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The power of the political cartoon

PARIS -- WHEN I saw the photographs of Muslims burning Danish flags across the Islamic world, and when I heard the self-justifications of European editors on why it was necessary to publish cartoons denigrating the prophet Mohammed, I had a sudden memory of my days when I used to be editor of The Boston Globe's editorial pages.

It was always the political cartoon that got me into the most trouble. One could thunder away in the editorials, but the power of the political cartoon invariably overshadowed whatever the paper's position might be. Often, the cartoon got more reaction from irony-challenged readers who would be outraged about whatever, or whomever, we had poked political fun at that day. I used to envy my counterpart at The New York Times because that newspaper doesn't run political cartoons.

And when it came to the paper's editorial positions, it seemed to me that the cartoons always trumped the words. I remember writing what I thought was a considered and balanced editorial about keeping normal relations with China despite its occasional human rights violation, only to have our cartoon portray two Chinese dissidents hung up by their thumbs in a prison cell. Our staff cartoonists were free to express their opinions. I had no intention of censoring them. But I did say please don't trash our editorials on the same day that they are published.

One of the most sensitive issues was characterization of the pope. Roman Catholics often got very upset when a cartoon would portray His Holiness in a bad light. It was not so much the political point. It was the image. The art of cartooning is exaggeration for effect, but we tried not to draw the pope in an offensive way.

One time the Archbishop of Boston himself, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, went public calling for an apology for a cartoon showing two Irishmen, one an IRA man and the other a Loyalist, drinking in a Northern Ireland bar basically agreeing on the need for violence. His Eminence felt the cartoon was an insult to Irishmen everywhere. He was not alone.

So it really didn't surprise me that a series of political cartoons published by a Danish newspaper back in September would cause ire in the Islamic world, where it is not done to show the image of Mohammed, even in a good light.

But the extent of the flap did surprise me. Even our man in Afghanistan, the ever-moderate Hamid Karzai, was quoted as saying: ''Any insult to the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, is an insult to more than 1 billion Muslims and an act like this must never be allowed to be repeated."

One could not help but notice, as the Danish flags were being trampled and burned throughout the Islamic world, that the Danish flag, like all Scandinavian flags, features prominently the cross of Christendom. Are we seeing a clash of civilizations all because of a political cartoon? At least the fatwah on Salman Rushdie was about a whole book.

Of course freedom of speech is important to Western ideals. In America it is protected by the Constitution, but in most European countries it is protected by custom and tradition. Serge Faubert, the editor of the Paris paper France Soir, spoke for many in Europe when he said: ''Enough lessons from these reactionary bigots! Just because the Koran bans images of Mohammed doesn't mean non-Muslims have to submit to this!"

But it seems to me that the original publishing of the cartoons last September by Denmark's largest paper Jyllands-Posten, might not have been repeated so gleefully by other newspapers across Europe. Sure it was their right as a free press to do so, but was it necessary to do it so aggressively just to stick it in Islam's eye?

Of course the Muslim world is overreacting, but the tensions between Muslims and the West have seldom been higher, and the overreaction was a result of the Islam-under-siege perception that runs right through the Muslim world, including many Muslims in Europe. Muslims are sensitive to Western disrespect.

There is a lot of posturing on both sides, and a lot of political theater as well. But the classic definition of the limits of free speech used to be don't cry fire in a crowded theater. When the peace of the 21st century depends on some kind of accommodation between East and West, free speech doesn't require that we play so carelessly with matches.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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