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How the West was numb 

Lezlie Lowe draws from the cartoon controversy.

The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus went up in flames Saturday at the hands of protesters angry about a dozen caricatures of the prophet Muhammad making the rounds in the European press. Demonstrations also took place in Gaza City, London and Lahore. Protesters were shot to death Monday in two Afghan cities, more Tuesday. Meanwhile, millions of Westerners are wondering a simple thing: what the fuck?

The response is symptomatic of a divide between western Christians and Muslims — one that’s invisible in the everyday run of things, but which — under the spectre of worldwide outrage and burning embassies — is clear.

Muslims know something Westerners don’t. And it’s the meaning of the word sacred.

A protest took place in front of the Danish embassy in Halifax on the weekend too. There were no fires or rock-throwing Saturday when some 200 Nova Scotians of all ages gathered to show solidarity with Muslims affronted by the Muhammad cartoons, which were first published in September in a Danish newspaper and since then reprinted across Europe and in a handful of North American media outlets too.

The Halifax protest could have been a demonstration against anything; there were bristol board posters, kids with their parents, slogan-shouting, jeans and sneakers.

While the protesters denounced violence and tried to help non-Muslims understand that Islam strongly discourages depictions of Muhammad, many Nova Scotians spent the day at Wal-Mart.

Saturday shopping trips are a form of worship, I suppose. Anyway, it’s the closest we get to sacred in the West. That, and possibly coffee. The ever-lingering debate over abortion in Canada will tell you there are even caveats when it comes to the sacredness of life.

There is not a single object, lesson, historical event, moral, place, time or religious figure that is sacred to the West. Nothing. Nothing is inviolable.

Forget jesus (see? I just used a lower-case j). Forget birth (have you seen A Baby Story?). Forget the Holocaust (Jewish historian Yaffa Eliach’s dictum “There’s no business like Shoah business” has been taken out of context enough times to prove that even genocide is up for grabs). In the West, even profanity isn’t profane.

The value of our secular, free-for-all approach to culture isn’t worth debating as flames lick up the side of the Danish embassy in Beirut (it was torched on the weekend too). What’s worth talking about is that the Western press has flexed its freedom-of-expression muscle and continued to print these caricatures. Bloggers are doing far worse – spreading the images and adding their own to the mix.

Press outlets, like ABC’s World News Tonight, which showed one of the cartoons — the prophet Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban — one week ago today, have argued that the images need to be seen to give context to the worldwide protests. That the images are offensive — beyond that, literally profane — doesn’t enter into the discussion. How could it? There’s nothing in the West to compare it to.

Anyone with a computer and a clue can find these caricatures. Any media outlet can print them. This, as we’ve been reminded time and time again since this brouhaha began, is freedom of the press.

But I have to wonder: if we have the power, do we have to wield it so blindly?

Is it irresponsible to republish the cartoons? Email:

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Vol 26, No 34
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