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Danish Mohammed Cartoons: Abuse of Two Rights

Mal Fletcher
Posted 07 February 2006
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An obscure newspaper in a small country commissions and prints a series of cartoons. The cartoons depict the leader of one of the world's major religious faiths.

Leaving aside the controversial subject matter, they're not particularly good. Even some of the artists, who are paid the equivalent of just £80 each for their contributions, agree on that.

Publication of the cartoons provokes some local opposition, followed by disquiet in a few other countries. Four months after their publication, however, two more prominent international newspapers reproduce the cartoons and this time the effect is explosive.

Embassies in foreign countries are attacked and torched; sometimes violent demonstrations fill news reports around the world. Prime Ministers are pulled into the ensuing discussion about freedom of speech versus religious tolerance.

It all sounds like the plot for a second-rate novel, but of course it is not.

This week, we’ve seen and heard an explosion of vitriolic rhetoric and violent action in many nations -- all as a result of cartoons first printed in a Danish newspaper. Sometimes, the truth really is scarier than fiction.

There are two major issues involved with the publication of the now infamous cartoons of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The first is the issue of freedom of speech.

French and German newspaper editors defended their decision to reproduce the cartoons. They were, in their minds, making a stand for this important social freedom. They went to press knowing full well that they may be stirring up a hornet's nest -- not just in the Middle East, where the cartoons have caused deep offence and led to violence against Danish and Norwegian people and property, but at home in Europe.

Freedom of speech is one of the great cornerstones of modern liberal democracy. The French philosopher Voltaire famously said that whilst he may disagree with the views of an opponent, he would vehemently defend the man's right to express those views.

This right is so central to the interface between government and the governed that any attempt to dilute it in law quickly raises protests. This happened recently with the British government's bill regarding the incitement to religious hatred -- a bill opposed by law Lords, religious leaders and entertainers alike; a bill eventually thrown down.

The right to freedom of speech is vital, but it is not an absolute right without limits. It is a right which, like others, comes joined-at-the-hip with social responsibilities.

We may live in a free society, but none of us can say whatever we like without consequences. Freedom of speech is not a right which overrides every other right in society; neither does it negate the need for civility among people or respect for differing views.

I might think all kinds of things, but not give voice to them because they will damage other people or tear at the fabric of society – a society which affords me the right to speak in the first place.

The second issue at stake is the freedom to demonstrate. This has been exercised on a large scale by some Muslims in the West, even in cities which had not seen the published cartoons -- London, for example.

Again, the right to demonstrate is a key foundation in modern democracies. It is not always an automatic right in the Middle East, or in countries which do not share Western views on human rights. In fact, in some of these areas demonstrations quickly turn to riots because peaceful protest is either frowned upon or brutally trodden down by officialdom. In the end, people turn violent and the mob mentality takes over partly because it seems the only way they can voice their views without being overcome.

Even in the freest of democracies the freedom to demonstrate its circumscribed by other rights. It is an abuse of my right if I intend to incite or practice violence.

Holding up placards calling for murder or the repeat of terrorist atrocities, as some protesters did in London, is not furthering any argument in a positive way and simply turns up the volume on the rhetoric of violence. These threats and those who make them must be treated with the same strong opposition in law as people who actually plan terrorist bombings. The scale of penalty may differ, but there must be strong legal action.

In the case of the Danish cartoons and the reaction to them, both democratic rights have been abused.

Freedom of speech was not well served by those newspaper which published the cartoons. They overstepped the mark – as they often have done, incidentally, in their treatment of ideas related to Christianity. They knew the material would only cause offence and unrest.

On the other hand, some Western Muslims – a minority who are obviously looking for a fight -- have abused the freedom to demonstrate. They have called for the destruction of people, property and social order in societies which, after all, allow them freedoms not normally accorded them in their countries of origin – the freedom of religious expression for one.

Meanwhile, in Muslem nations, thousands have gone beyond marching and taken to burning embassies. In some cases, in Damascus and Lebanon for example, civil authorities have almost turned a blind eye to the destruction of these properties, thereby giving tacit approval to the actions of the mob.

There is still a huge ideological gulf between the democracies of the West and theocracies elsewhere. There is also a clear gap between the values on which civilizations have been built.

Perhaps we’ll never change the minds and hearts of people who live with theocracy, but we can at least make our own house stronger.

It is time for us to choose: not just which laws we will live by, for law alone cannot produce harmony and peace. We must choose which spiritual values we will adhere to, for the law is simply a reflection of much deeper spiritual values.

If we are to come through the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ around us, we will need to be very sure of who we are and what we stand for.

Today, we’re living in a kind of spiritual vaccuum.

We try not to offend people whose cultures are not based on the same spiritual beliefs as our own, while being totally unsure of what it is we actually believe!

We have, for more than a century, steadily rejected the Christian faith and values which played a central role in making the West strong, creative and -- at least in our intent -- tolerant.

Wherever a spiritual vacuum exists something will try to fill it. We can’t bury our heads in the sands of secularism and say "people are no longer interested in spiritual things.” We need to admit that Christian faith does play a central role, as it always has, in shaping our values.

T.S. Eliot once noted that he could not see how European society could ever survive the complete destruction of Christianity. Christianity promotes the ideal of not only loving God, but loving our human neighbours as much as we do ourselves.

We must choose on which spiritual values we will build because religious systems do not all advocate the same values – and they don’t all view freedom in the same light.

What’s your view?

Should European newspapers have published the Danish cartoons which have provoked such reaction?



Keywords: Danish Mohammed cartoons | Danish cartoons | freedom of speech | cartoons | social comment | Islam | prophet Mohammed | right to demonstrate | embassies | Voltaire | values | Christianity | Mal Fletcher

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