Freedom of speech is central to both democratic government and human dignity. A society whose people are unable to speak freely and criticized establish powers and traditions is doomed to stagnation and servitude. In the absence of critical voices to point out corruption and mismanagement, national wealth would be plundered by those who are trusted to protect public interests. And in the absence of critical minds, innovation and creativity would surely vanish, and science and art would inevitably die.
The modern West emerged from medieval Europe by fighting a political regime which, in the name of order, subordinated vast societal resources to the whims of a careless aristocracy, and by opposing an established church which, in the name of faith, has suffocated free thinking and scientific progress.
It took great sacrifices by many courageous people to establish basic civil liberties that today form the foundation of modern democracy. Foremost among which is free speech which must be protected to ensuring that people can point out with relative ease both corruption and ignorance that erode social fabric and undermine creative thinking.
It is this most important liberty that the editor of Jyllands-Posten cited in justifying the publications of the 12 provocative cartoons, depicting Prophet Mohammed in negative light and insulting Islam and its followers. But was the decision to caricature the Prophet of Islam an exercise in free speech? Or was it an exercise in bigotry and hate speech dressed as free expression?
Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten's culture editor who commissioned the 12 cartoons, made the following comment in providing a rationale for his provocative initiative. “Some Muslims demand a special position,” Rose wrote, “insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context.”
The paper’s editor-in-chief further insisted that the objective of publishing the cartoons was to overcome “self-censorship” exercised by writers and cartoonists when depicting Islam. This explanation turned out to be disingenuous as The Guardian revealed that the same paper turned down anti-Christian cartoons submitted earlier by Christoffer Zeiler. In rejecting the cartoons the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, wrote the following: "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."
Kaiser’s words reveal a healthy sense of responsible freedom, as they underscore the importance of avoiding provocation and insult whose aim is sheer fun and mockery. But what not the same logic was carried out to the decision of commissioning and then publishing the anti-Muslim cartoons?
It is evident that Jylland-Posten’s editors exercised “self-censorship” when they believed that making fun of religious feelings has a “high price.” The freedom of press they claim at bottom a thin façade hiding an ugly bigotry directed particularly against Danish Muslims. Indeed, a 2004 report by a Danish watchdog, the immigrant rights lobbyist organization ENAR, claimed that 19 out of the 24 Jyllands-Posten's editorials on "ethnic issues" published between September 1 and November 20 2004 were negative, while 88 out of 120 op-ed pieces on "ethnic minorities" were negative, and 121 out of 148 letters to the editor on “ethnic minorities” were negative.
Jyllands-Poten was less interested in critically engaging the Islamic faith on the intellectual, social, or theological levels, and more in insulting its prophet and humiliating the Danish Muslim community. The freedom of speech invoked by the Jyllands-Posten editors does not represent a courageous stand against an established and powerful group. Nor is it a responsible freedom that aims at engaging in a serious criticism of Islamic doctrines or practices. Rather, it is a mean-spirited statement against a marginalized minority that could only serve to demonize a faith that is little understood by European societies, and greatly misrepresented by European media.
Freedom of press is not absolute, and must be used responsibly by those who claim it. Those who appreciate the importance of free speech for maintaining free and open society must ensure that it is not used by bigots to insult, insinuate, and marginalize. Rather than expanding the critical space to talk about religion in general, and the integration of Islam to Danish society in particular, Jyllands-Poten has irresponsibly used free speech to encourage hate-mongering. Such reckless use of a cherished freedom would only make an open discussion more complicated, and could practically make Danish people less free to address critical issues for social interaction and cooperation.
It is, therefore, vital that leaders on all sides of the issue take the initiative to calm the inflammatory situation, and bring the confrontation to a halt. The emotional exchange between the Western and Muslim worlds would further embolden the bigots in both camps. Western bigots are busy presenting current protests as an instance of “Islamic imperialism,” and a step in bringing the world under the control of Islam. Muslim bigots, similarly, find in the current stand off an opportunity to inflame anti-Semitism in Muslim societies.
A peaceful and orderly expression of indignation falls within democratic traditions, and represents a legitimate endeavor to influence political decision and debate. Resorting to violence, threats, and intimidations, on the other hand, undermines democratic principles, complicates political exchange, and closes public debate, and must therefore be rejected and opposed. While most protests over the publication of the insulting cartoons have been orderly and peaceful, albeit indignant, several unfortunate instances have led to loss of life and property. There is now more evidence that extremists are intent on turning the protests into a weapon to further deepen the divide between Muslim and Western societies, and to turn cultural and ideological differences into a religious stand off and a “clash of civilizations.”
The Danish cartoon episode reaffirms the intimacy of freedom and responsibility and is a powerful reminder that a reckless use of freedom is the surest way to undermine both.
Dr. Louay M. Safi serves as the executive director of ISNA Leadership Development Center, an Indiana based organization dedicated to enhancing leadership awareness and skills among American Muslim leaders, and a founding board member of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. He writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam, American Muslims, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at his Blog: http://blog.lsinsight.org