Continued prophet cartoon furor childish

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

What happened at the University of California-Irvine last week would have embarrassed a reasonably mature 8-year-old.

It seems two campus groups, the College Republicans and the United American Committee, held a panel discussion about the riots that engulfed parts of the Middle East and Asia last month over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims consider it blasphemy to depict the prophet.

So naturally, the student groups unveiled three pictures of Muhammad along with three anti-Semitic cartoons they say appeared in newspapers in the Middle East. The whole thing quickly and predictably devolved into a circus, complete with clown.

That would be Jesse Lee Peterson, a cartoonish conservative beloved on the fringes of the right for his willingness to say any stupid thing that pops into the void between his ears. He was on his game last week, branding Islam an “evil” faith and declaring that all Muslims hate America.

Incredibly, the thing went downhill from there, degenerating into heckling, name-calling and a near fistfight.

Brock Hill, vice president of the Republican group, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying his group was not anti-Islam. “This is about free speech and the free marketplace of ideas,” he said.

Predictably, Osman Umarji, a former president of the Muslim Student Union, had a different view. “Freedom of speech has its limits,” he said.

Technically, he’s right. Freedom of speech does not, for instance, protect the person who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded mosque. But the limits of free speech do not include a right to not be offended. This fellow evidently thinks the law should protect him from having his feelings hurt. That’s childish.

And as for Brock Hill, I’m sure he considers himself a free speech hero for publicly showing those pictures. It has become an article of faith for some that the U.S. press has behaved timidly in, for the most part, refraining from doing the same. I disagree.

If the debate was about whether something in the pictures was offensive, I’d say, publish them. Let people make up their own minds. But that’s not the case. There’s nothing to make up one’s mind about. Muslims are not angry about something in the pictures. They’re angry that the pictures exist. So there’s no purpose in publishing them, save provocation for provocation’s sake. And that — here’s that word again — is childish.

But then, childishness has not been in short supply here.

Consider the Iranian bakeries rechristening as “Roses of the Prophet Muhammad” the humble pastry formerly known as the Danish. Do you think they’d like some freedom fries to go with that?

Then there’s the retaliatory cartoon posted on an Islamic Web site depicting Hitler in bed with Anne Frank. That’ll show them Jews, right? Surely they’ll burn down the KFC in Jerusalem any day now.

There is, it seems to me, something self-defeating about allowing oneself to be incited to riot by an arbitrary likeness of a face no living person has ever seen.

Take that to its logical conclusion and you can imagine the Middle East exploding because somebody drew a stick figure and labeled it the Prophet Muhammad. It’s like giving the entire world permission and means to pull your chain.

With all due respect to religious sensibilities, is it not foolish to allow oneself to be so vulnerable to provocation? And for that matter, something foolish about rushing to give that provocation? Isn’t there something about it that is infantile and juvenile, something that reeks of playground taunts and chips of wood you’d better not knock off bullies’ shoulders? Something, in a word, childish.

Except that people are dying. So maybe my comparison is itself a needless insult.

And for that, I apologize to children everywhere.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com