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The Cartoon Wars Come to Islamabad

June 6, 2008

Several days ago a bombing took place outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. At least six people were killed, and dozens were injured. This might be viewed as just one more act of violence in a country where hardline Islamic and tribal militancy is a powerful force, but the apparent motivation of this latest bombing was unusual. According to an al-Qaeda statement claiming responsibility, the attack was a reaction to cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten a couple of years ago, provoking considerable anger among many Muslims at the time. By western standards, some of the cartoons were basically respectful and some were clearly insulting. By strict Islamic standards all of them were blasphemous, being visual depictions of the Prophet.

The claim of responsibility may be false, but the fact that it’s even plausible demonstrates just how spontaneously and unpredictably outbreaks of international violence can flare up in the modern world. If the claim is true, the attack took place because images published for a domestic audience in Denmark drove some individuals in Pakistan into a state of homicidal fury. In the crowded global village we now inhabit, we can all peek into each other’s houses and potentially take violent offence at what we see.

For Canada, no less than for Denmark and other western countries, this situation has some obvious pitfalls. Notwithstanding the occasional excesses of our Human Rights Commissions, we have a tradition of relatively free speech that allows for fierce debate, biting satire, and lurid and irreverent works of art. It’s easy to see how some of this material could lead to anger and resentment among cultures with more restrained standards of public expression.

I don’t mean to imply that the consequence of hurt feelings abroad will always be blood-curdling threats and blasted embassies. However, the bombing in Pakistan shows that we could conceivably find ourselves assailed by foreign extremists who are determined to punish Canada as a whole for something ¬†published, broadcast or posted online by individual Canadians. The resulting conflict would likely be more of a nuisance than a real threat, and I hope most Canadians would agree that the possibility is a small price for the continued privilege of speaking (or drawing, filming, etc.) our minds on contentious and sensitive topics. But the danger, if hardly overwhelming, is real – just ask the Danes.

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