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Why American newspapers should publish the cartoons

Muslims may not enjoy the scrutiny, but they can handle it. Just like the rest of us.

The Great Cartoon Controversy just won't go away. Last week, rioters in Pakistan set fire to a KFC restaurant, two cellular phone companies, and a bus terminal - all to protest a series of Danish cartoons satirizing the prophet Muhammad. And this week in Nigeria, the cartoons provoked a clash between Christians and Muslims that left more than 70 people dead.

Yet most American newspapers still haven't published the cartoons themselves, lest they insult Muslim sensibilities. And that's exactly backward. The impulse to protect Muslims from insult reflects what I call racist multiculturalism: In the guise of defending a given group, it caricatures and demeans them.

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Start with the widely accepted idea that the cartoons will offend any Muslim who sees them. How do we know that? After all, the billion or so Muslims in the world include an enormous array of nationalities, ethnicities, and ideologies. Saying that the cartoons insult "Muslims" - and leaving it at that - collapses all of these distinctions.

Even more, our newspapers have often published images that appear to offend or malign other religions. Remember the 1987 imbroglio over the photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine? Shot by the American photographer Andres Serrano - and underwritten by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts - the photo sparked outrage around the country, from Christian churches and radio programs to the halls of Congress. But most major newspapers published the image, reasoning - correctly - that readers should be allowed to judge it on their own.

OK, you might respond, but Muslims are different. They take this blasphemy stuff really seriously. And when they see it, they can't control themselves. So they burn, destroy, and kill.

That's hogwash. And it's racist hogwash, to boot. Many Muslim clerics around the world have condemned the recent spasm of violence, which runs counter to Muhammad's own teachings about human dignity and forgiveness. Only a subset of Muslims have rioted over the cartoons. And if you hold these thugs to a lower moral standard than other people, well, you just don't think too highly of Muslims.

Remember, American newspapers have faced down thugs before. During the civil rights era, reporters from the North received frequent threats from Southern white supremacists. Like the rioters in the Middle East today, these bigots claimed that newspapers were insulting their way of life. The newspapers should cease and desist, the racists said, or else.

"We wouldn't be having all this ... trouble if your Northern newsmen didn't come down here and stir ... [things] up," a Mississippi businessman told The New York Times's Claude Sitton in 1964. Mr. Sitton was investigating the disappearance of three civil rights workers, who would soon be found dead. Unless he left town, Sitton was told, he'd be killed as well.

Most of the time, news organizations stood up to these threats. Now and again, however, they capitulated. As Taylor Branch recounts in his recently published opus, "At Canaan's Edge," CBS television interrupted its coverage of a 1965 civil rights rally after white viewers complained about it. The problem? Cameras had shown Mary Travers - of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary - giving Harry Belafonte a peck on the cheek. A white woman kissing a black man! On national television! That was too offensive for sensitive white audiences - especially in the South - to handle. You see, white Southerners are "different."

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Of course, this surrender demeaned the very people it was meant to protect: Most Southern whites could handle these images, despite a minority who could not. The same goes for Islam today. By refraining from publishing the controversial Danish cartoons, all in the name of fostering religious tolerance, American newspapers are feeding the bigoted notion that all Muslims are raving, violence-addled hooligans.

They're not. The greatest respect we could give this great religion is to subject it to the same analysis and scrutiny - and, sometimes, the same satire - that every other faith receives. Muslims might not like it. But trust me: They can handle it. Just like the rest of us.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools."


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