The Right to Blaspheme?

Letter From Paris

The vociferous and, at times, incendiary uproar that suddenly erupted in early February with the publication in Paris of 12 “satanic drawings,” supposedly caricaturing Muhammad, offered the world one more proof of the extent to which, thanks to radio, television, and computers, our rapidly shrinking planet has now become a global village. It also offered us a classic illustration of how a basically extraneous “accident” can fan the winds of discontent into a raging hurricane.

To understand how a relatively minor incident—last September’s publication in a Danish newspaper of 12 “blasphemous” cartoons—could later assume such volcanic proportions, it is essential to go back almost one year before the initial publication to the fateful date of November 2, 2004. On that day, the Dutch film director and journalist Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death in Amsterdam by an Islamic fanatic of Moroccan origin for having helped a member of parliament of Muslim origin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, produce a controversial film denouncing the practice of forced marriages imposed by Muslim men on their helpless women-folk. The assassination, which shook Holland to her foundations, had profound repercussions not only in the neighboring country of Denmark but in slightly more distant Norway.

Already outraged by this second murderous assault—it had been preceded by the assassination of Dutch political...

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