Thursday, February 09, 2006

Danish Cartoons: Free Press or Hate Speech?

Freedom of speech is central to both democratic government and human dignity. A society whose people are unable to speak freely and criticize established powers and traditions is doomed to stagnation and servitude. In the absence of critical voices to point out corruption and mismanagement, national wealth would be plundered by those who are trusted to protect public interests. And in the absence of critical minds, innovation and creativity would surely vanish, and science and art would inevitably die.

The modern West emerged from medieval Europe by fighting a political regime which, in the name of order, subordinated vast societal resources to the whims of a careless aristocracy, and by opposing an established church which, in the name of faith, has suffocated free thinking and scientific progress.

It took great sacrifices by many courageous people to establish basic civil liberties that today form the foundation of modern democracy. Foremost among which is free speech which must be protected to ensuring that people can point out with relative ease both corruption and ignorance that erode social fabric and undermine creative thinking.

It is this most important liberty that the editor of Jyllands-Posten cited in justifying the publications of the 12 provocative cartoons, depicting Prophet Mohammad in negative light and insulting Islam and its followers. But was the decision to caricature the Prophet of Islam an exercise in free speech? Or was it an exercise in bigotry and hate speech dressed as free expression?

Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten's culture editor who commissioned the 12 cartoons, made the following comment in providing a rationale for his provocative initiative. “[Some Muslims] demand a special position,” Rose wrote, “insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context.”

The paper’s editor-in-chief further insisted that the objective of publishing the cartoons was to overcome “self-censorship” exercised by writers and cartoonists when depicting Islam. This explanation turned out to be disingenuous as The Guardian revealed that the same paper turned down anti-Christian cartoons submitted earlier by Christoffer Zeiler. In rejecting the cartoons the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, wrote the following: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."

Kaiser’s words reveal a healthy sense of responsible freedom, as they underscore the importance of avoiding provocation and insult whose aim is sheer mockery. But why was not the same logic brought to bear on the decision of commissioning and then publishing the anti-Muslim cartoons?

It is evident that Jylland-Posten’s editors exercised “self-censorship” when they believed that making fun of religious feelings has a “high price.” The freedom of press they claim was at bottom a thin fa├žade hiding an ugly bigotry directed particularly against Danish Muslims. Indeed, a 2004 report by a Danish watchdog, the immigrant rights lobbyist organization ENAR, claimed that 19 out of the 24 Jyllands-Posten's editorials on "ethnic issues" published between September 1 and November 20 2004 were negative, while 88 out of 120 op-ed pieces on "ethnic minorities" were negative, and 121 out of 148 letters to the editor on “ethnic minorities” were negative.

Jyllands-Poten was less interested in critically engaging the Islamic faith on the intellectual, social, or theological levels, and more in insulting its prophet and humiliating the Danish Muslim community. The freedom of speech invoked by the Jyllands-Posten editors does not represent a courageous stand against an established and powerful group. Nor is it a responsible freedom that aims at engaging in a serious criticism of Islamic doctrines or practices. Rather, it is a mean-spirited statement against a marginalized minority that could only serve to demonize a faith that is little understood by European societies, and greatly misrepresented by European media.

Freedom of press is not absolute, and must be used responsibly by those who claim it. Those who appreciate the importance of free speech for maintaining free and open society must ensure that it is not used by bigots to insult, insinuate, and marginalize. Rather than expanding the critical space to talk about religion in general, and the integration of Islam to Danish society in particular, Jyllands-Poten has irresponsibly used free speech to encourage hate-mongering. Such reckless use of a cherished freedom would only make an open discussion more complicated, and could practically make Danish people less free to address critical issues for social interaction and cooperation.

It is, therefore, vital that leaders on all sides of the issue take the initiative to calm the inflammatory situation, and bring the confrontation to a halt. The emotional exchange between the Western and Muslim worlds would further embolden the bigots in both camps. Western bigots are busy presenting current protests as an instance of “Islamic imperialism,” and a step in bringing the world under the control of Islam. Muslim bigots, similarly, find in the current stand off an opportunity to inflame anti-Semitism in Muslim societies.

A peaceful and orderly expression of indignation falls within democratic traditions, and represents a legitimate endeavor to influence political decision and debate. Resorting to violence, threats, and intimidations, on the other hand, undermines democratic principles, complicates political exchange, and closes public debate, and must therefore be rejected and opposed. While most protests over the publication of the insulting cartoons have been orderly and peaceful, albeit indignant, several unfortunate instances have led to loss of life and property. There is now more evidence that extremists are intent on turning the protests into a weapon to further deepen the divide between Muslim and Western societies, and to turn cultural and ideological differences into a religious stand off and a “clash of civilizations.”

