Bayou Calvinist

A Somewhat Eclectic Discussion by a Law Student Concerning All of Today's Major Topics, as well as, a Few Not So Major Topics

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Standing Up for Free speech and a Free Press

How is it that one of the most judgmental of professions, a profession that constantly reminds all in Western Society of their failings when it comes to upholding rights they deem sacred, is for the most part at this moment unable to summon enough courage to support that right most sacred to that profession's very existence?

For all who keep up with the news, it is clear that I am referring to the news media's kowtowing to the wishes of firebrand mullahs and violence wielding Islamist mobs concerning the publishing of a few, mostly innocuous, cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. While I doubt that their reason for doing this is much more than fear combined with overly sympathetic liberal tendencies, the majority of those publications unwilling to run the very cartoons at the heart of the protests which they report on, cite concerns about offending members of the Islamic faith.

This reason, by itself, is neither intelligent nor sincere. First, the sincerity of the Western media for the feelings of members of a religion are strongly discredited in their lack of concern, in the recent past, for members of the Christian faith. The New York Times, along with most other major news corporations, saw nothing wrong in running stories on the infamous "Piss Christ" and "The Holy Virgin Mary" covered in elephant dung. Unsurprisingly these stories ran with pictures of the offending works. The reasoning for including such images, it was stated, was to ensure that the public was aware of the works at the center of a controversy the same news agencies decided needed media coverage. Considering the magnitude of the recent reactions to the Mohammed cartoons it seems odd that the same argument should not be made with equal force for displaying the questionable cartoons, this time.

Secondly, some argue that unlike the Christian tradition, which allows for images of Christ, Mary and its venerated Saints, Islam forbids any images of Mohammed. This statement misconstrues both the facts surrounding the incidents in question, as well as the actual beliefs held by members of both faiths. Other than the one cartoon showing Mohammed wearing a turban made of a lit bomb, none of the "questionable" images denigrate the Prophet. They may not show the respect many Muslims would expect, but that is a far cry from humiliating him. Now consider the Piss Christ and Mary covered in Dung. The first was not only taken as denigrating Christ and Christianity, but that was also the artist's expressed aim. The intention of the second may be more ambiguous, in that dung is apparently a respectful symbol in some African cultures, but the response that should've been expected is certainly not. No sane person could have thought "you know what American Catholics, and perhaps Christians in general, will have no problem with smearing a substance seen by Western eyes as base and gross all over the mother of Christ."

The two religions views on graven images are not so clear cut either. Islam, like all of the world's great religions, is not homogeneous in the views of its believers. Similarly not all Muslims have the same views on images of Mohammed. Historic paintings from Persia, made by Muslim artists, clearly depict Mohammed in many different scenes (at his birth, the Night Journey, seated with his companions). Today, the vast majority of Sunnis (influenced in large part by the Wahabi sect) do hold to the belief that making an image of Mohammed is forbidden. They also hold that making the image of any living thing is forbidden. But, at the same time, Shia Muslims hold to a completely different interpretation. It would not be uncommon to find in a modern Shia home paintings of Mohammed, Ali, and Hussein (the latter two believed by Shia to be in some ways the successors of Mohammed--they both being related to the Prophet).

Likewise, Christianity's interpretation has not been and, because of a few small groups still in existence, is not completely unified. From the beginning some Christians understood the Second Commandment to forbid any image of God, or Jesus, or of any animate object. This view of graven images found a home in the time of the Reformation, especially amongst Clavinists (mainly seen in their opposition to the Catholic Icons of Saints and the image of Christ on the Crucifix but also extending to any image capable of obtaining praise). This incongruity among Christians may be seen in the differing translations of the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4):

"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (King James Version)


"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below" (New International Version).

Today some denominations and sects still hold to the first translation as the correct one. So to claim that Islam stands in a unique position as it comes to unflattering characterizations of its founding fathers (and in the case of Christianity its founding mothers) is simply untrue.

Finally, the reason this should be seen as so troubling is the importance of the principle of a free press in liberal society (by liberal I simply mean Western democratic societies). Without freedom of speech, slavery of the mind and subjugation of the people is certain. Once, in the distant history of America, a.k.a. the 19th Century, the Press understood this too. It was willing to stand up for this broader principle and to fight for its survival. (I literally mean fight, see this article). But, alas, today our media, much like our oh so principled establishment is too concerned with saving their lives and reputations to care for anything more permanent. All they have left is sentiment and that too is now in short supply.

Which leads to the real reason for the ineffectual coverage of this story; fear:

"[We won't publish the cartoons] out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy. As we feel forced, literally, to bend to maniacal pressure, this may be the darkest moment in our 40-year publishing history."

--- The Boston Pheonix

So, I implore all those who support freedom of speech, to also support those rare journalists and editors brave enough to publish the whole story....cartoons included.


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