Muhammad Cartoons

— Free Speech in the 21st Century
Jenny Marsh—02/2006
Muslims everywhere are incensed by the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons deriding Islam. Should freedom of speech be curtailed to avoid racial and religious hatred?

FREEDOM OF SPEECH is prized by democracies because only in a climate of free and open communication and debate can the people remain informed on issues that affect their society and thus make an informed choice of government to reflect their best interests. Being informed and the freedom to inform others is therefore the lifeblood of democracy. In fact, it could be argued that up to a point, the level of democracy is proportional to the level of free speech and debate.

Of course, there are limits to free speech: nobody in most free societies can have a platform to incite violence, murder, sexual abuse, racial abuse or any other activity deemed repugnant by the vast majority of people. These limits are encoded in law, the most important of which are called "human rights" — rights which every member country of the United Nations is legally obliged to enforce (although many don't). In more traditional religious societies, the limits to free speech are dictated by religious law in addition to basic human rights, and in practice this religious law will sometimes take precedence over human rights as the two are not always compatible.

The problem with limits to free speech is that, although most would agree they are necessary, it is difficult to find consensus as to what those limits should be, especially amongst the people's of different cultural and religious backgrounds. In most Western democracies, for example, the sanctity of human life comes before ideology and crime (a few democracies still have the death penalty for premeditated murder), whereas theocracies (especially Islamic theocracies) tend to place religious ideology above the sanctity of human life. As a result, although incitement to murder is unlawful in Western democracies, it is not unlawful under Islamic law for serious crimes of blasphemy.

Because no consensus can be reached, different cultures (including different cultures within single nations) will often clash over issues of free speech, as has happened to an alarming degree with the publication last autumn of 12 satirical cartoons in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, deriding the Muslim faith and the prophet Muhammad, cartoons whose publication and recent republication in Europe have sparked riots right across the Islamic world. Some Muslim fundamentalist are so incensed by these cartoons that they are openly calling for the murder of those responsible for producing and publishing the images — ironically confirming message of the cartoons that highlights the violent nature of Islamic fundamentalism. For example, boards in London demonstrations have read: "EUROPE YOU WILL PAY, 9/11 IS ON ITS WAY!!!!" and "BE PREPARED FOR THE REAL HOLOCAUST".

Moderate Muslims, although deeply insulted by the cartoons, are no doubt embarrassed by their extremist brothers and sisters who are using the situation to invoke a holy jihad against the West for insulting Muhammad (they claim it is forbidden in Islam to depict the prophet Muhammad, let alone depict him in a disrespectful manner). Unfortunately, their calls for the murder of those responsible, their flag-burning threatening protests and their sacking of Scandinavian/EU embassies have served only to bolster Islam's global image as an intolerant and violent religion. (There is no doubt that these riots have been exacerbated by the recent and illegal invasion by the US and UK of countries in the Middle East and the subsequent slaughter of over a hundred thousand civilians.)

The Danish cartoons were printed in Denmark where freedom of speech includes the right to satirize religions. If you have not seen them you can find them at www.humaneventsonline.com. Anyone viewing these cartoons outside of the Islamic paradigm (i.e. most of the world) will see that they do make valid sociopolitical observations about Islam, even though from the perspective of Islam itself they are blasphemous. The cartoonist is putting the following criticisms of Islam into the public domain (which of course does not mean that they are valid):

  1. Islam is a brutal religion that encourages violent behaviour as a means to the end of defending radical and fundamentalist views of Islam (views which sometimes contradict the very words of Muhammad himself).
  2. Islam is a strongly patriarchal and sexist religion which regards woman as second class citizens and affords them fewer rights and lower status than men.
  3. Islamic intolerance is a serious threat to free speech and therefore the democratic process worldwide, and as a result of this, those who speak out against Islam are fearful (sometimes for their lives).
  4. Islamic fundamentalism is a time bomb waiting to go off that could destroy the world.

Are these valid criticisms to make? Some will believe they are and some will not. Some will be extremely upset and angered by such observations, whereas others will think that it is about time that Islam itself, and especially its political component, is examined more openly in the free press, rather than constantly hiding behind "sacred" status. (Just because something is religious or sacred does not mean it should be beyond criticism; the shameful abuses of "sacred" belief systems throughout history have been well documented.)

It is a fact that Islam — provoked or unprovoked — is regarded in the West and in other parts of the world as a threat to world peace and personal safety, just as the Bush/Blair governments are and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is. It is a fact that Islam — rightly or wrongly — is widely regarded as repressive to women. And it is a fact that Islamic fundamentalism, like all fundamentalisms, has been used to justify terrible crimes against people around the world, including encouraging suicide bombers with promises of heavenly reward. Just because many of these crimes were in retaliation to Western crimes may afford understanding but not justification from a humanist perspective because they are usually aimed at soft civilian targets, the very people, at least here in London, who protested against the Iraq invasion.

