence and repression was broken in late seventeenth century Europe by the Enlightenment. During that period individuals and the culture of the West turned more to reason as the path to knowledge, prosperity, and a peaceful social order—and thus away from faith and force. Enlightenment principles culminated in the American Revolution.


One element of the Enlightenment concord was that individuals would not be silenced, imprisoned, or killed for their beliefs. Appreciation of reason and its corollaries—freedom of thought and conscience—led to political recognition of the individual’s right to freedom of speech and expression. Rather than act as agents for any groups, especially religious ones, and imposing their beliefs on others, governments instead would act as the agent that protected the individual’s freedom of expression.

Politically (or legally) speaking, this meant that we in the West would recognize the right of other individuals to think and speak freely even if we disagreed with them. It meant that we would not use physical force or coercion to try to change their minds. It meant that we would not use force to silence those with whom we disagreed, because we understood that nobody gains anything from an outcome that is not rational.

The English thinker John Stuart Mill understood how the free exchange of ideas in a society serves our interests. If we are mistaken in our beliefs, then in open discussion with others we will have a chance to see the error of our ways and come to the truth. If we are right in our beliefs, then we will gain a better understanding of the truth as we confront the errors of others.

Associated with but not identical to the political right to free speech was the practice of tolerance. Tolerance is central to a civilized order based on mutual consent. But what, exactly, does tolerance mean—and why is it important?

To begin with, tolerance—like free speech—is a concept that concerns beliefs, opinions, and sentiments with which we disagree. There’s really no need to tell people to tolerate that with which they are in accord. But tolerance has both moral and social aspects, and we must carefully distinguish these.

Tolerance does not mean that we must privately accept or sanction beliefs that we doubt or oppose. In fact, morally speaking, we should not tolerate—either by tacit silence or explicit sanction—viewpoints that we regard as immoral or evil.

Islamic culture does not accept Enlightenment principles of tolerance and free expression.

But an important social aspect of tolerance emerged in Europe and America. In practice, tolerance meant that while individuals did not give up their religious or other beliefs, those beliefs became more private matters. First, individuals came to accept, as a basis for social order, not a consensus on religious beliefs but, rather, a consensus on individual rights, including the right of conscience. Second, as individuals cooperated with one another in commercial, social, and other ventures, they began to overlook religious differences. If I wanted to sell you my goods, whether you were Protestant or Catholic became less important.

This view of society and the political order means that we should most want to convince our neighbors of the importance of individual liberty, rationality, and tolerance in society. If our neighbors hold these premises, they will see it as immoral and beneath their human dignity to rob, assault, or harm us, and thus we’ll be a lot safer. Moreover, if our neighbors value individual liberty, rationality, and tolerance, with corollary virtues like productivity, integrity, and honesty, then by peacefully pursuing their own interests, they will produce material and spiritual goods that could enrich, entertain, educate, enlighten, and inspire us, too.


Of course, even in the best societies not all speech will be elevated or worthwhile. Unfortunately, much of what we read and hear in the free, contentious, clamorous marketplace of ideas will be satire, slurs, obscenities, ridicule, and insults. Some of it will be unfair; much of it will be ignorant or downright stupid.

Should that be allowed? Yes!

While a civilized order defends the principle of free speech and tolerance, this is not to say that all opinions are of equal value or validity. But because reason is a faculty of individuals, such judgments must be made by each of us as individuals. The value of an expression of opinion—especially an unpopular one—is rarely apparent in advance. Value is also personal: what is useless or offensive to many of us may contain a vital piece of information or usefulness for someone else. These determinations cannot be made before the fact or even after the fact by collectives, or by governments. Most of our greatest innovations have come from those who were willing to entertain and share unpopular, even heretical thoughts.

Still, how should individuals react to speech or other expressions that they consider to be untrue or insulting to their deepest values, symbols, and icons?


In recent years the Catholic Church has been the subject to harsh attacks for covering up for pedophile priests. Often, rather than kicking them out of the church and turning them over to law enforcement, church officials simply transferred them to other parishes where they continued to commit crimes against children. In the wake of the scandal, some Catholic apologists were offended by harsh, even obscene depictions of their religion. But they should have been more offended—as many Catholics in fact were—by the obscene cover-ups by their own church officials, to say nothing of the behavior of the priests themselves. Catholics should have focused on cleaning up their own house, and fortunately, many did.

Now consider the “Piss Christ” photograph by Andres Serrano, which was displayed in a New York museum and even received an award paid for by taxpayer dollars through the National Endowment for the Arts. (As an aside, governments should not sponsor art, because—among other reasons—one man’s art is another man’s trash, and those who find such art offensive certainly should not be forced to pay for it.) The “Piss Christ” photo and others like it can be rejected as worthless trash on aesthetic grounds—never mind blasphemy against someone’s deepest spiritual values. But in a free society, even blasphemous things that we properly condemn should be tolerated—in the sense that they should be legally permitted. They do not threaten anyone’s liberty; and the principle of individual rights includes the freedom to believe, say, and do even ugly and stupid things, as long as one doesn’t initiate force against others. The offended parties remain free to think, say, and act as they please—and to refuse to associate with the offender.

