The Cartoon Controversy: Offence, Identity, Oppression?



If the publication of twelve drawings of the Prophet Mohammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which sparked the ‘cartoon controversy’, was wrong, why might this be the case? The article considers four arguments advanced in relation to the quite similar Rushdie affair for judging such publications to be wrong, and asks whether they provide plausible moral reasons against such publications, and whether they justify legal restrictions on freedom of speech. The arguments concern: (a) the consistent extension of group defamation legislation to cover Muslims; (b) offence to religious sensibilities; (c) issues of identity; and (d) oppression. The article also considers whether such arguments can be acknowledged within a liberal model of toleration. It is argued that versions of several of the arguments may in fact be thus accommodated, but that they nevertheless do not provide strong reasons for judging the kind of publications under consideration to be morally wrong or suitable objects for legal restrictions. The argument from oppression is different, however, in pointing to different kinds of factors, but its applicability is limited both by a number of conditions for when oppression provides the right kind of reasons, and by empirical constraints. The suggested conclusion is that the publication of the Mohammad cartoons was not wrong, at least not all things considered, for any of the noted reasons, but that there might be other kinds of factors that are not captured by traditional liberal models of toleration, which might provide reasons for moral criticism of this and similar publications.