Let the Terrorists Win: Why We Should Stop Printing Images of Muhammad

sorry

Turns out I have a very unpopular opinion (again), and my thoughts are not in accordance with American values (again). This time it’s in response to last week’s murders in Paris, where radical Muslims took the lives of 14 people, 8 of whom were journalists who worked for Charlie Hebdo, a controversial French magazine that had published cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad.

The public response to this act of terrorism has been predictable, reactionary, and irrational. The media has been churning out a steady stream of articles telling us that free speech is under attack and we need to fight back. The talking heads are quick to remind us that we must not give in to the terrorists’ demands because that would mean the terrorists have won. Therefore, the media is encouraging us to come together in unity against the terrorists and demand our right to free expression.

May I propose a different solution? Here’s my idea: STOP PRINTING IMAGES OF MUHAMMAD!

When I’ve expressed my recently-developed stance on this position, people have responded to me with anger, confusion, and scorn. After all, what kind of person caves to terrorists? What kind of person allows himself to be controlled by religious zealots? What kind of American believes in reducing the right to free expression?

We can’t win this battle

Let me ask this question: If we fight the radical Muslims on this issue, what is the goal? What is our end game? If every newspaper in the world runs a disrespectful cartoon depicting Muhammad on the front page, what are we hoping to gain? Do we really believe that the radical Muslims will change their position on the issue of publishing images of Muhammad? Do we think we’re going to wear the radical Muslims down by simply upping the number of newspapers that run the controversial images?

It seems to me that changing the perspective of radical Muslims is an act of futility. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that every newspaper in the world publishes an image of the prophet Muhammad getting gang-raped by the New Kids on the Block. Do we think for a second that Muslims will shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh well, we can’t kill all the journalists. Let’s go home and watch ‘Full House.'” Not a chance. It would only incite further violence and cause more needless deaths. The percentage of newspapers hit would likely decrease (from its current number of 100%) simply given the strategic limitations of extremist Muslim groups. But the overall death toll would skyrocket, and a war would ensue. I can only assume that the goal of publishing more images of Muhammad would be to desensitize radical Muslims to this form of free expression. Again, this seems like wishful thinking and not an idea based in logic.

Even if beating the terrorists were in the realm of possibility, how many journalists should have to die so that we can laugh at drawings of Muhammad wearing a diaper and riding a nuke? What if all the newspapers around the world united under this cause and 100 journalists were killed around the world the following week? Would we stick to our guns for the sake of the cause? I don’t think so. Our tolerance for bloodshed is much lower than our terrorist counterparts.

Anyway, it didn’t take long for this theory to get tested. Charlie Hebdo’s first issue following the shooting featured a drawing of Muhammad on the front cover. The artist’s rendition of Muhammad was tasteful and respectful. So how did Islamic leadership respond? Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary referred to the image as “an act of war” and said the artist deserves to die (according to Sharia law). He went on to say that, “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression” because they live solely by the laws of Allah.

So there you go.

Why giving in isn’t the end of the world

I am by no means defending the radical Muslims. They’re murderous actions last week were barbaric, cruel, and completely unwarranted. But let’s be honest about their demand. They’re telling us we can’t print images of their prophet. This seems like a demand that we can meet without sacrificing much. Seriously, how many times a day do you get the urge to publish an image of a historical religious figure? It just doesn’t come up that often. I hate the idea of caving to the demands of religious nuts, but as far as demands go, this is probably the simplest—and easiest—demand I’ve ever heard.

Now if we weren’t allowed to write about politics or elections or legislation, that would be something worth dying for, but do we really want to risk countless innocent lives for the sake of parodying a religious figure? In a perfect world, newspapers would be able to print pictures of Muhammad without fear of death, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We need to live according to reality, not in accordance with an impossible ideal.

But people are looking at this issue the wrong way. They’re approaching radical Islam the same way they would an overreaching government. The idea that we can wear down the fanatical Muslims through solidarity and tenacity is magical thinking. It’s not like the American political system, where we can initiate a bus boycott and create legislative change through action. We’re not looking to change a Constitution. We’re looking to change the hearts and minds of radical Muslims. Big difference.

What about freedom of speech?

The freedom of speech chanters need to give it a rest. I’ve been attacked by people who say that I don’t support freedom; I don’t support the First Amendment; and I don’t believe in democratic values. But freedom of speech isn’t a “black and white” issue. You can support limits in free speech and still be a free speech advocate. For example, most of us probably agree with the law that you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater; which is clearly a limitation of free speech. Similarly, most of us agree that language that intentionally incites violence should not be protected under the First Amendment, another limitation on free speech. And most of us would agree that slander and libel should not be a protected form of speech—yet another limitation on our freedom of expression. Is adding “creating images of Muhammad” to that list of limitations really the end of the world? The fact is, is that journalists can and do make controversial statements every day, criticizing their government and its leaders, without retribution. Ceasing the publication of Muhammad cartoons would not change that.

