Danish Cartoons Wars, If at First You Don’t Succeed …

Danish Cartoons Wars, If at First You Don’t Succeed …

When the Danish cartoons became an international incident in 2006, I wrote an article discussing in detail many aspects of the controversy at that time. The American Muslim also published more than 30 articles discussing this issue.

We are now revisiting this issue as the cartoons have been re-published in over a dozen Danish papers following the arrest of three men accused of planning to assassinate one of the cartoonists. The papers have said that they decided to republish the cartoons in response to this and to make a stand for free speech and freedom of expression. Why this was necessary after the OIC and many other Muslim organizations had already denounced those who called for violence or the murder of the cartoonist is an interesting question.

Once again we are seeing protests in Pakistan, young people rioting in Denmark’s immigrant areas which has now gone on for seven nights , calls for a total boycott of Denmark by Kuwaiti MP’s and by an Arab consumer group, and diplomatic difficulties (Iran has summoned the Danish envoy to discuss this incident). Danish Imam’s are appealing to the youth to stop the rioting, and also expressed their concern about the reprinting of the offensive cartoon.

Iman Abdul Wahid Petersen, a Danish Imam also criticized the newspapers. “The Danish media have not understood that it is important to have impartial grounds in any debate,” he said. “It is not impartial to spit your opponent in the face.”

The issue is being hijacked both by Islamophobes and by some Muslims. There is no point in appealing to the Islamophobes, but Muslims must attempt to reach those vulnerable to overreacting to provocation and making them see that not only is violence not the appropriate Islamic response, but it will only make things worse for everyone.

This is an important issue and highlights a worsening problem particularly in Europe with its large, primarily Muslim immigrant population in countries who were in the past more familiar with being the colonial power overseas than with being a multi-cultural society at home.

The United States also has to deal with the issues of multiculturalism and freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but it has fewer difficulties to overcome because of the strong commitment to these principles developed over a history formed by successive waves of immigrant populations. Americans strongly support free speech and often quote the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Because all of this is new to Europe, and because Europe has so many existing laws regarding blasphemy, the discourse there will be different than the discourse in the U.S.

Whether in Europe or the U.S. it is important to remember that what is blasphemous to one group may be sacred to another group, and that whatever laws we enact or conventions we impose will have consequences. The laws protecting free speech protect us all – although free speech protects critics of Islam, it also protects Muslims to express themselves.

As Charles Haynes a senior scholar at the First Amendment center has pointed out: “Religious groups should remember that the very power that protects them today can be used against them tomorrow,” said Haynes. “What is blasphemous to one group is sacred to another; we don’t want the government deciding which it is.”

There is a European take on this, an American take and a Muslim take – sometimes overlapping, and sometimes difficult to reconcile. Whatever lessons are to be learned the discussion should focus on clarifying the complex issues involved.

Motivation is certainly an issue, now, as it was the first time around.

The first time around I noted: ”Why were these cartoons published in the first place. Reading through the hundreds of articles that have been published about this incident, the intention seems to have been to spark debate on whether there is still freedom of expression in Denmark and Europe (particularly after the murder of Theo van Gogh). The paper, commissioned the drawings because they believed that non-Muslim artists were self-censoring due to fear of reprisals and death threats, and the paper wanted to make a statement about free speech. However, if they wanted to make a point about press freedom, they should have also considered the possible effects such cartoons might have in an environment of growing Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism in Europe. Why choose this time to increase tensions and focus on negative perceptions of Islam. Even if they did not mean to cause such an uproar, they must have realized that in this age of the internet and instant communication they were publishing materials that would be seen around the world in a matter of hours and whose effect was not limited to an internal Danish discussion of free speech. The bottom line is that these 12 cartoons were commissioned “on a dare” that no paper would be willing to published material that insulted Islam, and they were published all at the same time, leading one to believe that there was at least an element of deliberate provocation involved.”

