The Islamic world is reacting angrily to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper. Demonstrations, threats, flag burning, forcible closure of Western offices — we know the scary pictures. In defense of free speech and to show support for the Danish editors, newspapers in France, Italy, Spain and Germany have also published the cartoons, exacerbating the wrath of Muslims. In just a few days the matter has reached international proportions, far beyond the level of an incident. Politicians fear that this could be the first major clash between two worlds: free speech guaranteed by democracy versus taboos in Islam. Indeed, depicting the Prophet Mohammad, moreover in a deriding fashion, is sacrilegious for Muslims. But free speech is in Western democracies a hallowed principle. The stage is set for more than a skirmish.
The commentaries in European newspapers and blogs are overwhelming in their condemnation of the Islamic reaction: free speech cannot be restrained by the sensitivities of a religion; the Muslim exigencies for punishment and apologies foretell the next phase, namely increasing edicts to standardize the world according to Sharia; the Western world is taken hostage by Islam; Muslim nations still need to go through their Enlightenment to separate State and religion, etc. And the comments also point to the fact that Western nations have learned to tolerate similar sacrilegious depictions of Christianity, in novels, films and cartoons. That tolerance, they say, is a sign of maturity.
Perhaps many of us would react in the same vein, especially as we have learned to view Islam as fundamentalist and threatening. However, could the matter be compared to something we as Mormons experienced? The protesters around Temple Square at the time of General Conference have been using their right to free speech, vilifying Mormonism, even showing and ridiculing temple clothing in order to provoke us. Some of us have not been able to restrain their anger at this provocation. And certainly many of us have thought: can this kind of insulting and debasing “free speech” be tolerated?
So, what are the criteria when it comes to free speech versus respect for religion?