Danish Cartoons: Free Press or Hate Speech?

Category: World Affairs Topics: Denmark, Freedom Of Speech Views: 9805

Freedom of speech is central to both democratic government and human dignity. A society whose people are unable to speak freely and criticized establish powers and traditions is doomed to stagnation and servitude. In the absence of critical voices to point out corruption and mismanagement, national wealth would be plundered by those who are trusted to protect public interests. And in the absence of critical minds, innovation and creativity would surely vanish, and science and art would inevitably die. 

The modern West emerged from medieval Europe by fighting a political regime which, in the name of order, subordinated vast societal resources to the whims of a careless aristocracy, and by opposing an established church which, in the name of faith, has suffocated free thinking and scientific progress.

It took great sacrifices by many courageous people to establish basic civil liberties that today form the foundation of modern democracy. Foremost among which is free speech which must be protected to ensuring that people can point out with relative ease both corruption and ignorance that erode social fabric and undermine creative thinking.

It is this most important liberty that the editor of Jyllands-Posten cited in justifying the publications of the 12 provocative cartoons, depicting Prophet Mohammad in negative light and insulting Islam and its followers. But was the decision to caricature the Prophet of Islam an exercise in free speech? Or was it an exercise in bigotry and hate speech dressed as free expression?

Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten's culture editor who commissioned the 12 cartoons, made the following comment in providing a rationale for his provocative initiative. "[Some Muslims] demand a special position," Rose wrote, "insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context."

The paper's editor-in-chief further insisted that the objective of publishing the cartoons was to overcome "self-censorship" exercised by writers and cartoonists when depicting Islam. This explanation turned out to be disingenuous as The Guardian revealed that the same paper turned down anti-Christian cartoons submitted earlier by Christoffer Zeiler. In rejecting the cartoons the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, wrote the following: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."

Kaiser's words reveal a healthy sense of responsible freedom, as they underscore the importance of avoiding provocation and insult whose aim is sheer fun and mockery. But what not the same logic was carried out to the decision of commissioning and then publishing the anti-Muslim cartoons? 

It is evident that Jylland-Posten's editors exercised "self-censorship" when they believed that making fun of religious feelings has a "high price." The freedom of press they claim at bottom a thin facade hiding an ugly bigotry directed particularly against Danish Muslims. Indeed, a 2004 report by a Danish watchdog, the immigrant rights lobbyist organization ENAR, claimed that 19 out of the 24 Jyllands-Posten's editorials on "ethnic issues" published between September 1 and November 20 2004 were negative, while 88 out of 120 op-ed pieces on "ethnic minorities" were negative, and 121 out of 148 letters to the editor on "ethnic minorities" were negative.

Jyllands-Poten was less interested in critically engaging the Islamic faith on the intellectual, social, or theological levels, and more in insulting its prophet and humiliating the Danish Muslim community. The freedom of speech invoked by the Jyllands-Posten editors does not represent a courageous stand against an established and powerful group. Nor is it a responsible freedom that aims at engaging in a serious criticism of Islamic doctrines or practices. Rather, it is a mean-spirited statement against a marginalized minority that could only serve to demonize a faith that is little understood by European societies, and greatly misrepresented by European media. 

Freedom of press is not absolute, and must be used responsibly by those who claim it. Those who appreciate the importance of free speech for maintaining free and open society must ensure that it is not used by bigots to insult, insinuate, and marginalize. Rather than expanding the critical space to talk about religion in general, and the integration of Islam to Danish society in particular, Jyllands-Poten has irresponsibly used free speech to encourage hate-mongering. Such reckless use of a cherished freedom would only make an open discussion more complicated, and could practically make Danish people less free to address critical issues for social interaction and cooperation.

It is, therefore, vital that leaders on all sides of the issue take the initiative to calm the inflammatory situation, and bring the confrontation to a halt. The emotional exchange between the Western and Muslim worlds would further embolden the bigots in both camps. Western bigots are busy presenting current protests as an instance of "Islamic imperialism," and a step in bringing the world under the control of Islam. Muslim bigots, similarly, find in the current stand off an opportunity to inflame anti-Semitism in Muslim societies.

A peaceful and orderly expression of indignation falls within democratic traditions, and represents a legitimate endeavor to influence political decision and debate. Resorting to violence, threats, and intimidations, on the other hand, undermines democratic principles, complicates political exchange, and closes public debate, and must therefore be rejected and opposed. While most protests over the publication of the insulting cartoons have been orderly and peaceful, albeit indignant, several unfortunate instances have led to loss of life and property. There is now more evidence that extremists are intent on turning the protests into a weapon to further deepen the divide between Muslim and Western societies, and to turn cultural and ideological differences into a religious stand off and a "clash of civilizations."