In both incidents many Muslims see this as an attack on Islam itself.

“On an interview with Newsnight, the cultural editor of the offending Danish newspaper that published the cartoons, described how Muslims should accept “our ways” if they wish to live in Europe. This is how we do things, has been the resounding message. The implication is that Europe is “we” and Muslims are “they”. Muslims need to be concerned by this subtlety, by the inherent mistrust and misportrayal of Islam and Muslims. The cartoons and all the subsequent dramas that have unfolded reveal a deep vein of hatred and mistrust of Muslims, who are tolerated in the West, on ransom of accepting “our” values.” Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

“In today’s world, it is not only popular, but also acceptable to defame Islam and to desecrate Islamic symbols. What we need to understand, or least consider is that the people who are attacking, are not only after Islam, they are after religion. They have started with Islam because it’s an easy, and popular thing to do.” Anisa Abd el Fattah

“I congratulate the editors for killing the spirit of freedom of speech and instigating another wave of outrage from the Muslim world that is already in disarray. They showed us that freedom of speech is not about the right to express your ideas; it is to insult religions, invoke hatred and propagate unrest and demolishing the foundation of co-existence. They showed how extremism can be fuelled and reactions ignited.” Dr Haroon Junaidi

The free speech argument has begun to wear a little thin even among those of us who support the principle of freedom of speech. This is especially true since Jyllands Posten the paper that initiated this new round was also the paper that ran the cartoons the first time around, and is the same paper that had refused to print cartoons of Jesus that it deemed offensive. “The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.” Because Jyllands Posten refused to publish the Jesus cartoon, but found no problem with publishing the Muhammad cartoons – this certainly raises the issue of just how important freedom of speech is when it conflicts with their own religious views. If they really feel so strongly about press freedom then this undermines their position.

And, as American First Amendment attorney Terry Francke has pointed out, simply describing the cartoons is sufficient for professional coverage of the controversy: “Sometimes a few words are worth a thousand pictures, especially when the controversy is about ‘the very idea’ of a certain act of expression.”

As I noted previously: “… if the goal was a discussion of free speech, why not commission cartoons attacking some cherished aspect of Christianity. Why not commission cartoons of Jesus? If they truly believed that “their” cherished value of free speech was being threatened by Muslim reactions to what Muslims considered blasphemy, what better way to show their own tolerance than by attacking their own religious beliefs. … Whatever limitations we place on free speech require careful consideration in order to protect the rights of all. There is not unanimous agreement on the answers to these questions, and the laws vary from country to country, and even from state to state within the U.S.”

At least they should be able to come up with something new. ”So come on, Danish newspaper editors, let’s see some cojones. Desecrate a few idols, push some old lady icons down the stairs and damn the consequences. Then we can all revel in how modern and free and European we all are. But don’t just pick on one weak minority over and over: there’s a word for that and it’s called bullying.” Faisal al Yafai

“Now, if there is a fresh wave of protests, will they counter by printing more obscene and unacceptable material and continue an exercise that breeds only hatred and violence instead of tolerance and understanding? It is clear that editors behind this move have displayed a despicable level of ignorance as their actions stand to sour the atmosphere in an environment just returning to normal.” Khaleej Times

Free Speech

The law generally allows that there are limitations on free speech, e.g. defamation of another, inciting to riot, endangering the public safety (the famous “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” example).

Free speech can’t be limited just because it offends someone. Almost any speech will be offensive to someone. If we limit a particular form of free speech because it offends “us”, what happens when “we” offend “them”. Are then no limitations on free speech. How are the existing limitations justified?

In the opening phrase of the Declaration of Independence, the founders of this country proclaimed it as self-evident that human beings have permanent and inviolate rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution stipulates that among those liberties is the right of free speech.

According to the ACLU, “… the First Amendment exists precisely to protect the most offensive and controversial speech from government suppression. The best way to counter obnoxious speech is with more speech. Persuasion, not coercion, is the solution.”

