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Anatomy of a Cartoon Protest


Paolo Bassi, 

2006/02/24

The modern political and legal right to speak and write on any subject was not simply granted by benevolent European rulers it was won over centuries by mass struggle and the sacrifice of courageous men and women who dared to challenge the power of their rulers. The United States Constitution and French Revolution enshrined free speech into law because it is the one right without which every other becomes meaningless. However, this most fundamental of freedoms is also the most fragile, being the first target of totalitarian regimes and tin-pot dictators everywhere. Would the Nazis have retained power in the 1930s had they not first silenced the German people? Today, could the mullahs rule in Iran or the petro-dollar princes in Arabia if unfettered freedom of speech existed? If history has taught us anything, it is that rights won over decades and centuries can be swept away in a few days. The rights that complacent pluralistic societies take for granted can be destroyed by a small, determined, belligerent minority through claiming victim-hood and then by violence and intimidation. Free speech may well be guaranteed by the law in Holland but the shocking, ritualistic murder of film-maker Theo Van Gogh in 2004 by an Islamist will have caused at least some writers to think of their own safety before risking offense -- and that is bad enough. If such self-censorship based on fear becomes the norm, the notion of free speech becomes a farce and democracy simply becomes as exercise in appeasement.

An international dispute of surreal proportions and violence has arisen over the publication in September 2005 of cartoons in the Jyllands Posten, a Danish paper, of Mohammad, the founder of Islam. The cartoons themselves are not particularly intelligent, interesting or linked to any important story. It is also quite possible the cartoons were intended to offend, since the same paper refused to print anti-Christian cartoons a few years earlier. This is a legitimate criticism of the Jyllands Posten, but its right to choose what it prints is inviolable even if it appears arbitrary or selective. The cartoons initially triggered some peaceful protests, but no more. The Danish government did not intervene at first, regarding the cartoons as a purely private matter protected by free speech. The situation then lay dormant for a few months until Muslim clerics from Denmark took the cartoons, along with some additions and embellishments of their own, to various Arab countries and re-ignited Muslim anger this time in the streets. In Damascus, Muslim mobs attacked and burnt the Danish and Norwegian embassies. What is surprising is that the Damascus protesters were allowed such a free hand in a country as authoritarian as Syria, which brooks no internal disorder. The same thing happened a few days later in Beirut, where the protestors also attacked local Christians and their churches. The most tragic event was in Nigeria, where innocent Christians with no connection to the cartoons whatsoever were killed and their churches burned down by enraged Muslims. In return, innocent Muslims were killed in Nigeria's Christian dominated areas. The cartoon protests have been erupting with such regularity and violence, that even Muslim governments are becoming embarrassed. The notion that all the riots and deaths have been caused by genuine spontaneous anger over the cartoons of Mohammad simply does not pass the straight face test.

One of the main misunderstandings that the cartoons have revealed is the belief, real or convenient, that the actions of a private newspaper in Denmark are those of the Danish government, its people and the West in general. This belief maybe a cultural one, since little appears in Arab newspapers that their governments disapprove of. The protestors have ignored repeated apologies by the Danish Government an apology for something out of its hands. Naturally, Danish businesses in Muslim countries have also been punished. One can only imagine the outrage if a European nation expelled Muslims in retaliation for the videotaped execution of their hostages by Islamists. In the most bizarre response to the Mohammad cartoons perhaps taking its cue from the Iranian President's call for Israel to be wiped off the map an Iranian paper claimed to be testing free speech by inviting its readers to send in cartoons about the Jewish holocaust. It is not readily clear whose free speech they are testing, since in Iran most papers are heavily censored. What is disturbing is that this newspaper equated the most horrible crime in human history documented, filmed and litigated beyond doubt with satirical cartoons about the founder of Islam. Exactly how does one draw cartoons about 10 million dead Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other 'less than Aryan" victims? It is too grotesque to even think about.

Finally lessons can be drawn from the protests against Salman Rushdie. The fear and passivity shown by western governments in the face of the death sentence on Rushdie only fueled the power of radical Islam in Europe. The shameful Rushdie affair must never be repeated. Europe must now unite, draw a line in the sand no more retreat on human rights, no more appeasement. If we are free to criticize or mock other faiths, no exception must be made for Islam. With the valid exception of laws prohibiting incitement to racial or religious violence, the fear of offense, no matter how sincerely felt, must never be the standard by which we measure free speech. Europe cannot, Europe must not, lose this battle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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