The Magazine

The Mohammed Cartoons

Western governments have nothing to apologize for.

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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Defending freedom of religion and freedom of the press requires distinguishing who is being criticized, and distinguishing criticism from threats. It is one thing to condemn Jyllands-Posten for offending millions of people. It is a very different thing to criticize the Danish or other governments, since the criticism itself, even apart from invidious calls for cartoonists to be punished by the state, assumes that government should control the media. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their authoritarian brethren, as well as jihadist vigilantes, are attempting to export and impose their media censorship and version of sharia on the world at large, using economic pressure, international organizations, or violence.

Hence, as Rasmussen correctly stated, he was sorry that Muslims "felt insulted," but the Danish government"cannot be held responsible for what is published in the independent media." Similarly, Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg was sorry "this may have hurt many Muslims," but said the Norwegian government "cannot apologize for what the newspapers print."

As a man of principle, Rasmussen should also tell the Egyptian and other ambassadors that not only is this none of the Danish government's business, but, since they are ambassadors of countries, not religions, it is none of their business either. They, especially the Saudis, may reply that they do not make that distinction. Our response should be to state clearly and firmly that we do, and that protecting religious freedom requires us to uphold it in our dealings with others.

Finally, amid current calls for "toleration" and "respect for belief," we need to be very clear about the distinction between religious toleration and religious freedom.

Religious toleration means not insulting somebody else's religion, and it is a good thing. But religious freedom means being free to reject somebody else's religion and even to insult it. Government should want and encourage its citizens to be tolerant of one another, but its primary responsibility is to protect its citizens' rights and freedoms. The fact that people are sometimes insulted is one cost of freedom. The Jyllands-Posten affair calls us to uphold that principle internationally as well as domestically.

Paul Marshall is senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the editor of, most recently, Radical Islam's Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari'a Law (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).