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Don't splash cartoons of Muhammad today

Yesterday morning, the editors at the Independent, Berliner Kurier, Berliner Zeitung, and a handful of other newspapers around the world were not intending to publish cartoons of Muhammad on their covers today. The reason was no doubt partly that they would have had no relevance to anything those newspapers wanted to cover – though that didn’t, of course, stop the Danish Jyllands-Posten or well over a hundred newspapers across the world publishing cartoons in 2005.

Part of the reason may also have been that such cartoons would have been gratuitously insulting. There’s a good case to be made that depictions like Charlie Hebdo’s are frequently racist and contribute to the demonization people – Muslims in France – who are already marginalised. But even putting that aside, nobody denies that ridiculing cartoons of Muhammad are offensive to Muslims who believe that images of the Prophet – especially mocking ones – are forbidden.

That offence isn’t a good reason to prohibit newspapers from publishing those cartoons. But it is a decent reason for them to choose not to. In Australia, many indigenous cultures prohibit depiction or even mention of the recently dead. Television programs often avoid such portrayals, and when they include them they warn about the potentially offensive content. Newspaper obituaries sometimes run alongside disclaimers and apologies to the Aboriginal peoples involved. There is nothing cowardly about this. And there is nothing cowardly about choosing, today, not to publish cartoons which, yesterday, you had no intention of publishing because of their offensiveness.

Yet some newspapers are publishing them, and plenty of voices across Twitter and on blogs like Guido Fawkes’ – the pseudonym of professional rabble-rouser Paul Staines – are saying that more should, to avoid ‘cowardice’. There is no sense to this. Is the idea somehow to change the incentives of these people? That, since what these terrorists want is to stop images of Muhammad, if the effect of an attack is to make everyone publish them, they will realise that their attacks are counterproductive? It’s hard to see how anyone could impute that kind of calculating rationality to people who are willing to murder a dozen people over a cartoon.

More likely the idea is just to show that we’re not afraid and will not be dictated to. Then say: “we are not publishing these cartoons, because we think they are gratuitously offensive and don’t help report the events or make the arguments we want to, but we have never and will never decide not to publish something out of fear.” Newspapers publishing cartoons today which they wouldn’t any other day are doing just what they protest against: letting their normal editorial decision-making fall by the wayside, letting their choice about whether to publish be influenced not by their goals or standards as a publication, but by the actions of brutal terrorists.

There was no reason to publish cartoons of Muhammad yesterday. There is still none today. That is not cowardice or pandering to terrorism. It’s just getting on with the job, and if “nous sommes tous Charlie Hebdo” means anything, it should be that.