When the right-wing Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, it did so with its eyes wide open.
While many people defend that decision by citing the cardinal virtue of freedom of the press, this decision bordered on incitement as it deliberately provoked Muslims. A picture of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban is poor satire, maligning not a contemporary political figure but the faith of 1.2 billion people, and it sows the seeds of hatred and division.
The issue became even clearer after the Guardian newspaper reported the same newspaper had earlier refused to run cartoons that poked fun at the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The editor of the paper declined those illustrations, stating that readers will not "enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."
Why are Muslims subject to a different standard?
None of this excuses the death threats, violence and killing that followed. Such actions are morally indefensible. Nor should we excuse the opportunism of the Iranian regime and others in fueling this violence.
But let's get some clarity on the issue.
First of all, the vast majority of the demonstrations worldwide have been peaceful.
Second, to focus only on the fury of some Muslim demonstrators blinds us to the violence of war and occupation in Afghanistan, Iraq and the occupied territories, and to the degree of alienation and segregation that many Muslims endure every day in Europe. This, and not some supposed primordial predilection for violence in Islam, is the context that makes the issue so explosive today.
Third, posing the question around balancing freedom of speech with respect for religion misses the point. The real question, particularly to those of us in the West, is what good is your freedom of speech if other people, both the general public and those in power, simply refuse to listen to you?
Fourth, Muslims in the West often feel they are continually demanded to condemn terrorism -- which many have freely done long before being asked to do so -- and yet their views on other matters are repeatedly disregarded and their concerns go unheard.
When Muslims dare to criticize U.S. policy, we often get labeled as "terrorist sympathizers," or worse. On far too many occasions, Muslims, as a group, are told to sit quietly, swallow the racism directed at them and bow their heads in thanks for living in the West. We are lectured to and almost never spoken with. As a result, many Western Muslims feel that double standards exist.
A Danish professor, Jytte Klausen, points out that free speech is not absolute in Denmark, since the Danish criminal code allows for a fine and up to four months of imprisonment for demeaning a "recognized religious community." But still Muslim complaints went nowhere in the Danish courts.
Meanwhile, Klausen observes, two members of the far-right Danish People's Party, both Lutheran ministers, have called Muslims "a cancer on Danish society," in parliamentary speeches.
Could anyone describe Jews, or Lutherans, for that matter, in the same manner and get away with it?
In France, where Muslim girls in public schools are now forbidden by law to wear their headscarves, the Catholic church successfully petitioned the court last year to ban a fashion ad that was based on Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." The French judge stated that the ad was "a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people's innermost beliefs." Yet several French newspapers and magazines have proudly republished the Danish drawings that are gratuitously offensive to many Muslims.
While things are slightly better here, even in the United States, with its rigorous constitutional standards of protecting speech, the U.S. government denied entry last summer to renowned British Muslim scholar Zaki Badawi, whom the Queen of England had knighted. (No reason was given, and U.S. officials later apologized.) The Bush administration had also denied entry and effectively prevented Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan from teaching at the University of Notre Dame in 2004.
I am a dedicated free speech advocate, but for speech really to be free, the standards of what's acceptable and unacceptable must be applied transparently and uniformly.
Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor in the English department at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and co-editor of "The Edward Said Reader" (Vintage, 2000). He is also an editor at Middle East Report (www.merip.org). He can be reached at email@example.com.