The Danish cartoon episode reaffirms the intimacy of freedom and responsibility and is a powerful reminder that a reckless use of freedom is the surest way to undermine both.

This article appeared in the following publications:

Indianapolis Star
Official Wire
Media Monitors Network
Middle East Online
The Dawn
Daily Muslims
Naseeb Vibes
The American Muslim
The Milli Gazette


Anonymous said...

""I disagree with what you have to say but will fight to the death to protect your right to say it." - Voltaire"

According to this quote (from your own blog) you are wrong on this issue. Freedom of speech IS absolute, and we all have to fight for it even if it includes the publication of cartoons that some people might find offending.

Faruq R. A. Nelson said...

Br Louay makes several important points, especially that there are bigots on both sides in this affair who are intent on stoking the fires of hatred.

However, failure to distinguish among "the 12 provocative cartoons" published by Jyllands-Posten undercuts Br Louay's self-portrayal as a champion of free and responsible speech. It smacks of religious extremism to lump all 12 cartoons together as insulting to Islam and Muslims.

Not all of the cartoons "depict[ed] Prophet Mohammad in negative light." Two of the cartoons do not depict the Prophet at all. Rather, like Br Louay, those two cartoons take the editors of Jyllands-Posten to task for stirring up unnecessary controversy.

Among those cartoons that do depict the Prophet, some of them are negative and insulting while others are not. One cartoon in particular presents the Prophet responding to the controversy in exactly the way that he always did to personal attacks-- by refusing to descend to the same level and by commanding his companions to show restraint.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the article. There's the old legal maxim that free speech doesn't allow one to shout "fire" in a crowded theater (when there isn't a fire). My late father was a police officer in New York and, during the many riots in the 1960s, he and other police arrested individuals for "incitement". In other words, "free speech" did not allow those arrested to encourage destruction of property. I am opposed to "hate speech" laws--because they are used as a cover for enemies of the U.S. to protect themselves from public criticism--however I do not feel the cartoons rise to that level. They are simply a form of incitement, without any socially redeeming purpose or intent, and should be prohibited on that basis.

Tom Mysiewicz

Qadeeb al-Ban said...

As-salamu 'alaykum,

Thanks for your nice analysis of the on-going cartoon controversy and for your condemnation of the violence that it has sparked amongst Muslims. I think we need to be as vocal in condemning the latter as we are in expressing our outrage at the former. Personally, I was taken aback when I found that no clear condemnation of all this un-Islamic violence had been posted on the ISNA website when I visited it yesterday in order to document mainstream Muslim condemnation of what's going on. Instead of a strong condemnation, ISNA just had a link to a newspaper article that was rather lukewarm and ambiguous. Needless to say, I found this rather disappointing, but that's certainly nothing new these days.

Also, I just wanted to let you know that I've posted several articles the past few days in regards to the ongoing cartoon saga, including a detailed rebuttal to Daniel Pipes' recent "Islamic Imperialism" article, which can be found here:

Danish Cartoons, Double-Standards and Daniel Pipes

The other articles that I've posted include:

Hate-Mongers Beware...

Why Muslims Are Angry...

An Idiot's Guide to Offensive Cartoons

I have a couple more in the queue that should be out in the next day or so, insha'llah, so please visit my blog when you get a chance.

Jazaka Allah khayr wa salam,

Qadeeb al-Ban Harris

Anonymous said...

Dear Louay,

This is an excellent essay, and you especially put us in your debt by taking the time to look into the background of what goes on at the Jyllands-Posten. Let me share with you a few thoughts of my own on this matter.

Christians who wish to make scathing generalizations about Islam and thus characterize it as a violent religion must never forget all of the terrible things that have been done in the name of Christianity.

Islam is no more or less violent than any other religion, if one can even speak intelligently in such general terms.

More important, there is a need to recognize that for freedom to work, it must be exercised within limits. Proponents of freedom readily accept the rule of law and consider it--with its limitations on action and speech--to be in keeping with freedom. They also agree that freedom cannot be used to do just anything one wants. Hence the prohibitions against pornography, not to mention other actions that are deemed un-social.

Why, then, do uncivil and insulting cartoons or forms of speech deserve protection? Not all speech or all expression is allowed in the name of freedom. No one, for example, is free to cry "fire" in a crowded theater. By extension, then, no one should be allowed to insult another person's beliefs. A civil association promoting freedom presupposes decent conduct and respect of members one for the other.

Had the newspaper cartoonists in question merely drawn a figure of the prophet, it would be fair to say that Muslims might feel offended that their beliefs were not respected but that they should keep their sense of offense to themselves. In going beyond that and seeking to ridicule Muslims by blaming the prophet for deeds done today, they were excessive.

