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Cartoon clash an issue of decency No religion has right to restrict anyone other than its believers

If ever there were a sobering reminder of the power of the pen, this is it: Violence flames across the Islamic world, embassies burn, international tensions escalate and at least eight people die, all as the result of editorial cartoons.

The violence stems from drawings published in Denmark and subsequently repeated worldwide in print and on the Internet. Muslims widely condemn the drawings -- the most prominent of which depicts the prophet Muhammad wearing a turban with a bomb-like fuse. Islam regards depictions of Muhammad as sacrilegious because they could lead to idolatry.

But violence is not justified in response to depictions, nor can the right of publication be denied to newspapers and other media outlets in Europe or America. Publication of the cartoons is a question of taste, not rights. Religions have the right to impose strictures on their followers -- not on others. At this issue's most basic level lies a question of controlling thought and behavior.

When cultural values clash -- as they do in this case not just for such extremists as the Taliban and al-Qaida, but for peaceful and mainstream Muslims as well -- the need on both sides is for respect and decency.

For American editors, the question is not whether such cartoons can be published. They can under standards enshrined in the Constitution and repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court, which has a depiction of Muhammad holding a sword in the law-givers frieze prominent on its Washington courthouse. Opinion pages, in particular, occasionally offend. Some did this month, when a few readers interpreted an editorial cartoon by Tom Toles as depicting an individual American soldier. Toles' point was to use the injured soldier to represent a broader, beleaguered military described by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as "battle-hardened."

But newspapers try not to offend gratuitously, and try to apply standards of decency that respect a range of opinions.

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