[TODAY]Riots about more than free speech

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[TODAY]Riots about more than free speech

Ever since Socrates was found guilty of blasphemy against the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens, for which he was sentenced to death by poison in 399 B.C., the limits of freedom of speech have been a perpetual topic of debate in the West. In 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court produced a decision that defined the boundary of freedom of speech most sensibly. In 1917, in the midst of World War I, Charles Schenck, the general secretary of the Socialist Party, was indicted for agitating people to oppose the military draft and the case was passed on to the Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the Supreme Court decision that said Mr. Schenck’s act was like shouting “Fire!” in a theatre to cause panic. Now, the expression, “shouting fire in a theater,” is treated as a synonym for abuse of the freedom of speech.
The Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten depicted the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons as a terrorist, which sparked violent Muslim protests from the Middle East to Asia. A Korean company operating in Pakistan suffered damage from the rioting. The European media defended Jyllands Posten with the convenient shield of freedom of speech and criticized the violence of the Muslim protesters.
The European media emphasize the theoretical and general freedom of speech but remain silent to the fact that mass distribution of Hitler’s photos or denial of the Holocaust are punishable by criminal law. Last year, a French advertisement parodied Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” by depicting Jesus and the apostles, except for Judas, as women. The female version of “The Last Supper” was banned from public display but the European media kept quiet. The French court ruled that the controversial poster was “a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs.”
Insulting the Prophet Muhammad is an act that viciously violates the innermost beliefs of followers of a certain religion. Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslims have been insulted and suffered disadvantages in the Western world, which identifies Islam with terrorism. Publishing such cartoons while advocating freedom of speech is not only religious profanity against Islam but also serious political folly.
It is not hard to imagine that depicting Muhammad as a terrorist would give Muslim fanatics justification to retaliate for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, the European papers insulted the founder of Islam and his followers. Jyllands Posten declined the demands of Islamic organizations to apologize. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is responsible for settling the crisis, refused a request to meet with a group of ambassadors representing Islamic nations. Now Jyllands Posten and the Danish government have missed the right timing and let the crisis grow larger than they can handle.
It is true that the governments of Egypt, Syria, Iran and Palestine are behind the violent Muslim protests and are trying to exploit the controversial cartoons politically. With the Bush Administration’s campaign to democratize the Middle East, democracy has begun to spread in the region. The authoritarian and absolute monarchical governments feel increasingly threatened and anxious. The Muhammad cartoons offered a chance for them to take their anger out on the United States and Europe and embrace their public. However, the fact that some governments exploited the crisis to their advantage cannot be a justification to the European media, which was the cause of the crisis in the first place.
Looking at the sacrilegious act by the European media against Islam and the Muslim protests as a clash of civilizations is an intellectual trick of Westerners who hope to downplay the crisis by presenting a specific incident about religious pride, human lives and fortunes as something abstract and transcendental. It is regrettable that some Korean media outlets uncritically support this clash of civilizations theory. The European Union is finally making a delayed effort to overcome the crisis through talks. The riots will come to an end. However, unless Westerners give up their racial and cultural sense of superiority and begin treating Muslims in Europe more as their equals, the crisis will only be temporarily hidden but never resolved.

* The writer is an adviser and senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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