The Danish cartoon episode reaffirms the intimacy of freedom and responsibility and is a powerful reminder that a reckless use of freedom is the surest way to undermine both.

 

Dr. Louay M. Safi serves as the executive director of ISNA Leadership Development Center, an Indiana based organization dedicated to enhancing leadership awareness and skills among American Muslim leaders, and a founding board member of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. He writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam, American Muslims, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at his Blog: http://blog.lsinsight.org


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  17 Comments   Comment

  1. aaron from USA

    It's a warped way of thinking for people who are godless or have the wrong concept of God. To them to speak peevishly, to ridicule others with arrogant and insulting words and to react with insolence and disrespect is actually a sign of superiority. As they don't have any ethics or manners, they can speak any way they want to hurt others. To them they are free from any accountability in the words they utter . They didn't realize that they are actually influenced by the insinuations of Satan. "Say to My slaves that they should only say the best. Shaytan wants to stir up trouble between them. Shaytan is an outright enemy to man." (Surat al-Isra': 53)

    Compare it to the beautiful teachings of Islam; A muslim speaks well and wisely to everyone he meets. Wherever he may be, he speaks to people with respect. They know they will be accountable in the hereafter for every words they say. Good words or harsh words will be rewarded or penalized accordingly by the Most Just Judge, Allah.

    "Greeting a person is charity. Acting justly is charity. A good word is charity." (Bukhari and Muslim)

    Islam does not believe in the fanciful idea of freedom of expression, where a handful of men decide which beliefs and thoughts are legally beyond reproach and which beliefs and thoughts are subject to unfettered criticism and legislation. Islam stipulates that life, honor, blood, property, belief, race and the mind are to be protected by the Islamic State. All the citizens of the Caliphate are guaranteed these rights, irrespective of whether they are Muslim or non-Muslims. The Messenger (saw) of Allah said:

    "One who hurts a dhimmi (non-Muslim citizen of the Caliphate), he hurts me and the one who hurts me, hurts Allah"

    Therefore, it is prohibited for a Muslim to insult the beliefs of a non-Muslim or to damage their places of worship. The Islamic history is unrivalled in its ability to guarantee the religious rights of non-Muslims under the shade of the Caliphate.

  2. Fawad Sayed from USA

    I am all for freedom of speech but freedom of speech doesnot mean Freedom of libel. We muslims will never let your type cross this line, these are our rules and thats pretty much it.

  3. LanceThruster from United States

    Evry time someone mentions freedom but with limits, they fail to clearly define who would set those limits. Afterall, there are a multitude of freedoms the West enjoys that if Islam ruled, would be out the window.

  4. najjar from Morocco

    Freedom of speech?

    Germar Rudolf, 5 years in the "shade" for scientifically challenging some forensics of the Holocaust? No idea what this guys was really thinking or talking about, but the nave guy believed in the "freedom of speech", I guess he no longer does.

    Ernst Zundel, 3 years in the "shade" for denying the existence of the holocaust, this one is probably a polished idiot, but wasn't he just exercising his "freedom of speech"

    The list is long...

  5. Chandra from India

    Hi Romesh,

    You -------, your mother is ------ and your father is a ----- .

    Well, I doesn't mean to offend you, but I was just excursing my freedom of speech, yes, freedom to offend, and freedom to say anything I like with out even knowing about you. This is what we achieve as the most gifted thing from a civilized society.

    I hope you might even enjoyed my comments above, just for a smile, you know its all about having some fun.

    This freedom of speech is the basic right every one be a human or an animal born with, what makes the difference between a speech of human and an animal is we are responsible of our actions, we are considerate and sensible to others feelings, we have wisdom and thoughts. Because we are civilized we live in civilized world. Hope now you understand what is the difference between freedom of speech of humans and animals.

  6. rochi from bangladesh

    freedon-means responsibility.justas a person cannot kill somebody as he is free so the press cannot defame on the pretext of freedom of speech.The ress has to act very very sensibly. thanks for this informative and nice article.

  7. Romesh Chander from US

    To Sister:

    Freedom of speech means Freedom of Speech -- including freedom of selection -- freedom to say and freedom not to say. People have very narrow view of freedom.

