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Friday, February 03, 2006

Those cartoons

My modest contribution to the debate is to dig out an e-mail I sent to the Readers Editor of the Guardian just under three years ago. It went unanswered, which is just one reason why I am not remotely surprised by that organ's lack of interest in taking a stand for free speech.

20 February 2003

Dear Mr Mayes

Last Thursday you published the following under 'Corrections and Clarifications':-

'The publication of a "picture" of the prophet Mohammed, page 4, G2, yesterday, caused considerable offence to Muslim readers for which we apologise. In Islam it is absolutely prohibited to sketch, construct or publish a likeness of the Prophet, one of the historical reasons being fear that it would lead to worship of the prophet rather than of God alone.'

Whilst I'm aware of the particular sensitivities surrounding Islam at present, I find this puzzling and somewhat disturbing. If it is simply an apology for an unnecessary discourtesy to your Muslim readers, it is perfectly reasonable. But it seems to imply something more than that, namely that you expect non-Muslim contributors to a non-Muslim newspaper to be bound by a tenet of Islam. This seems to me to be both an excessive measure of self-censorship and one which you are unlikely to apply consistently to all faith groups.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that archaeologists working somewhere in the Middle East dug up a contemporary image of the Prophet. Are you really saying the Guardian shouldn't publish a photo of it?

If, on the other hand, enough Roman Catholics tell you they are offended by yesterday's Steve Bell cartoon of Tony Blair and the Pope, will you apologize and tell him not to do it again? What is the difference?

[One additional point: a central plank of the Guardian's case for self-censorship is that it is particularly unacceptable to offend European Muslims because they are an oppressed minority. Could we perhaps agree that there will be no further publication of the cartoons in Europe once they have appeared in national newspapers in Riyadh and Tehran?]

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