Reasons not to publish images of Prophet Muhammad
While in my last post I upheld the freedom of expression, I also alluded to the responsibility we all bear to exercise restraint when it comes to publications that might offend or humiliate others based on religion, cultural practice, gender, etc.
So, for example, I won't be reading Little Black Sambo to any child. I won't use the N-word. I will challenge anyone who denies the Holocaust or who tries to minimise the effects of rape. And I don't need a law to force me to make these choices. Nor should it take the barrel of a gun.
In a civilized society, we temper our freedom of speech with respect for the harm that has been done through discrimination, violence or genocide. As a university teacher, I do not regard it as a restriction on my academic freedom to abide by such norms, nor is it 'political correctness'. Offending people or giving voice to harmful opinions has no educational value. The examination and critique of such of offences to humanity may, on the other hand, have value for making us better human beings.
To get to this point requires that we pay attention to others. If moderate Muslims can persuade us not to publish images of the Prophet because of the offence it causes to their faith, then is it really a problem to desist from doing so? For me, it's not.
Defending the right to publish such images is not necessarily doing anything much to uphold freedom of expression, given that we do abide by some restrictions already – mostly voluntarily, but sometimes by law. I note that French law has banned Holocaust-denial, and that may be appropriate given the magnitude of that mass-murder and the history of anti-semitism in France. (And they also initially banned Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth (1961) because it advocated violent opposition to colonisation, e.g. by the French in Algeria.)
The trouble is, some people say that if we now concede to 'pressure' not to publish images of the Prophet, then we are being cowardly and letting terrorism win. So, should such images be published just to make the point about liberty and to defy terrorists? And never mind the effects on those Muslims who prefer to use words and not guns?
A voluntary restriction on such images can be made out of respect, rather than fear. And there is nothing wrong with doing so.
Pity, though, the city of Bologna where the Basilica of San Petronio's 15th-century frescoes include an image of the Prophet being tortured in Hell. This in turn is an illustration of Canto 28 of Dante's Inferno. The Basilica has been threatened by terrorists more than once. What would you do about that?
Update: I note that the survivors' issue of Charlie Hebdo features an image of the Prophet in conciliatory mood. Quoting from the Guardian: "Newspapers around Europe, including Libération, Le Figaro and Frankfurter Allgemeine have used the image online. The BBC showed it briefly during a newspaper review on Newsnight. In the US, USA Today and the LA Times ran the cover but the New York Times did not. The Guardian – which has not published other Charlie Hebdo covers with images representing the prophet – is running this cover as its news value warrants publication."
Given that my point above was about the voluntary avoidance of using such images, I am not in disagreement with the principled choices that these newspapers have made.