Freedom of speech no justification for cartoons

Ahmed Kayssi
Ahmed Kayssi

Often ironic and satirical in tone, cartoons have long served as a medium for critique and commentary, sometimes with devastating effects. Nazi publications, for example, routinely portrayed Jews as sinister and dark figures deserving of discrimination and abuse. Today, these cartoons serve as a poignant reminder of the role that the media has played in promoting hatred and intolerance in the atrocities that marked the past century.

A few months ago, the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten commissioned cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed after a Danish author complained that he couldn’t find a cartoonist to portray the Prophet in an upcoming book. Under the pretext of defending free speech, the conservative newspaper subsequently published 12 cartoons, including one of a grim-looking bearded man, wearing a turban that is in fact a bomb bearing the Islamic creed: “There is no divinity but God and Mohammed is his prophet.” Danish Muslims and Muslim ambassadors who protested in Copenhagen were told that the cartoons did not violate Danish law, and that freedom of speech was paramount to the Danes.

The protest has since escalated into what Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently described as a “global crisis.” The Danish embassies in Syria and Lebanon were sacked by angry crowds, and a costly boycott of Danish goods has taken place throughout the Muslim world, where daily protests and Danish flag burnings are now common. In a show of support for the Danish publication, newspapers in Spain, France, Norway, and Germany have reprinted the cartoons, further fuelling the crisis. In Canada, the University of Prince Edward Island’s student newspaper, The Cadre, was censored by the University for publishing the cartoons. When interviewed by the CBC, The Cadre’s editor Ray Keating said that the “newspaper’s staff felt they had to take a stand in favour of freedom of speech.”

So what is all the fuss about? Surely, Muslims can’t expect their religion to be treated any differently than Christianity or any other belief system that is regularly mocked in Western press. After all, in a free and open society, everything is fair game for portrayal and satire.

Well, not exactly. In Canada, we have criminal statutes that outlaw hate propaganda, which is defined as “communicating statements, other than in private conversation, that wilfully promote hatred against any identifiable group.” Since the Prophet Mohammed is the highest moral authority in Islam, depicting him as a violent murderer is not only extremely insulting to Muslims, it also implies that their religion condones terrorism, an accusation that the vast majority of Muslims vigorously reject. One doesn’t need a doctorate in law to appreciate that such stereotypes promote hatred and undermine the goodwill of any multicultural society.

While it may seem that the Muslim outrage about the Danish cartoons is an attempt to subvert criticism or debate about the tenets of the Muslim faith, Muslims are strongly encouraged by their religious teachers to discuss their religion with their neighbours and friends. And Islam has certainly been the subject of harsh criticism in Western media, especially in a post-9/11 world. Nothing, however, has ever generated such a strong reaction, partly because the cartoons took aim at one of the most sacred figures in Islam.

It is important to consider that every culture sets its own limits on where civilized debate ends and gratuitous insults begin. To Muslims, caricaturing or depicting the Prophet is an intolerable offence, regardless of the intent. Just like publishing cartoons ridiculing the terrible living conditions of many Aboriginal peoples or demeaning persons with physical disabilities would be extremely distasteful, perhaps even illegal, in North America, Muslims react with equal outrage to any belittling of their Prophet. Muslim anger may be difficult to understand in a secular society accustomed to the mockery of religious symbols, but the very essence of multiculturalism is for different views to coexist in harmony and respect.

To many people, European protests of freedom of speech ring hollow. In France, Germany and Austria, questioning the occurrence of the Holocaust is a criminal offence that carries a prison sentence. It is a “freedom of speech” that these societies have agreed to forgo because of the terrible crimes that they have committed against Jews. It seems, then, that some Europeans accept the limitation of their freedom of speech under certain circumstances, but not when dealing with Muslim sensitivities.

The violent response in some Muslim countries has not helped to resolve this matter. Nothing can be said in defence of these inexcusable and shameful acts, except that many Muslim countries are still journeying along the tortuous path to political maturity. Ironically, burning Danish flags and violating European embassies in Muslim countries only reinforces the very racist stereotypes promoted by Jyllands-Posten, and should be condemned by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

To prevent such a global crisis from reoccurring, journalists must realize that there is a fine line separating debate promoting criticism from intemperate insults that disrupt the social fabric. Most importantly, where that line is drawn cannot be determined unilaterally, especially not in a world that is growing closer every day.

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