The cartoon wars aren't over yet. We need to start taking action to prevent this row from developing from a war of words into an effective, bloody war.
The so-called clash of civilisations we hear of can only happen if we let it happen. Right now we're only at the stage of what Robert Fisk calls the childishness of civilisations.
But the rapid escalations of violent demonstrations, attacks on embassies and calls for bloody murder should make us aware that the predicted clash of civilisations can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It isn't an imaginary risk anymore. Soon those who feel such an epic conflict would play into their own hands will try and broaden the row to other aspects of the perceived Islam/West juxtaposition until it reaches the size of an all-engulfing conflict.
Yet ordinary people are those who have the power to prevent this from happening, more than world leaders, cartoonists and their publishers.
Let me first, briefly, underline my position on freedom of speech: I believe it is our unassailable right to say what we want, universally. There are strong theoretical (logical) grounds on which this principle can be successfully defended, as well as empirical evidence to support it. Regards the latter, suffice it to point to examples of legal restrictions on certain statements in various European countries, such as statements regarding homophobia, racial hatred or Holocaust denials, which have proven difficult to implement and ineffective as tools for anything at all.
But no-one will deny that unfettered freedom of expression does not bring with it a set of problems: where opinions meet head on, the clamour of conflict is never far behind.
Firstly, it's important to realise just how easy it is to cause offence and how relative it is at the same time. For example, as an agnostic person I find it hard to understand a depiction of the Prophet can cause such offence (I'm now specifically NOT referring to the bomb turban cartoon, which is quite a different kettle of fish). My background simply makes it quite hard to see the offensive side of a neutral depiction of what is supposed to be the Prophet, but I accept the fact that it caused offence, nonetheless.
And when less moderate Muslims keep telling us that there is no such thing as British Islam, European Islam or even British Muslims or European Muslims, that there is only the Umma, the Nation of Islam, then they must be aware that in the hands of people like Nick Griffin such a statement, no matter how true to Islam, is gefundenes fressen to demonstrate that Islam is trying to take over Britain.
We need to understand that what is innocent to one is offensive to another and vice versa. That is no cause for restricting free speech in my view. On a voluntary basis, adopting some moderation, an appropriate tone of language, courteousness and civility may do much to prevent causing offence but that is by no means guaranteed: the core of an opinion isn't altered by how it's uttered.
Lets' face it: we are constantly surrounded by images, people, behaviour, opinions etc that we don't much care for, don't like or find downright offensive. Mostly we do no more than perhaps sigh internally, shrug our shoulders and get on with it: it's simply the mature thing to do. It's called compromising and we practice it all the time. Even when surrounded by like-minded people.
And when we engage in debate regarding whatever issue we would do well to remember that. A true debate in which participants can freely express their views is the best way to build bridges and understand where the other party is coming from.
In the Islam/West debate we sometimes lose sight of these basic facts and it inevitably leads to the kind of pandemonium we're seeing today. Nonetheless, I see plenty of useful debate going on and see no reason to despair just yet.
Finally, and hopefully on a lighter note, here's a Guardian cartoon by Steve Bell which I DID think was funny. It appeared shortly after the row stared escalating. Dare I say "no offence intended"?
Keywords: Islam, Muslims, Fatwa, Denmark, cartoons