Leading article: 'Can't take a joke' is the age-old taunt of the bully

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The Independent Online

This newspaper has no wish to publish the Danish cartoons many Muslims find so offensive. In common with almost all British national newspapers, The Independent on Sunday recognises that re-publication would be regarded as a deliberate insult. Muslims are wrong to take this view. The motive for re-publishing would be primarily to see what all the fuss is about, and to wonder at the deficiencies of Danish humour. But when the deeply held beliefs of so many people has been made so clear, it requires a particularly childish kind of discourtesy to cause offence knowingly. "Can't take a joke" is the taunt of the bully through the ages.

Nor would we have published the cartoons when they first appeared in September, before the strength of the extremely slow reaction became known. We would no more have published original cartoons equating Islam with terrorism than we would have published ones depicting Jews as hook-nosed caricatures. Yet this last is precisely what the British newspaper The Muslim Weekly did last week. We reproduce its cartoon on our front page today only to report on what appears to be a double standard. It is instructive to compare the reactions of Jews and Muslims when they feel their cultural identity has been insulted. While Andrew Dismore MP has called it "obscene" and in "bad taste", most Jews, we trust, will welcome our re-publication of the cartoon because it exposes anti-Semitism, an unfortunate tendency among some Muslims. In a similar context, Muslims ought to accept re-publication of the Danish cartoons as exposing the fashionable Islamophobia found in much of Europe.

Many Muslims do see this, and we should salute the courage of Jihad Momani, sacked last week as editor of Al Shihan in Jordan, who had published three of the cartoons. He said: "Muslims of the world: be reasonable. What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures, or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras?"

Although we are not publishing the drawings, we are clear about the rights and wrongs of the responses to their publication. The violence and threats from a minority of Muslims here and abroad, and the burning of the embassies, are disgraceful. Again, compare the response of Christians who were offended by Jerry Springer: The Opera, and Jews who disliked a cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating babies in our sister newspaper, The Independent. They wrote letters including, in the latter case, to the Press Complaints Commission, which rejected their case. But the demonstration outside the Danish embassy in London on Friday, with placards reading "Massacre those who insult Islam", could not have done more to stoke Islamophobia if it had been staged by the British National Party.

Almost as dispiriting has been the appeasing tone of Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who defended the values of liberal democracy with a resounding "but". He said: "There is freedom of speech, we all respect that, but there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory... the re-publication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong."

He is entitled to his opinion - we even agree with it - yet he must also defend to the hilt the right of independent media to publish offensive material. That is what this Government so signally failed to understand when it drafted the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Unfortunately, the Bill suffered only surface damage in last week's votes in the Commons, when it should have been thrown out. Paradoxically, given that it was intended to reassure Muslims worried about the backlash against their faith after 9/11, its provisions apply most obviously to Muslim imams who preach hatred of Jews and Christians.

Fortunately, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, is made of tougher metal, politely ignoring the demand of Mona Omar Attia, Egypt's ambassador to Copenhagen: "The government of Denmark has to do something to appease the Muslim world."

There have been many lukewarm defences of free speech over the past week attached to cowardly qualifications. It is depressing that, regrettable as any insults are, it should be so poorly understood that the test of free speech is precisely that which is offensive, and, more precisely, that which is gratuitously so.

Yes, there are limits to free speech. Incitement to violence has long been against the law in all liberal democracies. But attempts to define incitement to religious hatred, or attempts by governments to protect specific religions against mockery are, rightly, doomed.