The Political Uses of Free Speech


I empathize with those baffled by the rapidly spiraling controversy around the series of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad.

 

The cartoons were first published in the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, nearly five months ago, in September. The initial protest was limited to Denmark‘s Muslim minority but was brushed off by both government and civil society. This is when some of the ultra- conservative Danish imams took matters into their own hands and set off for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with a dossier containing the inflammatory cartoons. Last week came the diplomatic explosion: Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in Denmark and Libya shut its embassy. There followed the boycott of Danish goods, demonstrations, strikes, flag-burning, and now fires set to embassies in Damascus and Beirut.

 

All this before the disclosure that a Danish illustrator had in April 2003 submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten, only to receive an email from the paper’s Sunday editor: “I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them.”

 

One wonders about the intensity of the protests. Especially since 9/11, Prophet Muhammad has been vilified in print by several public figures, from Reverend Franklin Graham — son of Billy Graham and spiritual advisor to President, George W. Bush — who has publicly called Islam “an evil and wicked religion” to Reverend Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who called Prophet Mohammed “a demon-possessed pedophile” during a keynote address. But none evoked the tide of public protest as have the cartoons.

 

When the paper at the centre of the controversy apologized on its website because the cartoons had “indisputably offended many Muslims,” the right-wing European press, outraged by this “caving in,” took up the cause. Led by France Soir in Paris and Die Welt in Berlin, they began to re-print the cartoons, sometimes on the front page with the original frame blown up. Other papers, including the left-leaning Der Tagesspiegel in Germany, joined. “It’s the core of our culture,” Die Welt’s editor-in-chief told the British Guardian, “that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire.”

 

Everyone agrees that the cartoons are offensive, and not particularly because they portray the Prophet in human form. [After all, you can see such depictions in both Ottoman Turkish and Persian miniatures, as well as in contemporary Iran.] At the heart of the offense is their message. One cartoon depicts the Prophet wearing a turban which turns out to be a bomb with a lit fuse. Another has him tell a queue of ragged suicide bombers: “Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.” The no-frills genre of the cartoon conveys the message starkly and without qualification: this is a terrorist and sexist religion.

 

Why do we not draw the conclusion that those who protest against their Prophet being depicted as a terrorist are in reality distancing themselves from terrorism, in fact, demonstrating against it? I suppose because we realize that there is more to the demonstrations than just a vote for or against terrorism. That something more depends on the context of the demonstrations.

 

I wish to draw attention to two different contexts: Muslim-majority countries and Europe. In both cases, the protests have an overwhelming local significance.

 

The demonstrations in Muslim-majority countries include a variety of contradictory forces. For one, in this period ushered in by Hamas’ astonishing electoral victory, pro-American governments are anxious about Islamist mobilization and eager to preempt it. Rather than curb, they would wish to claim ownership of the demonstrations. At the same time, those shut out of public life, extremist or not, realize they have found an issue on which they can call their governments to account without fear of facing direct repression; so they press home their point that the War on Terror their governments have joined unreservedly is at its core a war against Islam and Muslims. Here, then, is an issue which allows local civil society an opportunity to exercise freedom of speech to confront their own governments, alongside those of Europe.

 

In Europe, too, there is a local and an equally complex dimension to the protests. The official American- British dissent from the governmental chorus in Europe neatly echoes the divide on the question of Turkey‘s admission into Europe. One is struck about how quickly the issue of free speech has folded into that of civilization versus darkness. The shift has enormous significance for the European debate. If the issue is one of free speech, there is no necessary reason why Christian Europe should be seen to be a principled defender of free speech, and Muslim Europe in disagreement in principle. But if the issue is recast as one of enlightenment versus barbarism by Europeans, then surely there is hardly a Muslim who would be in doubt as to which side of the contest he or she is supposed to represent. For those looking for an apt analogy to understand the significance of the cartoon controversy, it would not be an insensitive satirizing of Jesus that devout Christians would find blasphemous, a religious transgression, but an anti-Semitic hate cartoon that would alarm all decent people, secular or religious.

 

The group best placed to sense the gravity of this moment is that of European Muslims. More than anyone else, they must be acutely aware that the depiction of Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist and sexist goes beyond a general demonization of Muslims to a direct assault on Muslims in Europe. Surely, even the most assimilated must realize that the demand that they accept not just the principle of free speech but unconditionally support its every use as the price of political and social acceptance in Europe is a thinly disguised demand that European Muslims renounce their own freedoms and capitulate.

 

It is difficult to ignore the emerging European consensus that it is not just freedom of speech, but Europe‘s secular civilization, that is at stake. It recalls times when both left and right have portrayed empire as a necessary defense of civilization, at first equated with Christianity and later human rights.

 

Is there a way out of this confrontation, other than calling on European governments to ban the publication of cartoons? I fervently hope there is. And this brings me to the source of my current bafflement.

 

Every morning, as I read the paper or surf the internet, I anxiously look for significant European voices — not from government but from the world of the intellect and the arts — that would distance themselves from this particular attempt to promote Islamophobia as an exercise in free speech. I eagerly await signs of a lively debate within European civil society, one that will break the current impasse with testimony that the intellectual and political children of those who fought fascism in Europe have not lost the ability to recognize and the courage to fight hate speech in a different form. I eagerly wait for them to exercise their freedom of speech.

 

For now, unfortunately, free speech is being used on both sides of this controversy, on the one hand as a license for hate speech, and on the other as a way to trigger a broader contest that would echo a ‘clash of civilizations.’ If there are passionate defenders of free speech on both sides, there are also those who recognize that this issue has the potential of driving a broader political agenda. It is time the defenders of free speech pay attention to the latter effect. The exercise of free speech has never come free of consequences, for one and all. This is why every society defines that which is offensive which you may have a legal right to say, but will morally refrain from saying; but should you not, then it should not be surprising that it offends most decent people.

 

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