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News Analysis


Drawing the line between free speech and bigotry

by Sarah Cameron

Just as we were beginning to fear that artists have become entirely politically disengaged, a Danish newspaper came forward to prove us all wrong. But their political cartoons have been called blasphemous, hypocritical and racist.

The cartoons published on September 30 of last year by the right-wing Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten, were described by the Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah as “an affront for hundreds of millions of people” in an article from Arab news source Al-Jazeera. The twelve cartoons depicted the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, the Prophet halting the entry of Muslims into Heaven with the caption “Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins,” and other images offensive to Muslims.

The months following the publication of the cartoons saw discussion between Danish Muslims, Arab embassies and Danish government officials attempting to come to a diplomatic resolution to the protests and outrage that the cartoons had caused within Danish borders.

It took some time for the cartoons to spread to the Middle East, but as diplomatic talks between Denmark and Middle Eastern nations collapsed, Islamic communities in Europe, the Middle East and Africa began to protest in anger.

So far, the cartoons have incited riots in cities in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Pakistan, Syria, Iran and other Islamic countries, where at least twelve to fourteen individuals have died from police shooting into crowds or stampedes. American and European embassies alike have been attacked or set ablaze.

Denmark was forced to close its missions in the Middle East and it advised all Danes currently in the Middle East to return home. Danish troops in Iraq have come under intensified attacks. The NATO base in Afghanistan—which is used by Norwegian peacekeeping troops—came under siege, and many Danish flags have been set alight. Meanwhile the Iranian and Sudanese governments have suspended all trade with Denmark.

In an apology published by the Danish newspaper on January 30, Editor-in-Chief Carsten Juste stated that the drawings were twelve different depictions of Muhammad by twelve separate artists, and that “the initiative was taken as part of an ongoing public debate on freedom of expression, a freedom much cherished in Denmark.”

But the cartoons represent much more to Muslim immigrants than just an exercise in freedom of speech. In Islam, representational imagery is tricky territory, and depicting Muhammad is considered blasphemous.

Many feel that the cartoons magnified existing European prejudice and racism that had been present for years. When negotiations opened to admit Muslim Turkey into the European Union last October, many conservative Christians (most prominently in France and Germany) gagged at the prospect. In accordance with right wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen’s “immigrants-go-home”sentiment spreading throughout France, a bill was proposed in February that would make it very difficult for low-income immigrants to invite relatives in. The conservative, anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party, a group that publicly compared Muslims to cancer cells, continues to grow stronger in Denmark.

Although it once had one of Europe’s most open immigration policies, the Danish People’s Party in Denmark is now just one of many conservative groups that, echoing President Bush’s War on Terror, consider Islam a terrorist religion and an enemy inside the country. Prominent politicians have used anti-Muslim rhetoric to gain public support.

But as the protests have grown, so has the proliferation of the images. Newspapers across Europe have republished the cartoons, the BBC showed “glimpses” of the images, and the Philadelphia Inquirer joined the ranks on February 4. The Inquirer’s editor defended the decision to publish the cartoons, stating “The Inquirer intends no disrespect to the religious beliefs of any of its readers. But when a use of religious imagery that many find offensive becomes a major news story, we believe it is important for readers to be able to judge the content of the image for themselves.”

Object design SAIC student and Muslim Haseeb Ahmed says that journalistic integrity isn’t the reason for reproduction of the offensive cartoons. “Every other place the cartoon was printed also had ‘immigration problems’ with Muslims. They printed them to discourage immigration—Italy, Germany, Spain, et cetera. In many of these countries Islam is the fastest growing religion, creating fear in those who see it as a threat to their way of life.”

Support has come out for both those who believe that the images are offensive, as well as for those who believe that Islamic communities are overreacting and inhibiting free speech.

Hezbollah, a Lebanese Islamic group dedicated to fighting Israeli occupation, is on the Conservative end of the Islamic spectrum. Hezbollah’s leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has been one of the most prominent voices of criticism of the cartoons. He has also been instrumental in organizing protests among Hezbollah’s Shiite followers. He told the BBC, “We are a nation that can’t forgive, be silent or ease up when they insult our prophet and our sacred values… we are defending the dignity of our prophet with a word, a demonstration, but let George Bush and the arrogant world know that if we have to… we will defend our Prophet with our blood, not our voices.”

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin demonstrated her “solidarity with the [Jyllands-Posten’s] free speech rights” by reposting the cartoons on her own website, and described the protests as a “snit fit” by Muslim leaders. Front Page Magazine also published the cartoons online, stating, “These cartoons are much less offensive than what is routinely printed in every American newspaper about presidents, presidential candidates, and other pols.”

But what both Malkin and Front Page Magazine are missing is that the defense of freedom of speech, as used by the Jyllands-Posten, is simply not enough to justify the publishing of these cartoons. If the case were so clear-cut, would we have such a “global crisis” on out hands?

In an essay published by the Guardian, prominent Islamic academic Tariq Ramadan described the stand-off between those claiming to defend freedom of expression, and those outraged at the cartoons as “an incredible simplification, a gross polarization: apparently a clash of civilizations, a confrontation between principles, with defenders, in one corner, of inalienable freedom of speech and, in the other, of the inviolable sacred sphere.”

On the journalistic side, the defense of freedom of expression fails under the ethical responsibilities accepted by much of the West. Cartoonist Gary Trudeau commented to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Just because a society has almost unlimited freedom of expression… doesn’t mean we should ever stop thinking about its consequences in the real world.”

