From northern Europe to Afghanistan and beyond, the row over the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad has escalated. Four anticartoon demonstrators were killed in Afghanistan, Monday; others have died in Lebanon and Somalia. Protesters in Syria and Lebanon burned the embassies of Denmark and Norway. Feelings of fear and victimization on this issue remain raw.
How welcome, then, is a call for calm issued jointly by the prime ministers of predominantly Christian Spain and predominantly Muslim Turkey, Feb. 5.
Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Spain's José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero wrote in the Paris-based International Herald Tribune that, "We shall all be the losers if we fail to immediately defuse this situation.... Therefore, it is necessary to make an appeal for respect and calm, and let the voice of reason be heard."
The two men - one a socialist, the other the leader of a moderate Islamist party - pointed out quite rightly that in today's interconnected world, "a local incident may have worldwide repercussions." Recalling the role their countries historically played at the "crossroads between East and West," they have called for strengthening the Alliance of Civilizations project that was established last year.
Because of the huge escalatory potential of this issue, it's helpful to step back a bit and recall how the current situation developed. We also need to "unpack" what is at stake for advocates of the different viewpoints.
The cartoons in question were published last September by Denmark's largest daily newspaper. The newspaper's cultural editor had invited cartoonists to submit for publication drawings of the prophet Muhammad. He knew full well that nearly all the world's 1.3 billion Muslims consider pictorial representations of the prophet sacrilegious - but he wanted to test the social limits, in ultra-liberal Denmark, around that taboo. Twelve cartoonists submitted pictures, and all were published. At least one represented the prophet (and, by extension, his followers) as a very violent personality.
Denmark's small Muslim community protested immediately. In addition, the ambassadors of a dozen Muslim countries and members of other Muslim groups wrote to Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen explaining how offended they felt by the images and asking him both to demand an apology from the paper and to apologize himself, on Denmark's behalf. Mr. Rasmussen said he would not intervene but advised them to sue the paper under Denmark's antiblasphemy laws. They reportedly did so, but, between October and today, reports of the Danish paper's sacrilege and the prime minister's refusal to apologize have circulated ever more broadly through the Muslim world. Rasmussen still has not apologized, though in a recent satellite-TV interview he said he was "deeply distressed that many Muslims have seen the drawings ... as a defamation of the prophet Muhammad," which falls short of an apology. In the meantime, more newspapers in Europe have taken up what they claim is a fight purely "for free speech," and have republished the images.
So isn't this really an issue of "freedom of speech" clashing with the desire to protect the sacred? And as the world's cultures interact ever more closely, how can such conflicts be resolved? One ground rule must be to forswear all use of violence, and to try to resolve these questions through respectful dialogue. Beyond that, we should reexamine our definition of violence and inject into our dialogue a discussion of "sacredness" itself.
Regarding violence, I think it's helpful to consider "symbolic violence" - that is, attacks against certain very dearly loved symbols of things - to be a very serious matter. The publication of sacrilegious images, like the trashing of religious images or the burning of national flags, might all be seen as acts of such "symbolic violence," and should surely be forsworn in the interests of nonviolence and mutual respect among peoples.
Regarding sacredness, many people in the West could constructively join a reexamination of what sacredness really is, and where it can be found. Is free speech "sacred" in the same way that a sincere believer's religion is sacred? (Personally, I don't think so: Even liberal societies accept constraints on the freedom of speech.)
Where the demands of religion and free speech conflict, how should that conflict be resolved? We can't even start to figure that out unless we build a clear, shared understanding of the nature of the sacred - something many Europeans now find hard to come to.
But most important now, we all, as global citizens, need to deescalate this crisis and to establish clear and respectful ways of discussing our concerns. Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Zapatero have led the way. All other world leaders should follow.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.