As a third example, consider those who burn the American flag, whether they are Islamist extremists, or spoiled American brats living off their parents’ hard-earned money and enjoying all of the benefits of the advanced, capitalist society that they denounce. Understandably, most Americans become upset by such actions. One can certainly appreciate how a World War II veteran of Iwo Jima who, surrounded by the bodies of his fallen comrades, watched the flag raised on Mount Suribachi, would want to ban the desecration of the banner under which he fought, as a secular if not religious blasphemy.

Let’s further assume that those who burn the flag hate the freedom and tolerance of the American regime—in other words, they harbor the attitudes of savages. Even so, such offensive behavior does not entail physical aggression against anyone. The principle of tolerance still means that we are allowed to denounce in no uncertain terms those who make public pronouncements or expressions that we find deeply offensive. But politically, such individuals also retain the freedom to express their beliefs.

In fact, one of the under-appreciated values of freedom of expression is that it allows scoundrels to reveal themselves. Through their unfettered expression they advertise their core corruption to their fellow citizens. Rational patriots can take note of who these individuals are, with what groups they are associated, and treat them accordingly. A regime of censorship, by contrast, merely helps despicable individuals mask their true character.

Remember that we aren’t defending as moral expressions nonsense, ugliness, or offensiveness per se; we are defending only the general right of free expression for everyone. We must do so in principle, because if we let governments or mobs decide what can and can’t be expressed, it’s only a matter of time before good ideas—and our own ideas—will be suppressed, too. Yes, we may despise and damn the “blasphemer,” even as we defend his right to express himself; for in defending his rights, we are defending our own.


Related but not identical to tolerance is the practice of sensitivity. Sensitivity means taking account of the possible emotional reactions that others might have to the expressions of one’s ideas in whatever medium—writing, the spoken word, art, even cartoons.

But should a thoughtful individual take account of the possible emotional reactions of individuals as a principal determinate of how he ought to act toward or speak to them?

A society based on force and compulsion cannot remain modern and productive.

Prudence, context, and one’s purpose should determine how one exercises his right of expression. Perhaps it is pointless and would only upset your elderly grandmother, who has always treated you with love and kindness, to debate her loony conspiracy theories. If you’re trying to convince potential customers to purchase your products, perhaps arguing with them about their religion would not be an effective strategy.

But in many issues and cases, sile

nce and consideration for the feelings of others would only erode the foundations of a free society. This is especially true in cases where moral issues are at stake, and someone’s feelings stem from irrational beliefs.

For example, when fundamentalist Christians threaten to introduce superstition into the classroom in the guise of “creationism” or “intelligent design,” or when Muslims want to force others to abide by their strict behavioral code of sharia law, then sensitivity to their feelings is both impractical and immoral.

In social or private settings, I still might act with some sensitivity when in the presence of a particular Muslim whom I know to be an individual of generally good moral character, who favors a more enlightened Islamic culture, and who shows respect for those who have different religious beliefs. I have no desire to gratuitously insult such a person. But to extend that sensitivity to all Muslims, including the ones who reject the fundamental principles of a free society—to fail to defend the core political and moral principles of a free society for fear of giving offense to religiously motivated opponents of freedom—is to treat faith-based feelings as equivalent, even superior, to a reasoned belief. In fact, it would require the sacrifice of reasoned belief to irrationalism.

In the current controversy, much attention is being given to how the cartoons of Mohammad have offended Islamic sensitivities; too little has been given, however, to the utter irrationality at the basis of these Islamic sensitivities. Many Muslims believe that representations of Mohammad can encourage idolatry—worshipping Mohammad the prophet rather than Allah the god. Thus it is ironic that Muslims treat portraits of Mohammad as if they were sacred icons—and regard unflattering depictions of Mohammad as blasphemy. Likewise, many act as if those outside of their faith should be bound by its rules. This would be as if a Jew insisted everyone keep kosher or that no one eat pork—or if an orthodox Christian insisted that no one work on Sunday, his day of rest.

The controversy over the Mohammad cartoons starkly reveals the profound philosophical differences between Western and Islamic culture. The Western Enlightenment established a general political respect for free thought and speech and a culture of tolerance. Islamic culture, by contrast, still does not accept the vital Enlightenment principle of tolerance, and thus does not respect free expression. It remains stuck with the religious prejudices that plagued Europe for centuries.

Nor does Islamic culture embrace Western individualism. An insult to their beliefs, for example, does not mean simply returning the insult or denunciation back at the particular individuals responsible. Many Muslims are not selective. They damn all Danes, Americans, and the West, collectively and in general.

Further, Islamic culture and the political regimes in Muslim countries show little concern, sensitivity, or tolerance for the feelings of anyone outside their world. For example, the government of Egypt allowed on its state-run television a 41-part series based on “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” the anti-Semitic forgery which depicts a Jewish plot to take over the world, Jews torturing and murdering their opponents, and the like.


Because a free society is rooted in certain ideas and values, some might ask: “Can a society be too tolerant of those who oppose the foundations of a free civil order?”

