Originally appeared at SFGate.com February 8, 2006
A worldwide battle for free speech is taking place, with Denmark at the center of the storm.
It all began last September when a Danish author writing a book on Islam was unable to find artists willing to submit illustrations because of the Islamic stricture against visual representations of Muhammad. To try and call attention to the issue, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten put out a call for cartoonists to submit depictions of Muhammad. Twelve cartoons were submitted and eventually printed in the newspaper.
The cartoons themselves were a mixed bunch. Some merely depicted Muhammad as a man, which is by no means a historical first. Other, more provocative drawings alluded to the realities of terrorism and misogyny in the Muslim world. But in the risqué realm of political cartoons, they could hardly be construed as derogatory toward an entire religion. If compared to the body of criticism and satire connected to Western religion, the cartoons were downright tame. Government-subsidized art in the West using human urine and elephant dung to depict Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary come to mind.
But judging by the reaction from the Muslim world, one would think that a crime against humanity had been committed. The response so far has included demands for apologies and censorship, violent protests, Danish flag-burnings, attacks on Danish aid workers, employees, diplomats and embassies, as well as terrorist warnings and death threats. On several occasions, the staff at Jyllands-Posten was forced to evacuate the building after a bomb threat, and the cartoonists who drew the Muhammad series have now gone into hiding.
In Denmark, a group of radical imams and Danish Muslim organizations tried to pressure the newspaper’s editor, Carsten Juste, and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen into apologizing. Juste acknowledged that the cartoons may have offended Muslims, but he refused to express regret over the decision or to back down on the issue of free speech. Rasmussen issued an apology to the Muslim community but would not cave in to demands that he censor Jyllands-Posten. As he put it, “Independent media are not edited by the government.”
The campaign to defame Denmark soon went international, with calls for Muslim consumers around the world to boycott Danish products. As a result, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, Kuwait and the Palestinians pledged to join the boycott, and more Muslim countries are sure to follow. The boycott is already having an impact on sectors of Denmark’s economy, with workers being laid off and businesses put at risk.
Islamists Fan the Flames
No doubt the furor was inflamed by the spreading of three false and ridiculously over-the-top cartoons via a report handed out by a group of Danish imams touring the Muslim world and meeting with political, religious and media figures. Spokesman Akhmad Akkari actually admitted that the drawings had been added, but claimed the cartoons had been sent to them anonymously. It seems that the original cartoons were not sufficiently offensive to whip the Muslim masses into a frenzy.
Whether the protesters constitute large portions of the Muslim population or simply a radical fringe is still questionable. It certainly is odd that the cartoons came out in September and are only now causing such an uproar. How all those Danish flags suddenly appeared across the Muslim world is another curiosity. Could it be that this “movement” was in fact orchestrated? The finger has been pointed at Syria and Iran as possible contenders.
But some Muslims have chosen not to follow the script. Emboldened by the fortitude of their countrymen, Danish Muslims in the city of Arhus have begun to speak out against the radical imams who purport to represent them. “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,” said city official and organizer Bünyamin Simsek.
European Media Fight Back
What’s more, the European media seem to be experiencing an awakening. All across Europe, newspaper after newspaper has expressed solidarity with Jyllands-Posten by reprinting the cartoons. As of this writing, newspapers in Norway, Germany, Spain, Italy, Holland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Hungary have followed suit. Going further, a Moscow museum is showing its support for free speech by exhibiting the entire series of Muhammad cartoons in an upcoming show.
The cartoons were also reprinted in the French newspaper France Soir, although the editor was fired a day later by the French-Egyptian owner. Also suffering the same fate were the two brave editors who reprinted several of the drawings in Jordanian newspapers. Both have since been arrested under Jordan’s press and publications law.
While newspapers in New Zealand and Australia have reprinted the cartoons and the BBC has aired them on television, the American media are still coming around. After months of reporting on the story without reprinting the cartoons, a select few are just now jumping into the fray.
U.S. Media Off to Slow Start
The New York Sun reprinted one of the cartoons in its print edition and the Philadelphia Inquirer linked to the cartoons from its Web site, reprinting one of them in the paper. The Chronicle has avoided reprinting the cartoons thus far, although its online arm, SF Gate, published one and linked to others in the World Views international news blog last week as well as linking in this column. Fox News broadcast some of the images on television, as did ABC News and the PBS NewsHour. The Riverside Press-Enterprise and The Dallas Morning News each ran one of the cartoons.
Fortunately, alternative media have taken up the job. Bloggers and Web sites all over the world have posted the cartoons and reported extensively on the topic. In reaction to the consumer boycott of Danish products emanating from the Muslim world, a “Buy Danish” campaign has popped up on the Internet, while SupportDenmark.com is offering a series of pro-Denmark banners.
Chorus of Political Cowards
Other reactions have been less than inspiring.
Former President Bill Clinton chimed in on the subject while speaking at a UCLA-sponsored conference in Qatar last month. But instead of supporting Jyllands-Posten’s brave defense of free speech, he railed against what he called “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.”