But were a Muslim friend to ask for advice on how to act in the light of this offense, I would urge a dignified and scornful attitude.

Violent reaction will do nothing to persuade others that unjust offense has been given, but dignified rebuke might.

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

Let's all stop and think for a minute about what these cartoons really are. Not what we think they represent, but what the ARE. These cartoons are nothing but some ink on pieces of paper. If Allah(SWT) is really all powerful as our faith teaches, than nothing a human agent, such as a newspaper, does can hurt Him in any way. Let's stop for a second and compare. How many regular readers does this Danish newspaper have? My guess is a few million at most, and very few outside of Denmark's borders. Compare that with Islam, which has around 1.5 billion adherents and is growing every day. It is obvious to me that The Prophet(PBUH) has had a much more lasting effect on human history than one newspaper with a relatively small number of readers. So why are we getting angry about this? With all of the violent protests, it seems as if these young men think that God will actually be harmed by something that humans drew on a piece of paper. We don't need to protect God, considering that his abilities far exceed our own. By violently protesting the contents of a cartoon, we are digging our own graves. All you will see regarding this controversy in the mass media are young Muslims yelling, screaming, and lighting things on fire. Some might say it is our duty to protest, but by doing this in an improper manner, we are only perpetuating negative stereotypes. I apologize to all those who read this if I sound like I don't care about these cartoons. However, I don't feel the need to get all worked up over something that will have very little meaning in the great scheme of things.

Meriam said...

Thank you Mr. Safi for the article. I agree with you that the cartoons are an example of hate speech and incitement.

I want to share with you and your readers what I feel is the perfect response that we as Muslims should be giving in regards to this cartoon controversy:

Statement by the International Solidarity Movement, International Women’s Peace Service, the Tel Rumeida project and Holy Land Trust (local organisations working with international citizens and peace teams in Palestine):

We strongly condemn the recently published derogatory illustrations of the prophet Mohammed. The cartoons demonstrate disrespect and ignorance about Islam and perhaps also deliberate incitement. We are troubled that such material has been published and backed by media of countries that claim to tolerate all religions, cultures and people.

As people of many faiths working with and among Muslims we call for public apologies from media that published the cartoons as opposed to continued incitement. We also call upon all governments to condemn Islamophobia and its various expressions.

Racism against people in the Middle East and against Muslims has a long history in Western culture. It also underlies much of the West’s current policies in the Middle East and toward its own Muslim citizens. Most Western media are ignoring these facts while discussing the issue of free speech. This frames the situation in a way that fails to accurately represent the deep hurt felt by Muslims, and reinforces stereotypes that the Muslim world rejects Western liberties. The Muslim world’s response is being portrayed as violent. However at the time of writing this statement, though property damage has occurred the protests have largely been nonviolent. Ten people have been killed, all of them Muslim demonstrators.

We believe in the power of people to confront racism and oppression through nonviolent tactics, and recognize that boycott initiatives and most protests sparked by the cartoons have been non-violent. Responsible journalists report in a fair and objective way. Conscientious governments do not wash their hands of responsibility for racism occurring within their societies.

This is a statement of local and international organisations that work in Palestine in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle against the Israeli occupation. We continue our work in the hope that the Palestinian people will find justice and live free in their own land.

We welcome other organisations to sign this statement. Please send an e-mail to if you would like to add your organisation to the signatories.

Anonymous said...

I am a member of ACLU.

One may not like it; but in a democratic country with free press, 'hate speech' is part and parcel of free speech. Speech is not free unless it offends somebody. If somebody does not like it, they do not have to listen to it or read it; if necessary, they will have to just ignore it.

The only responsibility one must execrcise is to stay within the law of the country (and nothing else), which in a secular society, is man-made. If it offends somebody, well, they will have to learn to ignore it. If they cannot cope with, that is their problem, not that of the 'free' speaker. There is no concept of Blasphemy in any free society. I do not consider UK to be a really free society -- it has a limited blasphemy law. Germany is not a free society -- it forbids denial of holocaust (which in my opinion did occur). Canada is not free but it has 'hate' laws.

US is a very free society with very few limitations.

Romesh Chander

Anonymous said...

I would like to start by thank Dr. Louay M. Safi for insightful article. I couldn’t have said better myself. Your article captures the essential theme of freedom of speech and how it used in a claimed free society. I liked most in the article the history of “freedom of speech” and how it came about from “medieval Europe by fighting a political regime which”. The question here is not freedom of speech but how freedom of speech is utilized to represent others with a lack of understanding for these individuals. In examining the emerged of freedom of speech it is without doubt it should be valued both in the west and as well by Muslims.. we should refrain ourselves from abusing this right. Bin Laden does not represent my religion.

