This is not about freedom of speech
That the real issue surrounding the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is hate speech and incitement to violence, rather than freedom of expression, is clear when the intent behind their publication is understood.
The cartoons were meant to be inflammatory, showing disrespect and lack of moral maturity. The problem is not whether the Prophet should be pictured.
It is that they portray him as an al-Qaeda image of violence; they portray Islam a violent religion.
Aesthetically valueless, they were intended to incite right-wing racists to violence against “the terrorist within”.
The notion of “the enemy within” was used in Nazi Germany to demonise Jews and it became part of the propaganda arsenal that supported the Holocaust.
And cartoons too were a weapon used to demonise Jews, just as the radio was used in Rwanda to demonise Tutsis and to assist in that genocide.
An instructive exercise would be a comparison between the hate-filled Danish cartoons and the brilliant social commentary and caricatures, even of religious practice—such as the Catholic fatwa against condom use—by South Africa’s Zapiro.
We are not advocating that criticism of religion is taboo or religious topics are sacrosanct; religions themselves develop and advance through criticism. And, often, internal criticism is harsher than that by outsiders.
The 12 cartoons were published by Jyllands-Posten following its invitation to 40 cartoonists to parody Muhammad in order, as is clear from the invitation, to provoke Muslims.
They become truly dangerous in the context within which they were published: in a Europe that manifests increasing levels of Islamophobia and xenophobia, especially against Muslims, and where Muslims are demonised and scapegoated for increasing social misery. Further, they were published in Denmark, which has been named by the European Union Commission on Human Rights as the most racist country in Europe. It has witnessed a large number of attacks against Muslims, some resulting in the killings of Muslim immigrants. And, they were published by a newspaper with historical ties to German and Italian fascism and which called for a fascist dictatorship in Denmark. Jyllands-Posten is also anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Within such a context, these cartoons are clearly hate speech. Their publication is an ontological attack against the foundations of Islam.
How might Christians respond if Jesus was drawn wearing a crown of nuclear bombs instead of thorns? Or as a Roman soldier shoving his spear into the sides of Palestinians hanging on crosses? Or what would the Jewish reaction be to a cartoon of a Jew in the 1930s dreaming up a scheme to help relocate European Jews to Palestine and imagining the Holocaust as the way to do it.
Or of Moses as the pilot of an Apache helicopter firing on Palestinian homes.
When the debate erupted, we were quickly reminded that the West is a secular society with ideals of tolerance and open debate, even if such debate offends. But freedom of expression cannot be a carte blanche right to be used by racists and xenophobes to perpetrate violence. We can’t piss in Trafalgar Square or openly drink beer in the streets of New York or walk the malls of Johannesburg naked. If we can be punished for impinging on public space, should we not also be subject to limitations for hate speech against religious or cultural groups? We agree with Robert Fisk that this is not an issue of secularism vs Islam or of a clash of civilisations but is, rather, the childishness of civilisations.
The double standard goes beyond that. Since Holocaust denial is a criminal offence in many European countries, should Islamophobia and the assault on Muslim religious symbols not also be regulated? Jyllands-Posten refused to publish caricatures of Jesus in 2003 because they would “offend” its readers. Why then is its invitation to caricature Muhammad protected by free speech provisions?
In the current debate, the greater immaturity is not by the Muslim protestors but by those Westerners who refuse to see the bigotry, prejudice and Islamophobia and, in doing nothing, encourage hatred and violence.
Within the context of a Europe with escalating Islamophobia and racism, the responsibility is on us all—Muslims and non-Muslims, atheists, secularists and believers—to speak out.
Or we might have to live with the legacy of our silence as we, today, have to live with the legacy of genocides against Jews in Europe and Tutsis in Africa.
An additional issue raised by the current furore is of the dominance of liberal democratic notions of rights. Rights are only, according to such notions, individual. There is no space to consider the violation of the dignity of a community or the right, as a community, not to have one’s religious or cultural symbols denigrated, or the right of an entire people not to have its history under colonialism whitewashed. The notion of collective or communal rights is one that requires serious consideration in a young democracy like South Africa.
Disempowered Muslim communities in Europe and other parts of the world have expressed their right to free expression in the only manner they have available—by taking to the streets in legitimate articulations of outrage and celebrations of democracy.
But some responses have been shortsighted, even immoral, as if to say: “If you insist on calling us terrorists, we will behave like terrorists.” The burning of embassies, the loss of life in Afghanistan for the sake of some stupid, albeit offensive, drawings and the placards that threaten bombs have not been in keeping with Islamic or Western democratic norms of protest and expression. Muslims’ right to dignity should be protected in their protests too. And their legitimate revulsion for attacks against religious symbols should also be expressed when we witness incidents such as the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamayan Buddhist statues.
Legitimate protest should not be allowed to be hijacked by dictatorial regimes whose primary agenda for jumping on the popular bandwagon is to deflect attention from their repression and denial of rights. Nor by the United States’s neo-cons who pontificate about the Danish cartoons when it was their theology of civilisational clashes, the new American century, Pax Americana and us-and-them polarisation that created the global conditions for such denigration to take place.
In South Africa, threats to the Mail & Guardian editor, phone calls to her mother and threats against property have been part of this phenomenon. There is a distinction between gratuitous reproduction of the cartoons as hate speech and the use of one cartoon by the M&G for didactic and illustrative purposes. Living in a rights-based society requires people to acknowledge and respect the rights of others as much as they require similar recognition for their rights.
Na’eem Jeenah is president of the Muslim Youth Movement, Professor Charles Amjad-Ali is a Christian theologian and Salim Vally is the former chairperson of the Freedom of Expression Institute