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Is it justifiable to offend people's sensitivities
in the name of freedom of expression?

In recent years, the perception about Islam and Muslims in large parts of the world, especially in Western countries, has been coloured by a great deal of prejudice, mistrust and distortion. The Runnymede Trust in Britain set up a Commission on Islamophobia in 1997, which revealed that Islamophobia-fear of and hatred towards Islam and Muslims-is one of the chief forms of racism in many European countries. The wide prevalence of Islamophobia in European societies is reflected in the demonization of Muslims, in discrimination in respect of employment, education and housing, and in attacks on the visibility of Islamic symbols in public places. It is widely believed in Europe that its over 15 million Muslims pose a serious threat to the security, culture and prosperity of European societies. Islamophobia has been on the rise after 9/11, as the report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia testifies.

By and large, Muslim immigrants in European countries, including their descendants born and brought up in European societies, are faced with a multitude of problems, including institutionalized racism, lack of legal security, unclear citizenship status and high unemployment rate. In Britain, until December 2003, discrimination against Muslims was not considered unlawful because the courts refused to accept that Muslims are an ethnic group although, strangely, Jews and Sikhs are recognized as ethnic groups. Faced with an inhospitable atmosphere, many Muslim youths in France and other European countries are forced to change their names and to hide their local addresses for fear that this might jeopardize their chances of getting a job.

RallyIn some European countries, Muslims face the prospect of de-ethnicization and assimilation: the pressure to give up their ethnic and religious identity and to assimilate in the culture of the dominant population. The Bernard Stasi report, commissioned by the French president Jacques Chirac in 1997, recommended a ban on school children wearing outward religious symbols, including the Jewish yarmulke, the Christian crucifix, the Islamic headscarf, and the Sikh turban. The Netherlands, where the issue of hijab or the Islamic headscarf has become highly controversial, is considering a similar ban. In Germany, the southern state of Baden-Wurttemberg has designed its own searching exam exclusively for Muslim applicants seeking German citizenship. Questions in the test include: If your son told you he was a homosexual and wanted to live with another man, how would you react? If your adult daughter dressed like a German woman, would you try to prevent her from doing so? In Belgium, the far-right Vlaams Belang Party, which won nearly a quarter of the national vote in the 2004 election, wants to prevent Muslim immigrants from bringing their brides from their home countries. In Britain the Labour government and many of its liberal supporters endorse this idea.

The right to freedom of expression needs to be tempered with social responsibility and sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others. An unbridled right to freedom of expression, especially in a multiethnic society, is fraught with socially disruptive consequences. The controversy generated by the cartoons is likely to increase the alienation and disaffection of Muslims in Europe, exacerbate the tension between Muslims and the Western world, and lead to a further radicalization of Muslim youth.

An indication of the deep-seated nature of Islamophobia is provided by the controversy over Turkey's membership of the European Union. Austria has openly opposed the move. Germany, Greece, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Spain are not at all enthusiastic about Turkey's entry. French intellectuals are saying that it may be possible to welcome the Turkish elite-Westernised as they are-but not the "Anatolian peasant who is not European by culture, tradition or habit." France and Austria have pledged to hold referendums on the question of Turkey's accession. Polls suggest that the move would be rejected by wide margins. An EU commissioner, the Dutch politician Fritz Bolkestein, warned that Turkish entry into the EU would "finish the job of the Ottoman Empire, and the liberation of Vienna would have been in vain."

In September 2005 a minor Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 highly derogatory caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. In one of them he is shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban (thus portraying him as a terrorist). In early February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries, including the French daily France-Soir as well as Le Monde and Liberation, Germany's Die Welt, Italy's Corriere della Serra and La Stampa and Spain's Catalan daily El Periodico, republished some or all of the cartoons. In France, the front page of France-Soir carried the headline, "Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God", accompanied by a cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian deities floating on a cloud. The editorial in France-Soir said that it had published the cartoons in the name of freedom of expression and to fight religious intolerance.

In Italy, Roberto Calderoli, deputy leader of the Northern League Party and a minister in the former centre-right government, sported a T-shirt depicting some of the controversial cartoons. He not only wore the T-shirt but also proudly displayed it on Italian television, which is widely viewed in Libya (a former Italian colony). Two days later, a large mob of Libyan Muslims stormed the Italian consulate at Benghazi, which led to the death of 14 persons and injury to 35 people. Calderoli was forced to resign from the cabinet, following which he was placed under interrogation on charges of offending religious beliefs.


Significantly, British and American newspapers did not reproduce the cartoons. Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, called the publication of the cartoons "unnecessary, insensitive, disrespectful and wrong." The French president Jacques Chirac condemned the cartoons as a "manifest provocation". He said that freedom of expression was "one of the foundations of the Republic" but added a plea for "respect ad moderation" in its application. While maintaining that freedom of expression is dear to France, a foreign ministry statement said that France "condemns all that hurts individuals in their beliefs or convictions." The owner of France-Soir dismissed the managing editor of the paper after it republished the cartoons. The owner, Raymond Lakah, said in a statement that "he decided to remove Jacques Lefranc as managing editor of the paper as a powerful sign of respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual." America's State Department said that it was unacceptable to incite religious hatred by publishing such pictures. On February 8, three editors and a reporter resigned from the New York Press over the management's decision not to reprint the cartoons.

