The publication of 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten last October and their republication by the Norwegian daily Dagbladet last week, has been met by a chorus of indignation from the Muslim world, a boycott of Danish goods throughout the Middle East, demonstrations in cities throughout the region, the withdrawal of ambassadors from Copenhagen by Saudi Arabia and Libya, and the occupation by armed men of the offices of the European Union in Gaza.
The cartoons were undoubtedly tasteless, and in fact pointless if the intention was not to provoke a reaction. But cartoons that convey a message far more critical of Islam appear daily in the Western press. The offence committed by the Danes was not that the cartoons ridiculed or insulted Islam, but that they depicted the figure of the Prophet. The reaction to the cartoons was not entirely unexpected, even by the cartoonists themselves. Over-reaction is now the norm in Islamic society. IHEU and other NGOs have seen for ourselves something of this tendency at the UN Human Rights Commission.
Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bill Clinton, and the Norwegian government have all condemned the publication of the cartoons. But what is at stake here is of immense importance. It is the right to freedom of expression. It is that freedom that the Danish cartoons are now testing. Those who have condemned the cartoons have all failed to understand that freedom of expression implies the freedom to offend. Yes, of course there must be limits. Incitement to hatred, incitement to kill, or the representation of child abuse are all unacceptable. But there was no incitement to hatred in the cartoons. We must never accept the censorship of ridicule. Ridicule is one of the strongest weapons we have in the fight against extremism.
Those condemning the cartoons seem to be inventing a new Human Right: the right not to be offended. And Louise Arbour, by speaking out against them, has clearly accepted this new right as one of the human rights she intends to defend. Since no law was broken and no human right was violated, she should have remained silent.
The Norwegian government in its apology said: “Your faith has the right to be respected by us” and “Let it be clear that the Norwegian government condemns every expression or act which expresses contempt for people on the basis of their religion or ethnic origin”. These comments are profoundly mistaken. First, the cartoons did not “express contempt” for anyone. We must and do respect the right of Muslims to their faith – even if we feel it is misguided. But we have absolutely no reason to respect interpretations of religion that denigrate women, Jews, homosexuals and non-Muslims, and that justify calls to war against the non-believers. It is believers that have human rights, not their religions. Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental freedom. But freedom of expression is also fundamental. Without it, all our other freedoms and human rights are at risk.
In an apology widely published in the Arab world yesterday, Jyllands Posten’s editor in chief referred to fake cartoons circulating in the Middle East that did not in fact come from their newspaper. The circulation of fake and far more offensive cartoons, claiming they came from Jyllands Posten, is apparently seen by some Islamists as perfectly legitimate, in the hope that by further inflaming Muslim opinion the Danes will be suitably punished. In the words of Flemming Rose, cultural editor of Jyllands Posten, “They are not asking for our respect, but our submission”.
The problem with the Islamic over-reaction and the condemnation by some Western leaders of this “insult to Islam” is the danger that the Western media will now apply self-censorship. Editors may feel that they must spike any comment on Islam, even comment to which only the most bigoted extremist could take offence. Legitimate criticism of any Islamic practices, however extreme, would then fall victim to self-censorship. And the Western world will have taken one more step towards Dhimmitude.
31 January 2006