Do we have unlimited free speech anywhere?

Europe has multiple anti-hate laws. For example, questioning any aspect of the holocaust is illegal in Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Austria. In the UK, you can go to jail for inciting racial hatred under the Public Order Act. Norway outlaws threats and insults to people based on skin color, nationality, outlook on life and sexual preference.

There has been a recent tendency in Western countries towards the repeal or reform of blasphemy laws, and these laws are only infrequently enforced where they exist. However, blasphemy laws still exist in several countries, such as in Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, Ireland, The Netherlands, Spain, and United Kingdom. In the U.S., the First Amendment guarantees a relatively unlimited right of free speech, although some US states still have blasphemy laws on the books. Chapter 272 of the Massachusetts General Laws Section 36.

Britain has a religious hatred law. Australia has a law against “racial vilification” as do Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Italy.

Even in the U.S. there have been limits to free speech. In Seattle a TV show called “Mike Hunt TV” was taken off the air because a content review board determined that free speech was being abused and the program was simply obscene. Everyone has heard about the battles over Howard Stern, and the recent TV program “Daniel” which was pulled after only couple of episodes. Therefore there are limits. What these limits are and where to draw a line is a much more difficult proposition.

When the incident happened recently involving nooses hung from a tree in a Southern state, President Bush noted that “Displaying one is not a harmless prank.” Questions have been raised about whether flying the Confederate flag might be seen as intimidation. We need to defend the rights of minorities and also defend free speech, and finding a way to do that may take some serious soul searching.

“Look, let’s have a true debate about the future of our society. Muslims have to understand there is free speech in Europe, and that is that. On the other side, there needs to be an understanding that sensitive issues must be addressed with wisdom and prudence, not provocation. Just because you have the legal right to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. You have to understand the people around you. Do I go around insulting people just because I’m free to do it? No. It’s called civic responsibility.” Tariq Ramadan

As an appendix to this article is a partial list of previous incidents sparking protest and highlighting the confusion regarding the issue of free speech. It is obvious in looking over these incidents that there is a lot of confusion about this issue, and they raise a number of questions which are at the root of this issue.

Two glaring examples of this confusion can be seen in the recent Malaysian confiscation of Bibles, and in the the Geert Wilders anti-Qur’an film to be released next month in the Netherlands. Mr. Wilders defends his right to do so on free speech grounds while at the same time demanding that the Qur’an be banned because according to his beliefs it is a dangerous book. There are a lot of folks who don’t see that you can’t have it both ways.

Questions raised by all of these incidents

Does the first amendment protect an individuals rights to hang a noose from a tree? Does an individual have a right to deny the holocaust? How about the right to use derogatory words? Does free speech include the right to disparage the religion of others? their race? Do we have any obligation to try to put a lid on the expression of opinions that inflame or justify racial or religious hatred?

Do acts of civil disobedience fall under freedom of speech – how about some of the Patriot act provisions? Should religiously offensive statements fall under a “special circumstances” rule? Is any particular value – freedom of speech, public order and safety, or the sanctity of religion more important than the other? Is it possible to find an acceptable line between upholding freedom of speech and respecting and defending what many people deem to be sacred. Did reprinting the Muhammad cartoon lead to a public debate on free speech or simply to more intolerance and confusion?

There are ethical issues here of individuals exercising civic responsibility or not – but would it make sense to make this a legal issue? Something might be legally permitted but not ethically advisable.

What we have is a lot of questions, and a very real incident that in the current political climate may contribute not to a productive dialogue but to pushing us all further down the road towards an avoidable clash of civilizations.

Partial list of incidents sparking protest and highlighting confusion regarding the issue of free speech:

This past July Spanish police carried out raids to remove cartoons that were considered offensive to the Spanish Royal family – “Spanish police were ordered to raid newsagents across the country yesterday to remove copies of a satirical magazine deemed to have offended the country’s royal family by publishing a cartoon of the heir to the throne having sex. The cartoon on the front cover of El Jueves magazine showed Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia in the midst of an ardent session of love-making.”

