Contains a word some people may find offensive.
Were the Danish Muhammad cartoons defensible under freedom of speech? The knee-jerk reaction is to make this claim, but I shall argue here precisely the opposite – while freedom of speech may seem to be the central issue in this controversy, a more salient interpretation of the history of this international incident must consider it in terms of “Islamophobia”.
On February 1st 2006, the French newspaper France Soir republished a series of twelve cartoons that had originated in a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten more than a year earlier, depicting the prophet Muhammad. These cartoons included one in which the founder of Islam was shown with a bomb in his turban, a lit fuse, and the Islamic creed (shahadah) inscribed upon the bomb. France Soir was the twenty seventh global newspaper to reprint some or all of the cartoons, but it represents the tipping point of the controversy in part because the French journalists took a particularly pointed approach to their coverage. Firstly, it ran the story as front page news, and secondly, they explained their actions with the claim it had republished the cartoons (and added one more) “because no religious dogma can impose itself on a democratic and secular society”.
This much publicised event was arguably what turned the subject into an international tumult. The original publication of the cartoons had not, in fact, prompted much international attention at all, and remained a domestic issue in Denmark. Jyllands-Posten (“The Jutland Post”) originally ran the cartoons with an editorial comment from its culture editor, Flemming Rose, explaining that “[Muslims] demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech...”
The Danish press distanced themselves from the cartoons. Moderate Muslims, together with many non-Muslims, demonstrated peacefully against the newspaper to condemn the cartoons as being insensitive and tasteless in the context of the situation in Denmark, where a far-right coalition within the government had created tensions and pressures against the Muslim minority in that country. This protest was not in any aspect about the choice to depict the prophet Muhammad (which many conservative Muslims find especially offensive), but about the specifically racist ways in which he had been caricatured. After the republication of the cartoons in France Soir, the situation became far worse, as Islamic extremists in various countries embarrassed both themselves and their religion by overreacting to these events and thus obscuring the cultural prejudice which was the issue at the heart of the original controversy.
Much of the commentary on the internet from bloggers followed in the reactionary vein of France Soir, viewing the issue entirely in terms of freedom of speech and forgetting that in no country is freedom of speech absolute. This right may be limited by either John Stewart Mill's “harm principle” (freedoms may be overruled if they are to be used to cause harm to others) or Joel Feinberg's “offence principle” (freedoms may be curtailed if they will necessarily cause serious offence). Consider, for instance, both child pornography and “hate speech”.
I wish to emphasise the extent to which this debacle is misunderstood solely in terms of a challenge to freedom of speech by pointing to the findings of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which published a report that concluded significantly that racism and xenophobia in Europe was the origin of the controversy, and especially singled out Denmark in this regard. The assumption, which is easy for secularly-minded individuals to jump to, was that the Danish newspaper had been acting with integrity and the Muslim world had overreacted (which it did eventually do) but in fact there was very little propriety to the original article, and the reaction by Muslims in Denmark was sober and reasonable, and supported by many open-minded Danes who recognised cultural prejudice as the key issue here.
It is a seldom appreciated fact that freedom of speech originated in the Islamic world. It was first declared in the Rashidun period by the 7th century caliph Umar, and again in the Abbasid Calphate by al-Hashimi. Furthermore, the tradition of “academic freedom” in universities was modelled upon an Islamic custom practiced in the 9th century Madrasah system (as reported by George Makdisi and Hugh Goddard). The idea that Islam is opposed to freedom of speech (or, for that matter, inherently against woman's rights) are misconceptions resulting from the excessive focus paid to extremists and highly authoritarian states within the Islamic world. Muslim moderates remain largely invisible in the eyes of the world, because the negative press that extremists generate for the religion and its accompanying cultures obscures any hope of a balanced perspective.
It can be difficult to appreciate why freedom of speech must at times yield to principles of offence (and I do not suggest that legislation is the correct way to approach this issue), so in order to underline the issue I want to propose a thought experiment concerning a term about which everyone recognises the potential for offence, namely “nigger”, an ethnic slur which came to be used to degrade and demonise black people from the nineteenth century onwards. If Jyllands-Posten had printed racist cartoons depicting black people as insulting stereotypes with a headline incorporating the word “nigger”, would France Soir have been so keen to reprint under the guise of supporting freedom of speech?
It is an unfortunate fact of the present times that prejudice against Muslims remains far more culturally acceptable than skin colour or gender prejudice. What exacerbates this problem is that anti-Islamic sentiment is something that both intolerant atheists and ultra-conservative Christians share (and as Charles Taylor has observed, these sometimes-feuding creeds emerge from common historical roots and thus have considerable values in common). Thus in the North Atlantic world, which is dominated by secular humanist and Christian beliefs and values, Islamophobia often escapes notice as the excesses of Islamic extremists and certain Muslim cultures (which do not, by-and-large, reflect the core values of Islam) are substituted for a balanced perspective on the matter.
Commenting on this incident in an excellent series of articles, the Danish political polymath Frank Ejby Poulsen noted:
It has become difficult today to express a more nuanced opinion when a vast majority of the news media in the West expressed solidarity with [Jyllands-Posten]. And how could it be otherwise when extremists burn flags, and threaten the cartoonists as well as their compatriots? Extremists' reactions shall be condemned indeed, but not on the name of defending a freedom of speech that contributes to spreading Islamophobia.
Prejudice against Muslims is one of the many regrettable consequences of extremism and violence by a militant minority among the followers of Muhammad, but it is vital that we recognise that the actions and beliefs of extremists are not synonymous with their religion or ideology. Almost every belief system bears the scars of its followers most infamous horrors – the atrocities of Stalin and Mao still taint atheism in many people's eyes, and Christianity will perhaps always be caricatured by the savage excesses of Inquisition. But when we judge any culture or worldview solely by its worst abuses we risk becoming blind to those innocent people who happen to share a common heritage with scoundrels, and thus stride boldly into bigotry.
The opening image is by the photographer Ridwan Adhami. I found the image here under the title Illume Islamophobia, while Ridwan's photo blog, Ridzdesign, can be found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.