There is currently a lot on the internet about the Mohamed cartoons. Among many others, here are two useful links from the BBC :
How world press eyes controversy;
How some government leaders reacted to the cartoons.
No need to add much, excepted maybe that:
Back in 787, bishops from all over Europe met in Nicea to discuss an important issue: should the veneration of religious icons be approved or should it be forbidden?
The iconoclasts held that, because he was divine, Jesus Christ could not and should be portrayed in any material form. They considered that veneration of Christ images amounted to idolatry and superstition.
The so-called iconodules took the opposite view. They thought that images were a means of teaching and knowledge, and helped people to express their faith in God. To them, icons were a a point of spiritual contact between human beings and the divine.
While the Council of Nicea decided to restore the veneration of icons, iconoclasm has persisted for many centuries. The causes for the iconoclasm are still debated by scholars. Some link it to the rise of Islam, others to the desire of Byzantine Emperors to impose their power over religious authorities.
The icon controversy raised many of the problems that we still have with images compared to words: can they provide accurate description of the social reality; how can we use them to facilitate and enlarge access to abstract notions; what is their specific impact on people, and are images more dangerous than other ways of telling about things?
A central issue in the Mohamed cartoons controversy is how to combine freedom of speech, a basic right in any democratic society, and some other rights such as the right to the protection of religious beliefs and opinions. How can freedom of speech be realised if it is harmful to large parts of the population?
This conflict of values can be typically solved in three ways:
- legal regulation: legitimate political authorities pass laws either to limit the freedom of speech (especially on those matters that are at the core of the social contract) or to establish a hierarchy of values/rights.
- self-regulation through social responsibility or conflict resolution mechanisms: every time someone wants to express ideas, he/she has to examine their potential impact on the audience and to adjust the message accordingly. When conflicts arise, a solution is worked out through dialogue.
- technological solutions: freedom of speech can be extensive whenever it is not intrusive (imposed on others), and the audience may protect from harmful content by using technological devices (although there is no right to be protected from offense – see this interesting post on Jason Lefkowitz's Weblog). Here, the internet can certainly provide additional tools by allowing people either to actively search for fresh and alternative information or to filter unsolicited messages.
Image credit: Button from Top Dun's Peace Signs (supposedly Peace button, but the icon is not that clear to me, is it to you?)