For example, how should those of us who support freedom treat the opinions of those who explicitly use their freedoms to overthrow liberty? Consider those Muslims living in the West who want to ban speech that offends them, forbid criticism of them as “hate crimes,” and, ultimately, subvert the institutions of free, democratic societies in order to establish Islamic dictatorships? Many Muslims in the West and elsewhere are quite explicit about these ends. Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir want to do so through peaceful means while other Islamists openly favor force.

What is clear from the Danish cartoon episode is that intimidation by Muslims already is limiting freedom in the West. The danger is not theoretical; it’s here now. The intolerance, irrationality, and violence of religious conflicts that plagued our past are here at present and threaten our future.

Within Western countries the threat to freedom from radical Muslims varies. The proportion of Muslims, especially Muslim immigrants, to the whole population is one important factor.

For example, on February 18 about three-dozen Muslims, led by the New Black Panthers, met at the major mosque in Washington, D.C., to march several blocks to the Danish embassy to spew forth a litany of lunatic conspiracy theories, hatred, and denunciations of Danes, Jews, and white devils. But they were met by several dozen count-demonstrators. The United States is a country of 300 million with a Muslim population estimated at between 2.7 million and five million—that is, perhaps one percent. This hardly appears to constitute an imminent threat to American liberties.

Contrast this with a rally on that same day in Britain of an estimated 15,000 demonstrators—organizers said 40,000—who marched in London to protest the cartoons of Mohammad. Signs at such rallies have advocated beheadings and extermination of those who insulted the prophet. Similarly, on the first anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a conference was held at the Finsbury mosque in London, a hotbed of al Qaeda supporters. The occasion was labeled “A Towering Day in History,” and was meant to celebrate rather than denounce the murder of 3,000 Americans. The Muslim population of Britain is about 1.5 million, or a little over 2.5 percent in a country of nearly 60 million; however, that population is growing rapidly, and now constitutes a significant minority in some electoral districts.

Other countries in Europe also have serious problems with internal enemies of liberty. There are perhaps fourteen million Muslims—the numbers are inexact—in the European Union, which has a population of around 450 million. That’s about 2.5 percent or more, still a small number. But the Muslim population of France is approaching ten percent.

So the question arises: Must individuals in free nations support the rights of those who conspire and act to destroy all rights?

The answer, fundamentally, is no. No individual or society based on personal liberty is obliged to acquiesce in its own destruction—in effect, to commit suicide.

In a free society, we can’t prosecute individuals merely for holding or advocating noxious ideas. However, a country's policies towards immigration and citizenship, including voting rights, should be informed by the need to protect the values of freedom. And those who act on treasonous viewpoints, actively conspiring to giving material “aid and comfort” to our nation’s international enemies, should of course face legal prosecution and, where applicable, deportation. (See Henry Mark Holzer’s article in this issue, When Does Speech Become Treason?)


The reactions to the Mohammad cartoons in the Islamic world has been far more hysterical, violent, and sustained than in the West. No doubt that reaction is being promoted in part by anti-Western governments—for example, Syria—and by Islamist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic Brotherhood. Certainly too, specific factors other than those cartoons—for example, pent-up anger at Abu Ghraib prison photos—have also fueled the destructive outbursts from Muslims around the world.

Tolerance does not mean that we must sanction beliefs that we doubt or oppose.

But still, these are reactions of tribalist, oppressive, intolerant, and violent cultures. After all, we have not seen massive demonstrations in Arab-Muslim countries, and only minor ones in the West, against the daily murders in Iraq—bombing, kidnapping, and beheading not only of Westerners but of other Muslims—and terrorist activities committed worldwide in the name of Islam. Combined with the widespread, disproportionate, and mindlessly bloody reactions to mere cartoons, which have resulted in dozens of deaths, such behavior constitutes a clear advertisement that these cultures are antithetical to human freedom and flourishing.

We cannot and should not appease them, which will only encourage and strengthen them. Rather, we must oppose them in the clearest and most uncompromising terms. As a corollary, we must defend as absolute the rights of those here, in the West, who would criticize these purveyors of hatred, intolerance, and violence, no matter how crudely.

In the Muslim world there are certainly many who want to transform their countries and cultures, making terms with modernity and adopting civilized principles of conduct. But cultures are deep-rooted, and the irrationalism and primitivism of Islamic societies can’t change overnight. Negotiated settlements of specific grievances, minor political reforms and the like, while welcomed, will not alter them fundamentally or anytime soon. In any case, fostering civilized principles in the Islamic world will be a long-term project best carried out by reform-minded Muslims themselves.

Meanwhile, we in the West who value freedom must keep the full meaning and context of Islamist violence in mind. The founding principles of our civilized order are indeed being challenged. Those of us who value that order must not succumb to fear and intimidation. Rather, we must show the same resolute courage as did those who originally established that order, defending their legacy of individual liberty, rationality, and tolerance with our voices, our pens, and—if necessary—our blood.  

Edward Hudgins


Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society, is the founder of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at ehudgins@humanachievementalliance.org.

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