A short time ago, a Danish author, Kare Bluitgen, was writing a children’s book explaining the story of Islam. It is impossible to tell the story of Islam without talking about Muhammad and he wanted to find someone willing to draw the prophet, but couldn’t. Danish illustrators refused to accept the project, censoring themselves, because they feared violent retribution from Islamic extremists.

Hearing this story, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten put out a call for artists willing to take on this challenge. Twelve brave souls answered the call and their efforts were then published. The resulting cartoons ranged from simple, to provocative, to comic. One attacked the book’s author for being a publicity hound.

These cartoons were intended to provoke intrigue and maybe even some protest. However, the international reaction to them has gone far beyond what anyone could have predicted. Angry mobs have burned Danish embassies in Damascus and Beirut. Other Scandinavian embassies were also attacked, proving the careful reasoning behind the actions of the protesters. In Pakistan several people were killed in widespread rioting aimed at Western businesses. Iran has moved to cut all trade ties to Denmark until the newspaper and artists are prosecuted. This would be the same Iran whose president recently denied the Holocaust and called for the annihilation of Israel. Those comments, however, were not deemed offensive to anyone and no trade was affected.

The reactions of national leaders both in Europe and at home have been a uniform exercise in cowardice. Most have admonished the newspaper for its lack of cultural sensitivity and declared that such things should not be allowed.

Freedom of expression is to take a back seat to freedom from hurt feelings, a crime clearly worse than advocating terrorism. Even President Bush has taken time out of his personal crusade of bringing democracy and freedom to the world to attack the press. He did, however, have the decency to attack the violent protesters as well.

To the best of my knowledge, no national leader has made the common sense comment that any society that reacts with widespread violence to offensive cartoons is inherently sick. This is not a question of race or even of religion – it is a question of the culture of victim-hood and violence prevalent throughout the Middle East. Muslims in Europe, Canada and the United States have not reacted with violence, despite being subjected to the same provocation. In fact, a German Muslim organization has lodged its protest against the violence and invited the Iranian President to visit Auschwitz and deny the horrors of the Holocaust there if he dares.

These Muslim groups have done what the mighty governments of the West seem unable to – they have called the Middle East to task for the violence they are doing against freedom, against themselves and against the peaceful religion of Islam.

This controversy is at its base a crisis over the freedom of expression. Ray Bradbury states in his novel “Fahrenheit 451,” in which all literature is banned – not by an authoritarian regime, but rather by a politically correct one- “Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.”

No artist anywhere should fear punishment of their art at the hands of a government or at the hands of terrorists. The people of the Middle East are denied this freedom and they wish to deny it to the rest of the world. If we do not stand up to them, we have already lost the War on Terror.

McGaffey can be reached at amcgaffey@campustimes.org.

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