In light of these facts, it is undeniable that Islamic fundamentalism should be open to criticism, just as every other belief system that puts its ideology before basic human rights should be. If Islamic fundamentalism chooses to be ardently political, then it is always going to be open to political satire and criticism. After all, there can never be anything sacred about a religion that incites harm to others — whatever the provocation.

What is not valid, however, is for Muslim anger at these cartoons to be attributed to the sacrilegious depiction of Muhammad. This is a complete red herring because Muhammad has been depicted many times throughout history without a peep of complaint (see www.zombietime.com). Muslim anger is because Islam has been satirized on the backdrop of recent political events in the Middle East.

So the real question here is whether it is right to satirize religions when such criticism will undoubtedly be taken by their followers as deeply disrespectful and a personal attack on their faith. Is such criticism ever justified and does it in any way serve a positive purpose? Fundamentalists would want great swathes of their religion to be completely off-limits to criticism, but is this justified and is it really in the long-term interest of a pluralistic society?

When Monty Python brought out The Life of Brian, a brilliant and amusing portrayal of the blindness of religious dogma in a Christian theme, there was angry reaction from Christians everywhere, but nothing remotely approaching the violent and threatening behaviour of Muslims around the world today in reaction to the Danish cartoons. What is more, The Life of Brian was and is FAR MORE blasphemous than the cartoons. So what was the difference?

The difference is that most Christians, even back in 1979 when The Life of Brian was released, live in modern democracies which temper fundamentalism by a tradition of free speech and open media, which exposes the average Westerner to an array of other belief systems and cultures. Whilst this has not eradicated Christian fundamentalism, true fundamentalism whereby a belief systems is held to the complete exclusion of all others has become less tenable as Westerners have become more conscious of their religious beliefs as beliefs and not as reality itself. This was not always so: when Christian fundamentalism reined supreme in the Middle Ages, it was responsible for the murder of millions of mostly women in its diabolical period of witch burning.

If one lives in a society or culture in which there is little consciousness of belief systems, then any attack on those systems is experienced as an attack on the foundations of reality itself (and thus God), and this is why fundamentalists react so explosively when they or their belief systems are criticized. In other words, fundamentalists do not know how to separate their beliefs from themselves, so if you question or poke fun at their beliefs they take it very very personally. And that is what has happened with Islamic fundamentalist reaction to the Danish cartoons — at its core it is entirely an emotional reaction to a feeling of personal attack as a direct result of a fundamentalist or absolute religious world-view. (Again, in this case this feeling of personal attack has been escalated by recent events in the Middle East.)

The role of religious satire? By mocking those it is aimed at and their ideas, satire serves the important function of challenging the absolute nature of religious belief and the authority of religious leaders, and encouraging religious followers to see themselves as individuals exercising religious choices and beliefs rather than children of God whose sole responsibility is to unquestioningly follow their religious leaders' instructions (which may include murder and other violations of UN recognized human rights). This challenge to religious belief is fundamental to pluralistic societies because only by having a relative and post-modernist world-view in which beliefs are seen for what they are can we have true social tolerance and integration, both between cultures and between nations.

Fundamentalist communities can be extremely controlling and abusive (in regards to internationally recognized human rights) and so it is essential that they are challenged where they appear to contravene human rights. For example, it is only as the Catholic church has weakened that the full scale of its child abuse (especially in Ireland) has come to public attention. Had the fundamentalism of the Church reigned supreme over secular government, it might have been unlawful to even accuse a priest of misappropriate conduct. The same applies to the control of women in Muslim cultures: as long as Islamic fundamentalism is set in place, although we know it exists, we will never know the extent of abuse and suppression of Muslim women because the fundamentalist system itself hides it (and Muslim women are programmed to believe that such treatment is normal and are too afraid to speak out).

The truth is that fundamentalism just does not have a place in a global and pluralistic world community because, by its very nature, it will always be at loggerheads with all opposing beliefs and viewpoints. Fundamentalism is intolerant by definition. If the world were just full of religious fundamentalists — Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish — without a doubt Armageddon would have already occurred. So criticism of intolerance in the free press using such devices as religious satire is fundamental to world peace, even though it may spark anger and riots in the short term. Fundamentalism of all kinds must be challenged because it is the gravest threat to world stability and the our children's future.

It is always amusing when fundamentalists talk about the need for legalized respect for their faith when those who complain most vociferously about religious satire will often use it in their own media. The Muslim press, for example, is notorious for its satirical portrayal of Jews and Christians. However, if you are a fundamentalist, your religion is the only true religion, so very few fundamentalists even comprehend this double standard. This is the problem with fundamentalism of any kind… it leaves no room for other people with other beliefs, period. And such a position in a modern global community is increasingly untenable. Everybody cannot keep tip-toeing around fundamentalists in the hope of not annoying them because fundamentalists will always have anger and intolerance towards anybody who does not share their dogma and obey their rules.