Also in July – “Israel’s ambassador to Norway has
complained to press regulators about a cartoon showing Israeli PM Ehud Olmert as a Nazi concentration camp commander.” and further said this cartoon goes beyond the bounds of free speech.

In September, The Catholic League demanded an apology from The Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia’s student newspaper for cartoons that it considered anti-Christian cartoons.

In April of 2006 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Pasadena, California school’s decision that a student could not wear a t-shirt that said, “I will not accept what God has condemned” and “Homosexuality is shameful – Romans 1:27” because this violated the rights of gay and lesbian students at the school.

In 1988 “… an Austrian court acting on a complaint submitted by the Catholic diocese of Innsbruck had prohibited the Otto Preminger Institut from showing the film The Council of Love, based on Oskar Panizza’s controversial (and allegedly strongly anti-Catholic) theater play. The judges referred to article 108 of the Austrian Penal Code banning “religious denigration.” In 1994, to the profound dismay of free speech defenders, the sentence was endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights, relying on a provision of the European Convention on the “rights of others.” The ECHR has tended indeed to show far more deference to state interference in freedom of expression where the speech has a religious or moral content than is the case with political or other forms of speech.

“The Life of Brian” a Monty Python film was objected to by both Jews and Christians, and was banned in many communities in Britain.

Pepsi was forced by a boycott and protests to discontinue an ad featuring a video of Madonna singing “Like a Prayer”.

Members of the Harvest Assembly of God Church in Penn Township burned books, videos and CDs that they judged “offensive to their God.”

Christian groups across the U.S. protested a film about the life of sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, and sought “legislation and will punish sponsors of lewd entertainment.”

Christians in Pakistan protested what they considered “blasphemous” remarks made about Jesus in a newspaper review of the book the “Da Vinci Code”. They demanded that the newspaper be closed, for which they threatened protests outside the Lahore Press Club and other important places.

Christians in the U.S. filed lawsuits, promoted boycotts and launched campaigns aimed at restoring references to Christ in seasonal celebrations.

Hindus demanded withdrawal of a British “Christmas” postage stamp they found insulting to their religion.

45,000 complaints came in, and there were demonstrations in London when the BBC aired a program “Jerry Springer: the Opera” considered “blasphemous” by many Christians. Christian lawyers were contacted, to consider whether it was possible to prosecute the BBC under the Common Blasphemy Law, last used in 1977.

Parents at a Colorado school objected to a library book and got permission to hold a book burning.

Christians protested the change from B.C. to B.C.E. as they saw it as an attack on Christianity.

Christian groups protested a music video by Jessica Simpson that they considered indecent.

Catholic Nuns protested outside of the set for the “Da Vinci Code” film.

Christian groups protested “civil unions” for gays.

Nearly a thousand Catholics gathered and prayed in front of Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art to express their outrage at an exhibit they considered blasphemous.

Catholics protested “blasphemy” in a California art display.

Currently Hindu Americans are protesting against the portrayal of Hinduism in school textbooks in California. The textbooks “call Hanuman, a god worshipped for his loyalty and protection, the “monkey king.” One exercise tells students that Hanuman loved Rama (a Hindu god) so much that some believe he appears every time the Ramayana (ancient Sanskrit epic) is read. “So look around — see any monkeys?” the passage taunts.”

A cartoon that appeared in an American newspaper using the Star of David (a symbol of Judaism, not of Zionism) in a political cartoon was objected to as being an echo of Nazism and anti-Semitic.

