Freedom to hate?

Freedom to hate?

By Jamil Hussein

Morning Star, 14 February 2006

The right-wing Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten sanctioned the inflammatory cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed to stir up controversy. The intention was to offend.

It is peculiar that, having succeeded in offending Muslims, the Danish paper and its right-wing counterparts in Europe were angered by the “expected” response and decided to reprint the same images – causing more offence.

In Britain, the issue escalated when a small number of ill-informed Muslims hijacked a march in London with abusive slogans, with the mainstream media depicting them as the voice of Muslims all over – something like assuming that Nick Griffin and his motley crew are representative of all white people.

Even though most Muslims warned beforehand that the reprinting of the pictures would be fodder for the trouble makers, the onus fell on Muslims to explain the backlash and condemn the “extremists.”

There have been subsequent “peaceful” marches, including a 10,000-strong demo on Saturday, but the mainstream press continue to concentrate on the few from the week before.

Having shown restraint in not publishing the caricatures, certain sections of the UK media have seized the opportunity to attack Muslims by focusing solely on the demonstrators and ignoring the initial “cause” of the demonstrations.

So what was the cause? Setting aside Islamic tradition, which bans any images of the Prophet to prevent idolatry, the caricatures themselves were offensive, insulting and provocative.

One of the pictures shows the Prophet with a bomb inside his turban with the Khalimah (the Islamic creed) on his forehead.

The Khalimah is one of the major pillars of Islam, a declaration of faith uttered by all Muslims. “There is no god except Allah and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah.” We Muslims live our religion on a daily basis and try to emulate the prophet, who we believe to be the model human being, in everything that we do.

So the message in the caricature was simple – all Muslims are terrorists, since the founder of the faith was one.

It was not a constructive critique of Islam. Muslims would encourage that kind of discourse.

It was instead pure hate propaganda akin to the caricatures published by the nazis’ Der Sturmer, which evoked the myth that all Jews practised ritual religious murder.

Muslims feel that faith is innate, that our Islamic creed supersedes race. I would rather you call me a Paki than insult the Prophet.

Would those papers publish stereotypes about black people? Can you comprehend what the furore would have been if a paper depicted Martin Luther King as a drug dealer or mugger?

Three years earlier, the Danish paper in question did not publish drawings ridiculing Jesus because the editor said that it would “provoke an outcry.”

Furthermore, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor who commissioned the original 12 cartoons, was put on indefinite leave by the paper after he suggested running cartoons satirising the Holocaust. “Jyllands-Posten in no circumstances will publish Holocaust cartoons,” said the paper.

Germany’s Die Welt published the original pictures in solidarity with the Danes and to “uphold the values of free speech.” But the said that he would not depict Jews in a similar way when asked by on the BBC Newsnight programme. In fact, in Germany, freedom of speech does not extend to those who question the Holocaust.

Why can the same level of respect and understanding not be extended to our sensibilities? Or do there need to be 6 million deaths before the persecution of Muslims becomes unacceptable in Europe?

Muslims are not incensed just by the cartoons but also because of the blatant double standards on show.

It was obvious where Shadow Home Secretary David Davis stood on the debate of free speech. “Whatever your views on the cartoons, we have a tradition of freedom of speech in this country which has to be protected.”

But in response to the initial demonstration in London, which included a young student dressed as a suicide bomber, Davis said that there is “a line as to what is acceptable civilised behaviour and that line was emphatically crossed.”

Muslims would agree with that and felt that the depiction of the Prophet had also “emphatically crossed” the line of acceptable behaviour – cultural relativity is obviously a concept that Davis cannot comprehend.

Freedom of speech may need to be “protected,” as Davis says, but it also has limits. Even in situations were freedom of speech can be exercised, it can never be used wantonly, negating responsibility.

The example of the misguided student shows that free speech does not mean that we say and do as we please, disregarding the effect that it has on others.

But that is exactly what happened with the caricatures. The principle of holding unflinchingly firm to the ideal of free speech, fuelled more so by the general anti-Islamic feeling in Europe, was more important than the predictable and expected backlash.

And, as the European media concentrates on that backlash, which it blames on the over-reaction of Muslims, it fails to see that blame also lies with the newspapers.

Despite many deaths, some papers fail to exercise any moral responsibility and continue to fan the flames by republishing the images. Almost all major European countries have now published the pictures, as have many countries around the world.

South Africa is the only non-Muslim country to have taken an unequivocal stance against the cartoons after its high court banned their publication. Because of its history, South Africa understands the nature of racism. Those cartoons were, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey puts it, a “quite deliberate racist attack” on the Muslim community.

In Europe, the racism of Islamophobia is flourishing under the guise of free speech. Certain politicians and media add to the witch-hunt by championing the “ideal” of free speech even in situations where the repercussions are grave.

It is important to note that the unwillingness to compromise on a particular ideal regardless of the consequence is a trait often levied at Islamic extremism.

Muslims are routinely wheeled out to condemn those elements. It seems that Europe needs to condemn its own secular extremists and tackle the rising Islamophobia.

Jamil Hussein is a columnist for the Muslim lifestyle publication Link Magazine