The Twelve Mohammed Cartoons, in Detail:

One shocking thing about the Mohammed cartoon controversy is how tame many of the cartoons are — and therefore just how much the cartoons' critics are demanding by arguing that the cartoons ought not be published, or even ought to be outlawed. Here's the dirty dozen, with thanks to Wikipedia:

Bigger images, including translated captions, are available here.

(1) The cartoons depict Mohammed, which some Muslims claim is prohibited by Islam (though historically a good deal of Islamic art has depicted Mohammed; the Islamic world has hardly unanimous on this). Fair enough: If you're a Muslim, presumably you can't do this. But to demand that non-Muslims comply with Islamic law is a mighty big demand, much like Orthodox Jews demanding that none of us write the word "God." Thanks, but no thanks: Your sense of what your religion demands doesn't create any obligation, whether legal or moral, on me to go along with your preferences.

(2) Some of the cartoons are actually pretty interesting artistically, at least to this observer; the image of Mohammed merged with the green star and crescent, for instance, seems to me an interesting and ingenious composition. The picture of Mohammed in the desert works for me because it humanizes the character, portraying him as a man and not just a symbol.

(3) Some of the cartoons have no criticism of Mohammed, of Islam, or of Muslims at all; two (the young schoolteacher and the "PR stunt" one) criticize the newspaper.

(4) Some of the cartoons are political commentaries that are pretty clearly criticisms of some strands of modern Islamic culture, but not of Islam generally. The cartoon in which Mohammed is waving off two angry Muslim warriors by saying "Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander," is a message that true Islam (the teachings of Mohammed) counsels against what some extremist Muslims do in Mohammed's name. The cartoon in which the cartoonist is drawing Mohammed while looking nervously over his shoulder points out — entirely correctly, as we've learned — that drawing Mohammed is a perilous activity.

(5) Finally, some of the cartoons are indeed cast as criticisms of Islam generally, or of Mohammed generally. The display with the crescents, stars, and Stars of David apparently reads "Prophet, daft and dumb, keeping woman under thumb." Another cartoon depicts Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. Another shows Mohammed telling suicide bombers "Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!" (referring to the supposed heavenly reward for martyrs) which suggests that Mohammed would endorse the killing of innocents that is modern Muslim suicide bombers' stock in trade. The cartoon that shows a fierce-looking Mohammed with a knife and two veiled women in the background likewise seems like a criticism of Mohammed. (The lineup with Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha, and others strikes me as more a joke than a criticism of the portrayed figures.)

These latter items are ones that I as an editor probably would not have published, because I think they're not entirely fair. The ones that allude to Muslim violence tar Muslims generally with the sins of particular subgroups of Muslims. The criticism of Muslim treatment of women may be more broadly accurate of a wide range of religious Islamic thought and practice (though not by any means all religious Islamic thought and practice), but seems rhetorically excessive.

Yet these sorts of overgeneralizations and rhetorical excesses aimed at historical or religious figures as symbols for a movement are an inevitable part of free debate about ideas. This is especially so for cartoons, slogans, and jokes, which because of their conciseness will almost always oversimplify. It is also so because many of these images are necessarily ambiguous. I do not, for instance, understand the Mohammed with the bomb in his turban as accusing Islam generally; it seems to me to be a condemnation of one particular aspect of Islam — militant Islam that often centers on murderous violence against those it sees as its enemies. Again, as an editor I would probably have avoided items with this sort of ambiguity; but it is perfectly understandable that other editors would have a different view. To the extent there is a transgression of editorial judgment or good manners here, it is a relatively minor one.

Of course I realize that some disagree, and see any even possibly pejorative reference to Mohammed — or for that matter any depiction of Mohammed — as a horrible emotional injury. But their subjective feelings, real as they may be to them, are not sufficient reasons for the rest of us to change the way we talk or write. "I'm offended" cannot be justification enough, either in law or in manners, for the conclusion "therefore you must shut up." (Among other things, note that many people are quite understandably offended when others say "I'm offended, therefore you must shut up." If mere offense on some listeners' part is reason enough for the speakers to stop saying, then I take it that those who are offended have an obligation to themselves remain silent.)

This is why this issue is so important: Those who demand that the cartoons not be published or republished are cutting at the heart of public debate. They are either demanding that some ideologies not be criticized, or that they be handled with such kid gloves that normal debate about them — which is inevitably impassioned, given the magnitude of the issues involved — is practically impossible. This is why the West must resist this pressure to silence, both as a legal matter and as a matter of editorial judgment.