Two senior BBC executives, directly involved in the broadcast of “Jerry Springer: the Opera” were provided special security by the corporation following “threatening’’ calls after their telephone numbers were posted on the website of a Christian group, leading the protest. Security was also tightened at a Central London theater showing the opera.

a cartoon published in a University of Oregon student newspaper, The Insurgent, “ … has angered students, local Catholic organizations and now involves national cable TV commentator Bill O’Reilly. Many say the cartoons in the March issue overstep the First Amendment and want university President Dave Frohnmayer to step in. The conservative O’Reilly says Frohnmayer is a coward who should be fired and that the issue is one of hate, not free speech.”

In response to an art exhibit in New Mexico that was considered blasphemous by Catholics, the Mexican Cardinal Carrera wrote: “We cannot keep silent nor be indifferent before such a monstrous attack on the religious convictions and sentiments of our Mexican people who are mostly Catholic. It seems to us to be deeply lamented that in the name of culture and freedom in your country, our culture should be attacked at its very root.”

In March 2004 over a thousand Orthodox Christians gathered in central Moscow’s Pushkin Square to protest the building of a Hare Krishna temple on the northwestern outskirts of the city. The group said that they were protesting because the Hare Krishna faith was not “traditionally Russian”. The organizers also gathered 20,000 signatures on a petition not to allow the building of the temple.

Moreover, Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act permits the FBI to seek records from bookstores and libraries of books that a person has purchased or read, or of his or her activities on a library’s computer. This change puts people at risk for exercising their free speech rights to read, recommend, or discuss a book, to write an email, or to participate in a chat room, and thus could have the effect of chilling constitutionally protected speech. It also denies booksellers and library personnel the free speech right to inform anyone, including an attorney, that the FBI has asked for someone’s reading list.

Articles published on The American Muslim Site About the Previous Cartoon Incident:

The Not So Funny Cartoon Capers, Abdul Cader Asmal http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/


The special pair of spectacles, Shahzad Aziz


“Denmark and Islam: Facts and Fiction.”, Bertel Haarder


The Best Defense, Ahson Azmat


Self-Censorship, Dr. Robert D. Crane


The Right to Slander God?, Ann Kathrin G?sslein


A Call to Conscience and a Reminder to the Muslims, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf


Free Speech or Hate Speech?, Faisal Kutty


Cartoon Awakening: Toward A Positive Media Strategy, Ramzy Baroud


Those Danish Muhammad Cartoons, Gary Leupp


Danish Cartoons – Expression of Freedom or Abuse of Speech?, Dr. Habib Siddiqui


An Idiot’s Guide to Offensive Cartoons, Qadeeb al-Ban Harris


The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification?, Tariq Modood


What is the Cartoon controversy?, Chandra Muzaffar


Cartoons, Voltaire and the Non-Clash of Civilisations, Sajjad Khan


The Danish Cartoons: Emotional Torture, Untamed Violence and Intellectual Terrorism, Dr. Aslam Abdullah


Muslims Deserve the Same Respect as Christians or Jews, Edgar M. Bronfman


What Would Muhammad Do (WWMD), Dr. Hesham Hassaballa


Cartoons and Bombs, John Chuckman


Open Society in a Closed Circle, Shakeel Syed


Rotten in Denmark: Flemming Rose & the Clash of Civilizations, Justin Raimondo


Where Art Meets Ignorance, Ibrahim Mansour


Danish Cartoons: Free Press or Hate Speech?, Louay Safi


Danish Cartoons: Enough Is Enough, Zafarul-Islam Khan


Crazy over Cartoons, Hasan Zillur Rahim


Danish Cartoon Controversy Was Avoidable, Parvez Ahmed


Cartoon Wars: The Challenge for Muslims in the West, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas


Free Speech and Civic Responsibility Tariq Ramadan


Do Muslim Outcries Against Defamation Serve God?, Anisa Abd el Fattah


Freedoms of Expression and Belief, Istiaq Ahmed


Press Misses Point in Cartoon Controversy, Dr. James Zogby


Through the Looking Glass: The Danish Cartoons, Sheila Musaji