The ‘freedom’ to disrespect

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The furor over cartoons published in a Danish paper last September mocking Islam has not yet ended. One was of the prophet Muhammad wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb, implying that Islam was a terrorist organization. Muslims were outraged because they saw a false image of Islam conveyed and because rendering the images of people and animals are generally prohibited under Islamic tradition.

The printing of the cartoons did not attract much attention at first and might have soon been forgotten. But some Muslims, annoyed by the imposition of strict Danish immigration limits, apparently decided, as part of their campaign against the rules, to agitate in the Middle East, arguing that the cartoons were blasphemous and a serious insult to Islam. This led to attacks on Danish embassies and consulates and on those of other Scandinavian countries, especially Norway.

Protests like the large demonstration by Muslims in London against the Danish Embassy inevitably gave further publicity to the controversy and have, in turn, inflamed anti-Islamic protests.

The cartoons have sparked debate on important issues. One of these is the extent to which the right to freedom of speech and of the press should be curtailed in the interest of fairness and respect for the beliefs of others. It can be argued that freedom of the press is essential to ensure good government and to expose corruption and inefficiency. But even a free press in a democratic country must avoid criminal libel and may be forced to pay significant damages if it publishes false accusations against individuals.

It can hardly be argued that the publication of these cartoons was necessary to ensure good government in Denmark. Nor can it easily be adduced that the images were criminally libelous.

The main argument against their publication was that they amounted to a gratuitous insult against Muslim beliefs and had damaged Scandinavian prestige. The action of the editors who decided to publish these cartoons can therefore be regarded as unwise and unnecessary.

Perhaps, if they had foreseen the consequences, the editors might have decided that there was no public interest justifying publication. This would have amounted to an element of self-censorship, which the Japanese press seems to undertake frequently in the interest of maintaining the kisha club system and which media in other democratic countries must accept from time to time for a variety of self-interested reasons.

Still, the Danish prime minister was surely right to defend the freedom of the press in his country in the face of demands from Muslims for action against the editors and cartoonists responsible for the publication. Freedom of the press should not be curbed simply because Muslims or any other people dislike what is published unless specific laws apply — as with anti-Semitic writings designed to incite acts against Jews.

This leads to the issue of blasphemy, which is still a crime in many jurisdictions. There have been instances in Britain where Jesus Christ has been depicted as a homosexual or a whoremonger. This has understandably outraged Christians who have protested the showing of such works at theaters and on television. Recently the performance of play written by a Sikh and satirizing the Sikh religion was halted by protesting Sikhs.

One problem with banning “blasphemy” is how to define the term and then limit it to really serious slurs against religious beliefs. Thus the British government’s attempt to enact legislation to make it illegal to incite religious hatred, despite support from the Muslim community, has not succeeded so far.

There are fears that if there were such a rule on the books it might be used to prevent serious criticism of pernicious sects. Would it, then, also become an offense to repeat the verses from Dante’s medieval classic poem “Inferno,” which show Muslims and the prophet in the lowest circles of hell?

Some Muslims have demonstrated extreme intolerance and violence toward insults against Islam. Writer Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” aroused Muslim anger and a fatwa (decree) in which Iranian clerics called on Muslims to kill him. He had to go into hiding and be given police protection for years.

Dutch film producer Van Gogh was murdered because he had produced a film showing abuse of women under Islam. This led to other violent incidents in the Netherlands, where it is now illegal for Muslim women to walk around in public with their bodies, head and faces covered in black.

The protests in Britain against the Danish Embassy included people carrying placards urging that those responsible for producing and publishing the cartoons be killed. This would seem to amount to an incitement to violence — a criminal offense — and there have been questions about why police did not arrest those responsible for such posters.

Public fury was also aroused when one protester was shown wearing a mock suicide-bomber jacket, and aggravated when it emerged that he was a convicted drug dealer who had been released on probation (he has since been returned to jail). Fortunately, responsible Muslim leaders in Britain realize that behavior of this kind hurts their cause and have called for restraint.

Inevitably these cartoons and the protests they have triggered have led to speculation about whether the clash between Islam and the rest of the world has finally materialized. Such fears have been fueled by the victory of the extremist Hamas party in recent Palestinian elections and the continuing sectarian violence in Iraq.

Islam is no more monolithic than Christianity. Differences between Shiites and Sunnis, for example, are deep-rooted, and even within these two main sects, doctrinal disputes and organizational problems exist. So the clash should not be exaggerated, but these events do call for increased self-restraint on the part of Islamic organizations, and the media, with regard to sensitive religious issues. Islamic intolerance will only increase enmity toward Islam and exacerbate the clash of civilizations, an outcome sought by the leaders of al-Qaida.