The Danish Case
The Danish government’s attitude toward the blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published by a newspaper in the country should not be dismissed lightly as it is typical of the manner in which Western governments and intellectuals treat topics related to Islam. The lethargic reaction of the Muslim governments to the European newspaper’s outrageous treatment of the Prophet too deserves censure .
It was on Sept.30 last year that a popular Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 caricatures of the Prophet. Matters were further exacerbated by the chief editor of the newspaper who in a comment expressed his “abhorrence” at the veneration of their Prophet by Muslims .
The drawings were more than a shock to the 180,000-strong Muslim community who represent three percent of Denmark’s population The Muslim diplomats in Copenhagen felt outraged. Eleven of them held a meeting and demanded an immediate apology from the newspaper.
As the chief editor refused to comply with their demand, the envoys requested a meeting with the prime minister of the country to register their protest at this insult to Islam. Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to meet them but informed the envoys through his office that since the issue involved the freedom of expression his administration could not interfere in the matter. They were told to resort to legal action if they desired.
On learning about the affront to the Prophet, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu wrote to the Danish prime minister and the top officials of the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) requesting them to stop the hate campaign against Islam and take a stern stand against attempts to malign the Prophet. The gist of their response was that nothing could be done to stop the campaign, as the freedom of expression was the cornerstone of the Danish democracy. In the meantime the ambassadors of the Muslim nations in Geneva complained to the Human Rights Commission saying that the Danish newspaper was inciting racism and hatred against the Muslims. The commission agreed to look into the matter and prepare a report by the 24th of this month.
At the Islamic summit meeting held in Makkah last month, the Muslim leaders discussed the issue and expressed deep concern over the media campaigns against Islam and the Prophet. The participants emphasized the responsibility of all governments to guarantee respect for all religions without allowing anyone to make the freedom of expression a cover for insulting a religion.
After three months of silence, the EU commissioner for Justice Franco Frattini commented that publishing such cartoons was not a wise move as such acts would only inflame passions and encourage extremism in Europe.
While 22 Danish ambassadors with working experience in Arab countries criticized their government for its stand on the issue, a delegation of Danish Muslims representing 21 organizations visited Cairo and met with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the secretary-general of the Arab League. The foreign ministers of the Arab countries too criticized the negative attitude of the Danish government. The OIC secretary-general informed Danish authorities of the OIC decision to boycott a Danish exhibition entitled “Impressions of the Middle East” the cost of which was to be shared by Denmark and some Arab countries. He asked the Muslim countries to stick to this decision to register their protest against the European country’s position in the matter.
Finally, the Danish premier’s response came in his New Year message to the nation in which he said that his government condemned any expression or conduct that offended the sentiments of any community. If the Copenhagen authorities thought that this was the end of the matter they were mistaken. It is quite evident that the wound is too deep to be healed by some generalized statements issued reluctantly.
In the meantime some Muslim organizations in Denmark filed a suit against the newspaper. The public prosecutor refused to admit the case on the ground that the publication of the cartoons came under the purview of the freedom of expression, which enjoys legal protection in Denmark. The issue became more complicated with another conservative Christian daily in Norway reproducing the cartoons.
It is not surprising that some media persons behave impudently against the symbols of Islam as fanatics and hatemongers are found in every society, particularly in the West and often their intolerance of Islam rises above the voices of the intellectuals who speak with reason and fairness. What is most disturbing is the careless attitude of the Danish government, which should have taken a stand consistent with justice and public decency.
No system of law in the world claims that desecrating the symbols of Islam and the Prophet, or any other religion for that matter, is the right way to exercise one’s freedom of expression. The freedom of expression is conditional on public good.
Anglo Saxon and Latin legal systems, apart from the Islamic law, give protection for the freedom of expression as long as it serves the interests of society as a whole and does not lead to inflaming passions and disrupting social harmony. The highest constitutional courts in the United States stipulate that the freedom of expression is guaranteed only as long as it carries a minimum of redeeming qualities.
Every legal system considers it a crime to abuse and malign others. Abusing is an aggression on another individual. Abusing the Prophet of Islam is a serious crime because nearly one quarter of the world’s population believes that he is the Messenger of God. Dr. Ahmad Kemal Abul Majid, an expert on international law, said that even if an offending publication can’t be hauled into court of law there was a moral and political obligation on the part of the government to condemn such acts in the interest of the religious and cultural diversity of a country.
It is also disturbing to note that the Muslim governments have not been forthright in expressing their displeasure at the Danish government’s reluctance to condemn the affront to the sentiments of Muslims.
Are we to understand that abusing the Prophet is a less serious offense than an insult to an Arab head of state that would have triggered angry reactions accompanied by withdrawal of ambassadors and threat of severing diplomatic and economic relations. Should it not be feared that official silence over such issues in the Muslim and Arab world would play into the hands of extremists in the Muslim communities who are waiting for an opportunity to choose the path of violence .
The Danish drawings also reopen the question that is often raised whenever the topic of the relations between Islam and the West comes up: Really who hates whom?