Thank you kindly,



Anonymous said...

People need to laugh. Yes just laugh a little now and then. Everyday there are offensive things to everyone regardless of their beliefs. I am for freedom of speech because once you suppress one for one reason then you have to suppress more and more and freedom become no more. The current events are truly childish to say the least so everyone just laugh a little...


Anonymous said...

Our Muslim immigrants have a staggering high crime rate,some are extremists,and now we can

probably expect a terror attack.It should come as no surprise,that we worry about all this,and of course we have a heated debate in the press. I would like to add though,that 2 Danish news-papers (Politiken and Information)have an attitude that is completely different from that of Jyl-lands-Posten.

I would love to have more Muslims like Mr. Safi in Denmark.

Peter Jensen

Louay Safi said...

Thanks to all who contributed to this debate.

As I stated in the article, freedom of speech is essential to democratic government and human dignity, and I was not by any means suggesting that the state should regulate it. Far from it. I started by emphasizing that the surest way to servitude is to empower the government to regulate free speech. After all, I can think of no better instance for free speech than to criticize power usurpation and abuse by public officials.

In stressing that power was not absolute, I was pointing out to the need to use freedom with responsibility. Free speech should not be used to insult, humiliate, insinuate, or marginalize, but confront corruption, and critically engage societal issues and concerns.

Anonymous said...

So, what's the deal with cutting heads off? Is that OK? I don't see very many Muslims condemning that. You have to earn respect. I see a number of Muslims who have earned my respect, but until the Muslim world condemns its own for brutally killing or kidnapping and terrorising people, I am not sympathetic. A silly cartoon never killed anyone.

think again said...

assalam o alaikum wa rahmatulla
My main question and concern is has anyone actually seen what has followed after the danish cartoons? There are websites selling t shirts of muhammad cartoons, weekly competitions for the best drawing and even subscription to receive a cartoon a day. So where has all the protests and anger from early this year led too? worse images of the beloved peace be upon him. The images I have seen cannot be imagined ever. But it has happened. This is were muslims need to ask themselves how do we sensibly and wisely explain the importance of respecting anothers beleif. Those who do not want to listen to us muslims, who are not interested ...... fine. But THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INSULT AND FREE SPEECH. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE IN ABUSE AND RESPECT. The world's fastest growing religeon is constantly under attack, why? because people dont want it to exsist? so to wipe out islam, the easy way is to wipe out muslims. killing them one by one, muslim country after muslim country. Thats the way it seems at the momment. Just imagine if someone drew you or your mother or another loved one of yours in a cartoon? you have to admit nobody likes it if someone bad mouths their loved ones yet with muslims they always get walked on and not just by non muslims but the extreme islamic fanatics as well who air their views as if it is coming from all of us when it is not! Not even a single drawing of jesus peace be upon him has been created after the danish cartoons, why? not because muslims cannot draw! but because those who practice islam correctly know evil and injustice is not returned with the same. otherwise there is no difference between you and them.

Muhammad peace be upon him, is very dear to muslims for He lived to see people unite. He helped the rich and poor, young and old to understand living, working and trading honestly. Muslims learn respect from Islam and peace .......... Ameen.

Anonymous said...

Your Mother Wears Combat Boots!

I have to put up with that ^^.

Christen put up with so much more.

But even you have adhered to the muslim.

No! No! forbid. You put a bomb in a turban and on a bearded mans head. Its a muslim taboo!
I put a towel on my head way before the word muslim ever found its way into my vocabulary!
Kill them all for cartoon ing. Just in Muslim country, Fine. Kept them there; if they cant take a joke!
We have too! If we did what these do every time a cartoon was put up we would have to be jailed. We the world has put up with so much more than this, that this is but a grain of sand on an ocean beach.
Sir: Anyone that can find a way to forgive them for lusting to murder people who have devoted their lives to taking some of the seriousness out of the absurd. You say are so much more religous that most, cant deal with freedom, well the world is not going to give up freedom so they will not call a cartoon a hate crime,
If they still find a way to find blamelessness for them, when it took a act of god to keep them from killing one of their own because he swore his love and faith to Christen is someone who needs to but under their rule for a few years. Then come back to us and you can protect them some more if you really want. Heck you can move in with them, I`ll send you a couple bucks for coffee if that will help you with your move?
They have NO Regard for ANYONE Elses Rights. (No Exceptions).
This Is No Brag Just A Fact!

Alexc3 said...

I don't think it's an abuse of free speech at all. Ideas should be criticized openly, and part of criticizing an idea sometimes involves mockery of it. Islam definitely deserves mockery for its ideas and beliefs.

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