Don’t look now, but the controversy of the Danish Mohammed cartoons has sprung back to life. This time it’s in Norway, where last week the newspaper Aftenposten decided to republish the twelve controversial drawings – not out of any idle curiosity as to what would happen next, but as a sort of tribute to the Dane Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists originally involved and the lightning-rod for the entire group who you might remember was the subject of an attempted assault on his home back on New Year’s Day. (This is reported by Jens Ehlers in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten – Has Norway gotten its own Mohammed-crisis? – which, appropriately enough, was the one to originally publish the cartoons, and which still pays Westergaard for his work.)
Of course, no curiosity is needed as to what happened next: the Pakistani Foreign Ministry condemned the newspaper’s action, and demonstrators materialized in the Pakistani city Lahore, burning Norwegian flags. But this time, according to Ehlers, they numbered only a “two-figured number of persons,” i.e. in the tens. The editor-in-chief of the Norwegian paper, Hilde Haugsgjerd, was not particularly upset at seeing her country’s colors go up in smoke (then again, I think few Norwegians would be, just because they are laid-back): “They should have their freedom-of-expression in the same way that we have our freedom-of-expression. That doesn’t change anything in our judgment.”
Nor should it. Frankly, the cartoons should really published anew on a regular schedule, not just in reaction to some new event. Yes, they are supposedly insulting to some aspect of Islam, but by this point they could be a key symbol of Western-style freedom-of-expression, one of our fundamental freedoms, which holds that anything and everything should be allowed to be ridiculed, and if anyone doesn’t like that, then that’s just too bad. Remember that the reason the Jyllands-Posten editor decided to commission and print them in the first place back in late 2005 was his fear that implicit threats of violence were leading to de facto self-censorship of any writings or drawings concerning Islam, in effect a creeping, furtive denial of that freedom-of-expression. It’s to fight that sort of craven self-denial, by means of clear, repeated examples of refusing to be intimidated, that I feel these cartoons should be republished on a regular basis.
(And is there no aesthetic consciousness out there in the Muslim world – somewhere? anywhere? – that would interpret a rendering of Mohammed’s head fused with traditional Islamic half-moon-and-star iconography as a clever piece of art, as even a tribute and compliment to the Prophet and those who follow his teachings?)