Looking further into the journalistic ethics of the cartoons is As’ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science at California State University and author of the Angry Arab News Service (, who has described himself as relishing “in the opportunity to mock every other religion.” He elaborated on the perceived over-simplification and the anger that it has caused: “…if you mock all religion, that is consistent, free thinking, in support for the enlightenment, as well as secularism, but what comes out of many in the West is selective secularism, the notion that you can mock one religion, but all others have to be treated with reverence and sacredness. And this is why this entire defense, in the name of freedom of speech, doesn’t sell very much in the Arab world.”

Danish born journalist Jytte Klausen described the Jyllands-Posten in an editorial on as “a conservative paper [which] has always minded the religious and political sensitivities of its readership, the Lutheran farmers and the provincial middle class.” Several months earlier, the newspaper had rejected satirical cartoons of Jesus on the grounds that they would “provoke an outcry” from their readers. Cultural Editor Flemming Rose, who commissioned the Muslim cartoons and took an indefinite leave of absence from the newspaper on February 10, doesn’t have an unbiased record of his own. Juan Cole mentioned, in another article for, that Rose conducted an interview with American academic Daniel Pipes, in which Pipes warned that “many [Muslims] show little desire to fit into their adopted country” and that “male Muslim immigrants made up the majority of the nation’s rapists.” If this is “minding” the political sensitivities of the readership, then perhaps we have an idea of what the bias is behind their distribution of free-speech rights.

In an email interview with F Newsmagazine, writer Noam Chomsky pointed out, “This topic is so suffused by hypocrisy I am reluctant even to comment on it. Doubtless the Philadelphia Inquirer is legally entitled to print a series of anti-Semitic caricatures of Moses, with disgusting captions like those in Jyllands-Posten, and it’s good that US law permits this. Have they done it? As for Jyllands-Posten, they were legally entitled to print cartoons satirizing the resurrection of Jesus, but rejected them, saying it would ‘provoke an outcry.’ Actually in Europe, unlike the U.S., there is only limited protection of freedom of speech. The record in England, France, and elsewhere is disgraceful. Even in the U.S., a high standard of protection of freedom of speech was only reached recently—in 1964, in a case involving Martin Luther King. Before that the U.S. record is awful.

“The issue of ‘freedom of speech clash[ing] with journalistic responsibility’ does not arise for hypocrites who don’t believe in freedom of speech in the first place.”In Britain, the issue of hypocritical distribution of free-speech rights has become a central conflict for protestors against the cartoons. Following a protest by British Muslims on February 4, the Metropolitan Police published a warning to those who may participate in further protests not to parade with “offensive placards.” With reference to the February 4 protests, an assistant police commissioner stated to the BBC that in reviewing surveillance tapes, “we are looking at public order offences and we are looking at incitement to violence… Some of the placards talked about killing. It may be incitement to murder—that is what the Crown Prosecution Service [decided] and that is why we are going to be sending a file to the CPS.” As the law does not protect freedom of speech, protestors may face prosecution for their written reactions against the cartoons, which they defended by invoking the right to free expression.

Politically speaking, this over-simplification would appear to be the “fanning of the flames” described in much of the media coverage. Relations between the Middle East and the West have been volatile for centuries, and have only been made shakier by the actions of both Islamic fundamentalist groups and the U.S. military and its allies. The reaction of prominent Iranian newspaper Hamshahri exemplifies the political tensions that underlie the protests. The Associated Press reported that the paper “invited artists to enter a Holocaust cartoon competition, saying it wanted to see if freedom of expression—the banner under which many Western publications reprinted the Prophet drawings—also applied to Holocaust images.” Following Front Page Magazine’s lead, this would be perfectly acceptable.

David Friedenreich, a lecturer in world religions at Union Theological Seminary in New York, suggested, “Iran is using the Danish cartoon controversy as a means of scoring political points… The Holocaust is ‘sacred’ in the West, and any portrayals that don’t match commonly held beliefs… are illegal and sharply condemned by political leaders. These same leaders, however, raise no objections to negative portrayals of Muhammad, citing freedom of the press. Now European leaders are stuck—how can they criticize the freedom of Iranians to publish malicious cartoons about the Holocaust?” Friedenreich says Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also been using a platform of holocaust denial as a “side-show for the stand-off regarding Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear technology.”

So is the eruption over the Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons simply related to the twelve cartoons, is it “a clash of cultures,” or is it the outpouring of a great deal of not-so-underlying political tension between the Middle East and the United States-allied Western Europe?

Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan and leading authority on the Middle East, said in an editorial on, “The ‘global crisis’ ... has been exacerbated by the decision of the Bush administration to invade Iraq and throw the region into turmoil. It isn’t just about some cartoons. It is about independence and the genuine liberty to define yourself rather than being defined by the imperial West.”

Ali Abunimah, Vice President of the Arab-American Action Network in Chicago, commented to PBS that “this incident in a sense was a spark in a context where since September 11, increasingly people across the Arab and Muslim world perceive themselves to be under a generalized assault by the United States and its allies.”

Abunimah continued, “I think the sense of anger is real, but I do also think that some leaders or some people within the region are also using the issue of the cartoons to whip up anger.”

However, there are those who stand in the middle—devout Muslims who find themselves in disagreement with those protesting the cartoons. A third year undergraduate at SAIC, and illustrator for F Newsmagazine, Feras Khagani stated, “If Muslims truly believed in the path that they are taking, they wouldn’t feel so offended by such immaturities—I know I’m not. Certainly someone who reads this and disagrees with me will turn out to be one of my critics. Will I scream my head off and start a picket line because person ‘A’ [disagrees]? No.  And neither should the Muslims of Arabia.  It’s not worth the energy.”

MARCH 2006