The next question people ask me is along the lines of, ‘Well, it’s a slippery slope. At what point WILL you be concerned about our right to free speech?’ If nothing else, the Muslims have been consistent in their stance on this issue. Despite successfully scaring journalists into submission for the last several decades, I haven’t seen Muslim extremist groups trying to grow this power or trying to exert more control over the media. When it comes to free speech, this appears to be their one issue. If there was a slippery slope, we would probably have seen it by now. If the slope were in fact slippery, I would be concerned; but at this point, invoking the slippery slope argument seems to be based more in fear than logic.

Why we should not stand with Charlie Hebdo

I’ve been bothered by the John Wayne-type attitudes I’ve seen on social media regarding this issue. Apparently a lot of us want to see American newspapers re-print the Charlie Hebdo images. That’s a mighty courageous response for people who have absolutely no connection to the national media. The vast majority of us don’t work for newspapers or magazines, nor do most of us know people who do. So it’s quite easy to sit back and propose our courageous ideas, steeped in nobility and piety. But if you or a loved one actually worked for a news publication, I’m willing to bet your courage would be a bit more tempered with cautious restraint.

For the record, I don’t think printing a cartoon of Muhammad is courageous. I think it’s incendiary and foolish. The writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo were notorious for being shocking and irreverent. They’re sort of the Howard Stern of French political magazines. Charlie Hebdo aimed to shock and aimed to sell magazines. In that, they were successful. But where do you draw the line between brave and foolhardy? Is the guy who rides a barrel over Niagara Falls courageous or stupid? When publications do print images of Muhammad, it is almost always for the sole reason of pissing people off and/or for shock value?

To me this issue is not about free speech. It’s about life and death. I agree that free speech is hugely important; it should be protected; and we shouldn’t have to bow down to radical religious groups. And 99.99% of the time, we are able to live up to that ideal. But printing images of Muhammad falls in that 0.01% of things we can’t touch. So I say let the terrorists have their 0.01%. We’ll have to settle for a success rate of only 99.99%. I can live with that.

In the end, I care too much about human life to take on an issue that I see as unwinnable. And trying to change the hearts and minds of radical Muslims appears to me to be exactly that. Let’s choose our battles wisely.

– Nathan

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6 Responses to “Let the Terrorists Win: Why We Should Stop Printing Images of Muhammad”

  1. Like much of the world, my initial reaction to the murders in Paris involved the idea that journalists should publish as many defaming images of Mohammed as possible in an effort to offend and degrade radical muslims. Who knows? Perhaps some day muslims will get over their antequated notion of satire cartoons as blasphemy. My attitude turned a quick 180 while listening to an NPR show at work last week. I forget who was speaking, but they likened publishing images of Mohammed to distributing cartoons of black people eating watermelon and being lynched. Both are deeply offensive to certain demographics. At the core of the argument is that nobody can expect muslims to give up taking offense at images of their prophet as much as anyone can expect African-Americans to change the color of their skin. So, I agree with you, Nathan. Any image that is so deeply offensive to any demographic is essentially tasteless and not worth publishing. Thanks for publishing. I appreciate your opinions.

    Riley

    • Riley – Thank you for chiming in. I had not yet heard the comparison made between images of Muhammad and racist images that we find so offensive. That’s certainly an interesting juxtaposition and presents a whole new layer to the debate.

      I too had the initial reaction of, “Let’s put Muhammad on the cover of every newspaper in circuluation!!!” Like you though, my stance changed the more I thought about the issue and heard other positions. Thanks again for the comment.

      – Nathan

  2. Free speech (or a free press) doesn’t mean free from consequence or responsibility. The limits you talk about (hate, libel, inciting panic) aren’t actually limits on the speech so much as the defined consequences (through civil or criminal charges) imposed one someone choosing to use that freedom irresponsibly. There are moral and cultural dimensions to speech as well that transcend the civil/criminal limits.

    Suggesting that incendiary and intentionally offensive speech shouldn’t have consequences isn’t rational or realistic. It naturally does simply by virtue of it’s nature. Preferably distasteful speech becomes essentially shunned and, without an audience, unsustainable. Where it does have an audience there are likely cultural issues at play in those producing it that need to be resolved. Unfortunately we have a lot of those issues still to deal with (think race/ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.).

  3. I live in Copenhagen 3 km from the place where the most recent killings took place a week ago. While I understand your opinion I disagree with it. I understand why news papers and other mass media are reluctant to show the drawings. I agree with your observation that if the media were publishing the cartoons, it would cost lives of more media people.

    But you seem to forget a third option: That all non-journalists get off our asses and publish drawings of Muhammed. I would love to know of a more respectful way to desensitize muslim persons to ridiculing the Islamic religion, and if you know of one, let me know.

    The reason why the desensitization is needed is because we in Denmark have comedians who have expressed that they stopped making jokes about Islam – eventhough they never had any problems making fun of EVERY other religion. So when you are writing that “They’re telling us we can’t print images of their prophet” then that is only the only limitation they want.

    I went to the local mosque for friday prayer a while ago: Also here it is very clear that printing is not the only limitation they want, if they could have their way. I can highly recommend going to a friday prayer if you have never tried: It was a scary eye opener to me.

    Regarding the drawings of lynch cartoons; I would be drawing these as well IF black people started killing people who drew them.

  4. Good day! This is my first visit to your blog!We are a collection off volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the
    same niche. Your blog provided uus beneficial information to work on.
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