The press should be free to ridicule Islam
On the European controversy about those Danish cartoons.
A wave of violent protests and heated debate has been brewing across Europe and the Middle East about the controversial decision of a Danish newspaper to publish cartoons satirising Islam.
Last September, the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten printed the 12 cartoons (which included caricatures of the prophet Mohammed), provoking outrage from Muslim extremists, both in Denmark and abroad. Pressure mounted from Muslim countries, including Turkey, Bosnia and Egypt; international organisations including the UN, Council of Europe and European Union; and some of Denmark’s own diplomats – all of whom called for the paper’s editor to withdraw the cartoons and apologise for the offence caused.
To his credit, the Danish prime minister refused to curb the newspaper’s freedom of expression, insisting that it was not the government’s place to apologise for the opinions of his country’s press. Extremist groups issued bomb threats and called for boycotts of Danish goods abroad. In the past week, the Saudi government withdrew its ambassador in Copenhagen, Syria recalled its chief diplomat and Libya closed its embassy (1).
Yesterday, things were turned up a notch when newspaper editors in Germany, France and Italy reprinted the cartoons in their papers. Their decision to publish was not particularly fuelled by animosity towards Islam; rather, it was a symbolic gesture in support of free speech. The French paper, France Soir attacked the calls for censorship with the headline ‘Yes, we have the right to caricature God’, but it seems that right was swiftly undermined when the French government, no doubt scarred by the recent riots of young Muslims in the banlieues of Paris, apologised on its behalf and then the managing editor was sacked.
The British newspapers haven’t (to date) got as far as printing the cartoons, perhaps because they know that the government here will be unlikely to safeguard its freedoms. Even in the recent television coverage, the BBC has been very careful to show only fleeting images. A law was passed this week in Parliament against the incitement to religious hatred: ‘respecting diversity’ is now coming into conflict with free speech and it’s clear which side is winning. Such legislation and the assumptions behind it are having a chilling effect on our media and public debate more generally.
There is no denying that the media’s special sensitivity to the issue is because it is about Islam. Media outlets have very little problem satirising Christianity – just consider BBC2’s defiant showing of Jerry Springer the Opera, despite heated protests by Christian groups. Muslims are being treated as a special group, seen as worthy of more protection from criticism than other groups because of their apparent victim status. The Muslim Council of Britain has announced that it is pleased the British newspapers have not shown the pictures. But the point about free speech is that it allows citizens to think and feel whatever they wish. Muslims are not banned from practising their religion but nor should they shielded from criticism by others, however hurtful they might feel it is.
Press freedom is the foundation of a free society. People don’t always like what they hear or see – if it challenges their cherished beliefs, it can hurt. It might also be dangerous, as the experiences of Theo van Gogh, the murdered Dutch filmmaker and journalists operating in repressive societies such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, demonstrate. It might also be expensive, as Danish producers and manufacturers are discovering with the boycott of their goods. But no matter the price, the principle must be defended. Unless we stand up for freedom of speech, we are unable to engage freely and hold belief systems – of all kinds – to account. Unfortunately, too many politicians and journalists are unwilling to make this stand, wanting above all a quiet (and safe) life.
Censorship in the West bolsters the moral authority of leaders in the Middle East to censor their own citizens. Indeed, the religious leaders in Saudi Arabia and Palestine have been opportunistic in using the story as a way of galvanising support and reinforcing the view that only they can protect Muslims from victimisation. Counter to the claims of unelected ‘community leaders’, Muslims do not benefit from censorship. In Denmark, large numbers of moderate Muslims have sought to oppose the stranglehold of extremist Muslim lobby groups who claim to represent them. In Arhus, they have organised counter-demonstrations. One Muslim city councillor who was involved said: ‘There is a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society.’ (2) It turns out that those sympathetic lefty anti-racists who believe censorship will protect Muslims are actually missing the point. Many Muslims want the same freedoms as everyone else to debate, criticise and challenge their religion.
It is important to be far-sighted about the question of free speech. Back in the 1980s, Britain had its own baptism of fire with the Salman Rushdie case, when the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author. The ambivalent response of the establishment has contributed to a political climate where we are made to believe that the identity and beliefs of some groups (although not, significantly, of others) should be respected and above criticism. In this sense, legislation in the UK is catching up with a premise that’s been established for some time. This is a chance to argue for freedom and its value in our society – and of the right of the press to publish the cartoons and be damned.