In the Washington Post, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten, who solicited the cartoons that much of the Muslim world is in uproar over, has defended his decision to solicit and publish the cartoons. His article is well worth reading in full.
Rose makes clear he was worried about the self-censorship people were exercising due to intimidation and fear of reprisals should they be perceived to have insulted or criticise Islam. Here are some passages which I found interesting:
We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity,Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.Clearly the fear of reprisals mentioned above has proven to be well founded, and it seems to me that publication of the cartoons by other papers is both an act of solidarity with Rose and defiance against this intimidation, despite the Jack Straws and Bill Clintons of this world condemning the cartoons.
One cartoon -- depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban -- has drawn the harshest criticism. Angry voices claim the cartoon is saying that the prophet is a terrorist or that every Muslim is a terrorist. I read it differently: Some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name. The cartoon also plays into the fairy tale about Aladdin and the orange that fell into his turban and made his fortune. This suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the prophet.
Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn't intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.
As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. That is what happened to human rights activists and writers such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Boris Pasternak.
The regime accused them of anti-Soviet propaganda, just as some Muslims are labeling 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper anti-Islamic.
But tragic demonstrations throughout the Middle East and Asia were not what we anticipated, much less desired. Moreover, the newspaper has received 104 registered threats, 10 people have been arrested, cartoonists have been forced into hiding because of threats against their lives and Jyllands-Posten's headquarters have been evacuated several times due to bomb threats. This is hardly a climate for easing self-censorship.
I think the cartoons themselves are mostly innocuous and unfunny but also open to different interpretations as Rose points out.
One cartoon, which shows Mohammed at the gates of heaven and some suicide bombers outside with Mohammed saying "Stop! Stop! We've run out of virgins" did make me chuckle. It seemed to me this was lampooning a belief that suicide bombers are indoctrinated with, namely that they'll receive 72 virgins in heaven for carrying out their "martyrdom" operation. This reprehensible belief, which provides a religious motivation for attacks like those of 9/11, 7/7, Bali and of course the blowing up of Israelis in their shopping centres and restaurants, deserves to be mocked and ridiculed. I think the cartoon was perfectly justifiable and should not be insulting to anyone but the likes of Osama Bin Laden.
Those who are claiming to be insulted by these cartoons are insisting on a particular interpretation of them to do so, and are also trying to control (whether via the violence and threats or via peaceful political means) what we can and cannot print in our newspapers. Indeed some them ask us, as non-believers, not to depict Mohammed at all or they will treat it as a deep insult and a deliberate provocation. That is intimidation, and it is an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.