By Wesley Pruden
Published February 7, 2006
The prophet Muhammad, who lived in the 8th century, never met Boss Tweed, who presided over New York in the 19th. But if the prophet runs into Mr. Tweed at the mall in a modest suburb somewhere in the afterlife, they can compare afflictions.
Mr. Tweed suffered boils and warts at the hand of the great newspaper cartoonist, Thomas Nast. "Stop them damn pictures," the old Tammany tiger told his hit men. "I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But they can see the pictures."
If we are to believe the millions of Muslims who are racing into the streets from Damascus to Jakarta looking for Jews to torment, Christian churches to torch and European embassies to plunder, the prophet who invented Islam is suffering a similar migraine this morning, the gift of a Dane reckless with pen and ink. The prophet's constituents can't read, either. They're not even supposed to look at the pictures. The imams fomenting hysteria are apparently afraid they might peek.
Hollywood couldn't contrive this latest Islamic comic opera, which has been tough on government property but has afforded the bored Muslim masses an opportunity to entertain themselves, and a lot of pols and government bureaucrats the stage for a remarkable performance of pandering, hot-dogging and grandstanding.
Several European heads of state have done what Europeans do best, the full grovel, and yesterday Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, did his usual shuck and jive on the high road. "I understand and share their anguish," he said of the plunderers and looters in the capitals of Arabia. "But it cannot justify violence, least of all attacks on innocent people. I appeal to Muslims to accept the apology that has been offered and to act as I am sure Almighty God, who is compassionate and merciful, would wish them to do. That is, to act with calm and dignity, to forgive the wrong they have suffered and to seek peace rather than conflict." But Muslims have suffered no wrong; Muslims have inflicted the wrong. It's reassuring to learn that the theologian-general of the U.N. is on such intimate terms with God, and endorses the almighty mind. Expecting "calm and dignity" in the Muslim street is expecting a lot, and only a man of Mr. Annan's deep faith in the whatever would attempt such a stretch.
Representatives of nearly every European country, and sad to say the United States, hurried out to the nearest camera with apology and penitence, where apology is not called for and penitence is not appropriate. The bureaucrats, like the State Department officer who called the cartoons "unacceptable," are addicted to the grovel, too. What does "unacceptable" mean in the mouth of a government officer? Is an arrest imminent?
This could have been an occasion for instruction and tutelage, for assisting the followers of the religion of peace out of the 8th century and into the relative light of the 12th or 13th, en route on some distant day to the 21st. Scott McClellan, the spokesman for President Bush, attempted a lecture yesterday but delivered the wrong rebuke. "We support and respect the freedom of the press," he said, "but there are also important responsibilities that come with that freedom."
This is wrong, and dangerously wrong. The guarantees of free expression (such as the First Amendment in our own country) include no "if," no "also," no "but." The guarantees do not ordain a "responsible" press, but a free press. This is what the Muslims, who often show no respect for the beliefs of others, must learn even if they learn it the hard way. Followers of the prophet are entitled to believe that a caricature of the man they revere is wrong. If they believe that, they should neither draw such a caricature nor look upon one drawn by someone else. They have no right to impose that belief on anyone else, Hindu, Christian or Hottentot. This is what Kofi Annan and the bowed heads of Europe and spokesmen for the State Department and the White House, and George W. Bush for all that, should be telling the Muslims. And not forget to duck.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.
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