    If the Danish paper did not want to publish those nasty Anti-Christian cartoons, that is their choice. But you can get those nasty Anti-christian cartoons and publish them yourself (and right in Denmark); if no print media will publish them for you, you can put them on the internet for the whole world to read; it is that simple. If Danes will not exercise their freedom, you can exercise that freedom yourself. If Christians don't like them, that is their problem.

    I have no problem with you publishing nasty cartoons on any religion known to mankind (and womankind).

  8. sister

    dear louay..i really agree with you..

    mr.romesh..

    freedom of speech is one's right..one shud learn to ignore it if he dont like it.but, this 'freedom of speech' must be applied in every case.they said it their freedom,then why didnt they publish some anti-christian cartoons?they even said that it will provoke an out cry..is this not applicable to islam?thay an do anything against anyone unless it is not their religion or faith.is this 'freedom of speech'? if it were so they'd have published those anti christian cartoons also..but they didnt.under the curtain of freedom of speech they have cleverly insulted a whole community.

    i donno which religion u prctice..but one simple question just ask urself..if it were abt some high person from your religion wud u say the same?means publishers being ready to insult and mock your's n not ready to theirs and care for their believes n faith???

  9. Joesph from USA

    People need to laugh. Yes just laugh a little now and then. Everyday there are offensive things to everyone regardless of their beliefs. I am for freedom of speech because once you suppress one for one reason then you have to suppress more and more and freedom become no more. The current events are truly childish to say the least so everyone just laugh a little...

  10. Amirah

    I would like to start by thank Dr. Louay M. Safi for insightful article. I couldn't have said better myself. Your article captures the essential theme of freedom of speech and how it used in a claimed free society. I liked most in the article the history of "freedom of speech" and how it came about from "medieval Europe by fighting a political regime which". The question here is not freedom of speech but how freedom of speech is utilized to represent others with a lack of understanding for these individuals. In examining the emerged of freedom of speech it is without doubt it should be valued both in the west and as well by Muslims.. we should refrain ourselves from abusing this right. Bin Laden does not represent my religion.

    Thank you kindly,

    Cheers.

  11. Stu from Australia

    Dr. Louay M. Safi I found your article really interesting and agree on what you said.

  12. Khalifa from iEarth

    basic civil liberties = Islam

    Imagine if this energy went to support Hamas-a social welfare fresh movement that needs to rule from the Top.

    Instead they-orab rulers close their US private corps gov doors and send them to Russia-new CIA

    Our Ulammaaaa insist to boycut anything-foolishness but their gov salaries.

    Our masajed/people in falsteen for 60 years-UN cover up- is being abused with dirty US oil laws

    Anyone boycut America after they occupied Irak!

    We need to boycut The orab Bush rulers club FIRST

  13. Bohari Mashli from Malaysia

    What happen is partly the mistake of the muslim ummah.

    1. We are hardly united. We argue over small matters.

    2. We are being control either physically or mentally - there is no freedom

    3. We are very weak economically, politically and above all militarily. Just imagine if all the muslim countries are militarily comparable and all posess nucklear arsenal, economically and politically sound, they will think twice. The only advances the USA is capable by then is to propose sanction!

    4. We have abandon ISLAM - the way of the prophet. ALLAH has sent a wake up call. Remember, ALLAH has chose and perfected the religion for all mankind through the prophet, Mohammad SAW, that is ISLAM. That is the whole story.

  14. Peter Jensen from Denmark

    Our Muslim immigrants have a staggering high

    crime rate,some are extremists,and now we can

    probably expect a terror attack.It should come as

    no surprise,that we worry about all this,and of

    course we have a heated debate in the press.I

    would like to add though,that 2 Danish news-

    papers (Politiken and Information)have an attitude

    that is completely different from that of Jyl-

    lands-Posten.

    I would love to have more Muslims like Mr.Shafi

    in Denmark.

  15. Romesh Chander from US

    I am a member of ACLU.

    One may not like it; but in a democratic country with free press, 'hate speech' is part and parcel of free speech. Speech is not free unless it offends somebody. If somebody does not like it, they do not have to listen to it or read it; if necessary, they will have to just ignore it.

    The only responsibility one must execrcise is to stay within the law of the country (and nothing else), which in a secular society, is man-made. If it offends somebody, well, they will have to learn to ignore it. If they cannot cope with, that is their problem, not that of the 'free' speaker. There is no concept of Blasphemy in any free society. I do not consider UK to be a really free society -- it has a limited blasphemy law. Germany is not a free society -- it forbids denial of holocaust (which in my opinion did occur). Canada is not free but it has 'hate' laws.

    US is a very free society with very few limitations.