And the point was . . .?

The prolific Danish writer and “father of existentialism” Soren Kierkegaard once said, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”

And what would his views be today when future countryman and Jyllands-Posten editor Fleming Rose decided to run caricatures mocking the founder of the religion of more than 1 billion people? It’s rather doubtful Kierkegaard would have been amused given his own writings. But what about Rose’s thoughts? Some say he strived for a message against self-censorship in Denmark. Most others familiar with Rose’s ideological views say those leanings were behind the publication.

Keep in mind that Rose refused to publish a British cartoon by the UK Independent’s Dave Brown that won first place in a contest. In an image inspired by 19th century painter Francesco de Goya who painted, “Saturn Devouring one of his Children,” the cartoon showed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby. Grotesque? Sure, but the idea of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban is also grotesque to many. Was the Sharon cartoon “racist” as Rose declared? Depends on who you ask.

The reality is when all is said and done, it usually comes down to subjectivity. But that subjectivity should be coupled with responsibility.

In recent days, much has been said about how the West values freedom of expression and how the East just “doesn’t get it. This is how we are! Deal with it.” But are we talking about the same thing? There’s freedom of expression, and then there’s setting out to offend people.

A recent Ha’aretz article in Israel said it best:

“One thing that all journalists know is how to hurt people.

The good ones know how to avoid it, and do, refraining from racism, steering clear of character assassinations of private individuals. The bad ones hurt people inadvertently, through breaches of professional ethics. The worst, a group which can include some of the best known, do it on purpose.”

And lest people think that the Muslims are thin-skinned, consider that Germany has already announced that it will arrest any soccer fan attending the 2006 World Cup who raises the Nazi salute or does the goose-step. Soccer fans committing these acts could even face a stretch of three years behind bars if convicted of inciting hatred. Pretty harsh stand against free expression until you realize that the World Cup stadium in Nuremberg used to hold some notorious rallies for the Third Reich.

The German government, sensitive to its past history of horrid intolerance and destruction, are balancing free expression with responsibility. For Germany, responsibility trumped free expression.

With regard to the cartoons, the responsible thing would have been to not run the caricatures which served no purpose other than to purposely offend at a sensitive time in history where all eyes are on how Muslims react to every challenge. And while the media focused on the young, testosterone-filled males who reacted with stupidity and venom, most every Muslim I know was embarrassed at the sight of Danish embassies burning in Beirut and Damascus.

As a Catholic, I am not well-versed on the Koran but a Muslim friend forwarded me a story that is worth reciting, and one I wish the violent protesters, who unwittingly confirmed the underlying premise of the offensive cartoons, had remembered. It goes like this:

The prophet Muhammad had been insulted and abused in the village of Taif. With shoes full of blood and wounds on his body, Muhammad called out to Allah –” the Arabic word for God, “O Allah! I complain to You of my weakness, my scarcity of resources and my humiliation before the people. O Most Merciful of those who are merciful. O Lord of the weak and my Lord too. To whom have you entrusted me? To a distant person who receives me with hostility? Or to an enemy to whom you have granted authority over my affair? So long as You are not angry with me, I do not care. Your favor is of more abundance to me.”

In other words, he didn’t care about the insults and beatings so long as God was not angry with him. So much for being an advocate of terrorism.

Ultimately, censorship is wrong but freedom without responsibility can be a disaster. And if you have to hurt someone to make a point, how righteous is that point anyways??