The publication of these sacrilegious cartoons generated an enormous amount of anger and resentment among Muslims across the world and led to unfortunate political, economic and diplomatic repercussions. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their envoys to Denmark. The storming of the Italian embassy in Benghazi led to the resignation of Libya's interior minister. The Swedish foreign minister Laila Frevalds was forced to resign in March 2006 following a row over the closure of a website which published the cartoons. It was revealed that she had not given full information about her role in the closure of the website which belonged to a far-right political party in Sweden. Iran, which imports $280 million worth of goods a year from Denmark, snapped all trade ties with the country. Muslim consumers across large parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, boycotted Danish products on a massive scale. The Danish manufacturer Arla Foods, which normally sells $1.5 million worth of dairy products from Denmark a day in the Middle East, announced that its sales had stopped. Trade between Denmark and the Persian Gulf, which amounts to one billion US dollars per year, came to a halt.

The publication of the cartoons led to massive and violent protests in several Muslim countries, including Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Beirut. Syria, Malaysia and Indonesia, resulting in the death of scores of people and injury to hundreds of protesters. Danish embassies in Iran, Beirut, Syria and Libya were attacked and vandalized.

The Western media have sought to justify the publication of the cartoons in the name of freedom of expression. Thus, The Economist stated that "freedom of expression, including the freedom to poke fun at religion, is not just a hard-won human right but the defining freedom of liberal societies." This is a specious, hypocritical and myopic argument which can be faulted on at least three counts. First, to regard freedom of expression as an absolute right, regardless of its implications and consequences for the wider society, is absurd. No country allows complete freedom of expression. It is restricted by prohibitions against defamation, libel, blasphemy, obscenity, national security, incitement to hatred and judicial and parliamentary privilege. The European Convention on Human Rights, while recognizing that every one has the right to freedom of expression, allows European nations to impose restrictions "in 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." Most if not all European countries have placed restrictions on freedom of expression through legislation. Thus, in Denmark and Britain (which have established churches) there is an anti-blasphemy law in respect of Christianity (which, ironically, does not apply to other religions). In Denmark, both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party have opposed a parliamentary move to abolish the anti-blasphemy law. Nick Griffin, a leader of the far-right British National Party, had said in a recent speech that Islam was a vicious, wicked faith. He was tried for incitement to racial hatred, but on February 3, 2006 walked free at the end of the trial. In his defence, Griffin argued that he was attacking a religion (which, in the case of religions other than Christianity, is not an offence under British law), not a race.

The British Parliament passed a bill on 31 January 2006 aimed at providing protection against incitement to religious hatred. The bill could be passed only after members of both houses of Parliament succeeded in moving an amendment to the effect that incitement to religious hatred must involve the intention to arouse hatred. This is a specious qualification. It is well nigh impossible to uncover or judge the hidden motivation of such actions. One should rather focus on the consequences and repercussions of such actions in the context of the wider society. A few days after the furore, an Arabic newspaper published an apology from Jyllands-Posten's editor-in-chief Carsten Juste, saying that "we now offer our apology and deepest regret for what happened because it was far from the paper's intention. We did not intend to hurt or target anyone." On the other hand, the cartoonist who drew the caricatures said in an interview to Glasgow Herald newspaper that he had no regret for his action and that freedom of expression and of the press was vital to a democratic society. Curiously, Jyllands-Posten had refused to print cartoons of Jesus because it involved the risk of giving offence to some Christians. (See Gwlays Fouche, "Danish paper rejected Jesus cartoons" Guardian, 6 February 2006. So, what does one make of this rigmarole?

Eleven European countries, including Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland, have laws (known as Auschwitzluge in the Germanic countries) which make the public denial or repudiation of the Holocaust a punishable offence. The world's best-known Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, who was deported from Canada in 2005, faces 14 charges in Germany. British historian David Irving, author of 30 books on World War II, was jailed for three years by an Austrian court in 2006 for denying the Holocaust and the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz in a speech he had given in Austria in 1989. Irving has been debarred from setting foot in Germany, Austria, Italy and Canada because of his views.

Second, the right to freedom of expression needs to be tempered with social responsibility and sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others. An unbridled right to freedom of expression, especially in a multiethnic society, is fraught with socially disruptive consequences. Third, the controversy is likely to increase the alienation and disaffection of Muslims in Europe, exacerbate the tension between Muslims and the Western world, and lead to a further radicalization of Muslim youth.

It needs to be pointed out that Muslims, whose sentiments have been hurt by the publication of these cartoons, have a right to protest against this sacrilege in a peaceful and democratic manner. Vandalism and violence in the name of protest is absolutely unjustifiable and is in fact counter-productive. It is gratifying to note that a fatwa issued by Egypt's grand Mufti Ali Juma'a stated that Muslims should protest peacefully, with "wisdom and exhortation." A joint statement issued by the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Conference and the European Union condemned violent protests over the publication of the cartoons while calling for respect for religious beliefs. An ideal form of peaceful protest was displayed by Britain's Muslims who took out a peaceful rally of over 10,000 protesters on February 11. The rally was organized by the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain and backed by several Christian organizations as well as by Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London.

Hardly had the furore over the cartoons abated when an Italian magazine Studi Cattolici published a cartoon of the Prophet on 16th April 2006, in which he is shown as cut in half and burning in hell. The chief editor of the magazine said that the cartoon was inspired by the 13th century Italian poet Dante's celebrated work The Divine Comedy.

The whole controversy, though unfortunate, has necessitated a serious rethinking of certain key issues, including limits to freedom of expression in multiethnic societies, the social responsibility of the media in the context of a globalizing world, and the role of the state and civil society.

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