State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper issued a statement on behalf of the U.S. government that took the same approach. While paying lip service to freedom of the press, the statement said that the cartoons were “inciting religious or ethnic hatreds.” By remaining effectively silent, the Bush administration missed a historic opportunity to set the bar higher.
Instead of providing moral footing, the Vatican provided moral confusion in a statement that called the drawings an “unacceptable provocation.”
Rounding out the chorus of cowards, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw accused European newspapers of acting irresponsibly and labeled the cartoons “insensitive,” “disrespectful” and “wrong.”
The United Nations’ weak-kneed response was equally disappointing. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reacted sympathetically to calls from the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League for a U.N. resolution, including possible sanctions, to ban “religious discrimination.” Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan issued another of his typically ambiguous statements on the matter. This coming from the man who addressed an audience at a U.N. conference last November in front of a “map of Palestine”—minus the state of Israel.
The European Union, although initially condemning the cartoons, has since risen to the occasion. With Austria holding the rotating presidency, the EU expressed its support for freedom of speech. “We have reiterated our belief and our attachment to the freedom of the press and freedom of expression as part of our fundamental values,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik.
Indeed, what’s at the heart of the matter is a fundamental misunderstanding among many Muslims about the meaning of free speech in the West. While some find the cartoons offensive, that does not give them the right to ban the cartoons or to react violently.
Free Speech in Action?
The recent controversy in the United States over a Tom Toles cartoon in the Washington Post is a case in point. The chairman and all five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a letter to the editor critiquing the cartoon, followed by several days of public debate. No one tried to censor the newspaper for running Toles’ cartoon, and no one’s life was threatened. Would that the Washington Post were as strident in its defense of the Danish cartoonists’ rights to free speech as they were of Toles’.
The Danish cartoon controversy is certainly not the first example of European writers and artists trying to tackle subjects relating to Islam and encountering resistance. The murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004 was an earlier wake-up call. Van Gogh was ritualistically murdered by Islamic extremist Muhammad Bouyeri because his film “Submission” shed light on the oppression of women in Islamic culture. His partner, Ayan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia and a member of parliament, was forced to go into hiding, and she retains extensive security to this day. Interestingly, none of the Hollywood glitterati came to Van Gogh’s defense or even referenced his brutal murder.
Similarly, in 1989 when the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa authorizing Muslims to murder British author Salman Rushdie for his allegedly blasphemous book, “The Satanic Verses,” Western apologists for radical Islam said nothing. The leader of the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, recently invoked that case, saying that the cartoon dispute would never have occurred had the death sentence against Rushdie been carried out.
And now an Iranian newspaper has decided to test Westerners’ commitment to free speech by holding a contest for the most inflammatory Holocaust cartoons. When the expected riots and death threats fail to materialize, perhaps that will be a lesson in free speech to those who really need it.
Today’s apologists condemn the Danish cartoons, while ignoring real offenses from the Muslim world. Somehow Muslims inciting hatred toward other religions on a regular basis has become acceptable, while honest analysis of Islam has not. The daily eruptions of anti-Semitic and anti-American sentiment from the Muslim world are hardly pleasant for those on the receiving end. But instead of stifling speech, opponents challenge such expression on the intellectual and political battlefields. Yet some would have us turn a blind eye instead.
How did this double standard arise? The answer is multiculturalism. Not the multiculturalism of different cultures living side by side, but the ideology that renders all cultures equal and therefore none worthy of condemnation. Such moral equivalence allows for the most backward traditions to flourish, even when they are destructive to the society as a whole. When democratic societies find themselves dominated by intolerant cultures to which they have given sanctuary, everyone’s freedom is put at risk.
Multiculturalism also has the effect of erasing any unifying culture or nationality in favor of a collection of balkanized groups with nothing in common. In such an environment, integration is forsaken and culture clashes are sure to follow. The Muslim riots in France last year were a prime example. Many a reporter chalked it up to the lack of integration in French society, but few followed that line of thought to its logical conclusion and named multiculturalism as the root cause.
Political correctness is another of multiculturalism’s destructive offshoots, and there are certainly those in the West who would shield Muslim populations from legitimate criticism. But they are actually doing more harm than good. Much-needed reform will never be possible until Muslims learn to withstand examination like everyone else. Islam should be subjected to all the scholarly interpretation, self-reflection, humor and even insult that Western religions experience.
Beyond economic need, one of the reasons many Muslims immigrated to Western countries in the first place was to enjoy the sort of freedom denied to them in their native lands. Turning the West into Afghanistan under the Taliban will help no one. While Islam may enjoy equality with other religions, supremacy is another matter. If we are to truly integrate Muslims into our societies, it must be on an equal footing.
One of the most important and hard-won rights in the West is free speech. When free speech is chipped away in the name of avoiding offense, all else is soon forfeit. Western countries will have to decide where to draw the line—or find themselves overtaken by tyranny.
With the controversy over the Muhammad cartoons, Europe seems to be awakening to this struggle. Will we follow?