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Muhammad comics scandal challenges concepts of free speech

February 8, 2006

On September 30, 2005 the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran an editorial featuring twelve editorial cartoons, many of which featured the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The editorial ("The face of Muhammad") covered the topics of self-censorship and freedom of speech and the difficulties faced by those who attempt to exercise free speech when commenting on religions, particular Islam.

Reactions from the Muslim community were strong and negative. Despite a decision by the Regional Public Prosecutor that the newspaper had not violated the Danish criminal code and open apologies from the newspaper in Danish, Arabic and English, the protests continued - in part due to the fact that other papers had decided to run the cartoons along with commentary on the reaction.

This created a sort of feed-back loop, encouraging more news coverage and escalating the reaction from the Muslim community. What began as outrage and calls to boycott has turned into death threats and the burning of embassies.

The Atheist Community of Austin strongly supports the concept of free speech. The idea that religious beliefs and the actions taken on behalf of those beliefs are beyond comment, mockery or ridicule is a violation of the principles of free speech.

While many may feel that Muslims were unfairly characterized by these cartoons, the cartoons represent the individual opinions of the artists and the reaction to these cartoons may simply be serving to reinforce such perceptions.

No one enjoys being criticized and criticism rooted in prejudice or misperception definitely deserves a response. This situation was an opportunity for reasonable Muslims, world-wide, to overcome stereotypes and change the public perception of their religious culture. A perception which has been virtually destroyed by extremists.

We can only hope that cooler heads will prevail and, in the end, these cartoons - despite the initial shock - will serve as an impetus for change. Free speech, even in the form of a cartoon some find offensive, can serve as social commentary which is essential to the progress of civilization. Opinions, even when we disagree, should never be stifled by dogmatic decree. This situation, distasteful as it may be, does qualify as News...and deserves public attention.

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