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The Cartoon Controversy -- An Academic View

Moderator and the Kennedy School of Government's Sultan of Oman professor of international relations (I kid you not) Joseph Nye said he hoped for an evening that would "put a little light on [the subject] perhaps, instead of heat." Given that the topic at last night's Harvard forum was the raging Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy -- and that the guests included two Islamic studies professors, a priest, and a First Amendment expert -- there was a reasonable expectation of such an outcome.

But even for someone desperately seeking relief from the often predictable politics and passion that the controversy has generated, the Harvard event proved that a conversation can be too high-toned, esoteric, and bloodless (pardon the bad pun) for its subject. Unfortunately, that's the impression I came away with last night. 

What we did learn was this?

The two Islamic scholars were adamant that the cartoon controversy could not be separated from broader feelings of alienation and humiliation in the Muslim world.

"There is indeed a high level of humiliation and frustration when it comes to the representation of [Islam] in the west," said Joceylne Cesari, a visiting assistant professor of Islamic studies at the Harvard Divinity School. "It goes with a long series of discrimination when it comes to religion...and the cartoons have been seen by them as part of this long process."

Shahab Ahmed, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Harvard, talked about the "considerable disenfranchisement" of Muslims living in European countries, quipping that the rule of thumb is "restaurants are okay, mosques are a bit dodgy, and head scarves are a very bad thing." He also put the ratio of Mulsims offended by the Mohammed cartoons to those who reacted violently as "somewhere in the region of 10 million to one."

Father J. Bryan Hehir , a professor of the practice of religion and public life at the Kennedy School and president of the Boston Archdiocese's Catholic Charities, seemed to be siding with those who chose not to publish the inflammatory cartoons when he declared that "I come from a tradition where prudence is the governing tradition of the ethical life. I would argue that there is an exercise in prudence, which is different than self-censorship."

Nye indicated that "I don't think what we're seeing is a clash of civilizations. I think what we're seeing is a civil war in one religion - Islam. I think the irony is that there is nothing bin Laden would like more than to have this"  labeled a clash of civilizations.

The fifth panelist, Frederick Schauer, the Kennedy School's Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment, explained that while "the full range of hate speech is Constitutionally protected in the U.S."  European and other democracies are much more inclined to legislate against it.

A head count guesstimate of the panel would seem to indicate that there were at least three solid votes -- Cesari, Ahmed, and Hehir -- against printing the cartoons with Nye's and Schauer's views of the subject harder to gauge based on what they said -- or didn't say.

I did leave right before the tail end of the question-and-answer session, but to that point, no one had asked the speakers the very basic question: Was it right or wrong to run the cartoons?

 

 

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