Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that there would be a redux of the cartoon crisis that caused furor in the Muslim world two years ago. If anything, the recent copycat republication of the most offensive of them in Denmark and other countries in Europe as a response to an alleged death threat by some madman, strengthens my conviction that press freedom can never be absolute.
When he published first the offensive cartoons of the Prophet, Mr. Flemming Rose, editor of the Danish national newspaper Jyllands-Posten, had exercised his fundamental right to freedom of expression. No one has the right to take that away from him.
But what the Danish publication did in effect was not merely exercise its right to unhindered self-expression. As Cambridge philosopher Onora O’Neill pointed out in an article that ran in the Guardian back then, the cartoons were intended to provoke self-censoring Danes at the expense of offending a specific community of Danish citizens. The paper could have communicated legitimate worries about self-censorship in ways that would have found resonance and respect, had their objective been a genuine desire to spark debate.
In a press statement Traugott Schoefthaler, director of the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for Dialogue Between Cultures, wrote: “It is totally unacceptable that a number of people start ideological fights in selecting human rights principles such as ‘freedom of the press’ against ‘human dignity and mutual respect.’ All human rights are an indivisible whole, according to an agreement adopted by consensus by all Member States of the United Nations in 1993.
The rights to free speech are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 10 proclaims a right to freedom of expression characterized as “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
What most absolutists on the issue ignore, however, is the second half of the article: “The exercise of these freedoms, since it carried with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.
Therefore freedom of the press is not absolute by law, a fact that consciously controls the dynamics of editorial decision-making. As many journalists point out, judgments are exercised daily by newspapers on what should or should not be published.
Indeed in some countries it is illegal to deny the holocaust and in the UK the incitement of racial hatred is a crime.
Some die-hard defenders of press freedom claim that to withhold publication of the cartoons is to set a dangerous precedent of self-censorship. Everything offends someone, they say. In this case it’s a spurious argument. The fury at the cartoon wasn’t merely about showing the Prophet Mohamed – countless Islamic publications have done that through history despite it being generally unacceptable. It was showing an overtly offensive image of him that lit the first match.
Why can’t we just admit that most Muslims – European Muslims in particular – are different from the societies they live in? They have different thresholds for what offends and it is the failure to recognize and respect this difference from both sides that has resulted in such polarization.
Many Muslims think: Why must the Western “tradition of lack of respect for tradition (and in turn religion, according to Roger Koeppel, the German editor Die Welt which published the cartoons three time) be the norm to which we must all conform? Yes, everyone has the right to voice his opinion, to disagree, debate and criticize, but not to cause gratuitous offence. In democratic societies Muslims have the right to object to the desecration of what they hold sacred, but must do so within the boundaries set out by the law.
Yet the reaction of some in Europe and in the Muslim world was outrageous and unacceptable. Burning buildings, inciting violence and issuing death threats are the acts of people who not only lack confidence in their religion, but who have little knowledge of its core message. Not only is it un-Islamic, but it is also anti-Islamic because it threatens social order and propagates fear, hatred and suspicion.
At the same time, it must be stressed that the escalation of violence didn’t simply happen overnight. When the cartoons were first published, Danish Muslims had sent letters complaining about the insult. As expected, the letter fell on deaf ears – not a surprise considering Jyllands-Posten’s reputation demonstrated by the findings of a 2004 report by the European Network Against Racism which asserted that the paper “devoted disproportionate time and space to negative reporting on ethnic minorities.
The second insult came from the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who refused even to meet Muslim diplomats and community leaders to discuss the issue. At that point the boycott of Danish products had begun and the rest is history.
Why countries throughout Europe decided to reprint the drawings then, and why they’re doing it now, despite the unequivocal knowledge that by doing so they risk offending 15 million of their own citizens, is a question European Muslims have to confront everyday and one that the Western media must ask itself.
The whole situation has unfortunately played into the hands of authoritarian regimes and religious radicals who manipulate the emotions of understandably distressed Muslims for their own political gain. Reactionary forces in the West jumped on the bandwagon and used the resultant chaos to spread their xenophobic message.
It is important also to see this confrontation within the wider historical context in which it is taking place. In this post 9/11 era of the war on terror that posits radical Islam as the new global enemy, the media must stop perpetuating a vilified image of all Muslims. This will only discourage dialogue within multicultural European communities and will exacerbate what is turning into “a clash fundamentalisms between the Muslim world and the mostly secular West.
Clearly there is miscommunication and ignorance on both sides of the ideological divide, but even to stress this is to ignore the fact that, in this context, the balance of power is perversely skewed to the detriment of the underdog – the economically deprived Muslim minorities who are indiscriminately associated with terrorists, thanks to a hostile media which deliberately focuses on a vocal minority of extremists who represent only themselves. In the bigger picture Arabs and Muslims believe they have suffered for years under the double standards the West applies in dealing with them.
Despite this, many self-proclaimed liberals have become experts at bestowing medals of honor on those who attack the weak and back the strong. Their “bravery in the face of the “Islamist threat has become the be all and end all of Enlightenment values.
It is regrettable that a tasteless provocation, no matter how insulting it was to some Muslims, had led to the loss of human life before and may escalate further now, and that a simple exercise in common courtesy would be seen as a threat to the whole of Western civilization.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of DAILY NEWS EGYPT.