What is most disturbing about fundamentalist backlashes such as this Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons is that the leaders of fundamentalist communities are generally far less fundamentalist because of their interaction with individuals, cultures and beliefs outside their community. This means that these leaders will often incite angry and violent backlashes because they are following a political agenda rather than merely reacting from religious fundamentalist intolerance. In this way, whilst the vast majority of Muslim fundamentalists doing the looting and burning are actually sincere in their anger (although misguided and ignorant), they are likely to have been manipulated by leaders looking to stir up "mob-rule" for their own ends. It is these leaders who are ultimately responsible for the damage and violence caused by these riots, and for subsequent murders of perceived "enemies of Islam".

When Iraq was invaded by the US and UK, millions of us here in Europe and in the US opposed this illegal invasion on grounds of international law and a humanist perspective. In other words, we opposed the invasion precisely because we are NOT religious fundamentalists, and so could put the sanctity of human life and the sovereignty of nations above religious ideology. Otherwise the terrible plight of Arab people might have been regarded as retribution for being unbelievers and infidels, for fundamentalism separates us from them, making "them" second-class citizens who deserve every misfortune they get for not bowing to "our" god and following "our" rules. It was actually the Christian fundamentalists in the US who most strongly backed Bush in his illegal invasions and mass-murder in the Middle East because of a deep-held desire to see Armageddon prophecy fulfilled and therefore Christ's return. This is fundamentalism at its worse — playing ideology before the sanctity of human life.

The free European press spoke out against the oppression of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan because it believed it was fundamentally wrong. From its humanist perspective it is able separate a person from the beliefs he or she holds. The fact that many Iraqis and Afghans were Muslims did not make the slightest difference to concerns for their welfare and for their national sovereignty. Had the press been fundamentalist however, that support for basic humanity would have been dangerously diluted by religious ideology.

Now the very free press and humanist view that supported the Muslim (Arab) world these past few years since 9/11 by questioning Blair and Bush's reasons for war is being vilified by Muslims for questioning their own fundamentalist beliefs. But you cannot have your cake and eat it too: the free press, even though it may occasionally insult and mock our most precious beliefs, plays a vital role in red-flagging abuse and inhumanity everywhere. In fact, it could be argued that free speech and a free press are the main civilizing factors in any society, and the reason that countries like the US do not appear very civil these days is because their press is no longer free but owned and controlled by corporate America which has turned it into a pro-Bush propaganda mill. Societies that allow freedom of speech to be eroded, because that freedom is stepping on the toes of special interest groups (corporate, religious or political) quickly retreat to the Dark Ages.

Pluralistic societies must not pander to the sensibilities of special interest groups because, by doing so, it sows the seeds of exclusion and thus destruction. Yes, those Danish cartoons were insulting to Muslims everywhere, but that is the nature of free press in examining and criticizing beliefs that many hold so strongly that they cannot criticize them for themselves. And nothing can be as dangerous as ideology that is not examined… the Nazi example in the 1920s and 30s bears testimony to that: the free press was one of the first victims of Nazi Germany because it was the one thing that could have stopped evil ideology congealing into a national religion.

There is no doubt that the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons has eroded some of the goodwill and support they have enjoyed from the free European press. And calls by Muslims for a muzzled press only hinders rather than helps their cause in pluralistic societies. But fundamentalism is notoriously short-sighted, and it will undoubtedly continue unconsciously on its path of trying to eradicate everything that ideologically opposes it, a path that can only lead to destruction.




The author is aware that there are millions of moderate Muslims around the world, most in secular and pluralistic societies. This article is aimed specifically at Islamic fundamentalists in light of their unlawful reaction to the Danish cartoons, and at religious fundamentalism in general for the terrible suffering it has caused through the ages. May fundamentalism's days be numbered.

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Today (9th Feb 06) I was sent a disturbing piece of writing by Richard Oxman which you can read here: http://www.selvesandothers.org/article13087.html

I agree with Oxman that there is a double standard in that in Western society it is easier to be anti-Islam than anti-Jewish for two reasons: Jewish people are largely integrated in Western societies and so have more voice on legal limits to publication; and secondly the Jewish religion is very much synonymous with the Jewish people and so to mock their religion can be more easily defined as racism. Islam, on the other hand, is the religion of many diverse people and so it is harder to pin the race card on anti-Islamic satire. Personally, I believe that ALL ideologies should be open to criticism, especially when they are fundamentalist ideologies.

What is most disturbing about Oxman's "Holocaust Contest" piece is that it mocks a terrible crime — the Holocaust — and not an ideology. It makes light of one of the darkest moments in modern history for the sake of striking back at the primary enemy of the Muslim people. The Danish cartoons, however, were a satire against Islamic fundamentalism, and the points it made should be discussed because Islamic fundamentalism, which has been fertilized by many decades of Western meddling in the Middle East, is a serious threat to world peace, just as Christian fundamentalism is in its support of George Bush, and Jewish fundamentalism is in its continued treatment of the Palestinians as second-class citizens. All of these should be examined because all of them damage our collective humanity by preaching separation, superiority and intolerance.

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This article was written to complement another written by the author entitled Anti-Semitism and Free Speech.