The Political Uses of Free Speech
The Political Uses of Free Speech
I empathize with those baffled by the rapidly spiraling controversy around the series of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad.
The cartoons were first published in the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, nearly five months ago, in September. The initial protest was limited to
All this before the disclosure that a Danish illustrator had in April 2003 submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten, only to receive an email from the paper's Sunday editor: "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."
One wonders about the intensity of the protests. Especially since 9/11, Prophet Muhammad has been vilified in print by several public figures, from Reverend Franklin Graham -- son of Billy Graham and spiritual advisor to President, George W. Bush -- who has publicly called Islam "an evil and wicked religion" to Reverend Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who called Prophet Mohammed "a demon-possessed pedophile" during a keynote address. But none evoked the tide of public protest as have the cartoons.
When the paper at the centre of the controversy apologized on its website because the cartoons had "indisputably offended many Muslims," the right-wing European press, outraged by this "caving in," took up the cause. Led by France Soir in
Everyone agrees that the cartoons are offensive, and not particularly because they portray the Prophet in human form. [After all, you can see such depictions in both Ottoman Turkish and Persian miniatures, as well as in contemporary
Why do we not draw the conclusion that those who protest against their Prophet being depicted as a terrorist are in reality distancing themselves from terrorism, in fact, demonstrating against it? I suppose because we realize that there is more to the demonstrations than just a vote for or against terrorism. That something more depends on the context of the demonstrations.
I wish to draw attention to two different contexts: Muslim-majority countries and
The demonstrations in Muslim-majority countries include a variety of contradictory forces. For one, in this period ushered in by Hamas' astonishing electoral victory, pro-American governments are anxious about Islamist mobilization and eager to preempt it. Rather than curb, they would wish to claim ownership of the demonstrations. At the same time, those shut out of public life, extremist or not, realize they have found an issue on which they can call their governments to account without fear of facing direct repression; so they press home their point that the War on Terror their governments have joined unreservedly is at its core a war against Islam and Muslims. Here, then, is an issue which allows local civil society an opportunity to exercise freedom of speech to confront their own governments, alongside those of
The group best placed to sense the gravity of this moment is that of European Muslims. More than anyone else, they must be acutely aware that the depiction of Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist and sexist goes beyond a general demonization of Muslims to a direct assault on Muslims in
It is difficult to ignore the emerging European consensus that it is not just freedom of speech, but
Is there a way out of this confrontation, other than calling on European governments to ban the publication of cartoons? I fervently hope there is. And this brings me to the source of my current bafflement.
Every morning, as I read the paper or surf the internet, I anxiously look for significant European voices -- not from government but from the world of the intellect and the arts -- that would distance themselves from this particular attempt to promote Islamophobia as an exercise in free speech. I eagerly await signs of a lively debate within European civil society, one that will break the current impasse with testimony that the intellectual and political children of those who fought fascism in
For now, unfortunately, free speech is being used on both sides of this controversy, on the one hand as a license for hate speech, and on the other as a way to trigger a broader contest that would echo a 'clash of civilizations.' If there are passionate defenders of free speech on both sides, there are also those who recognize that this issue has the potential of driving a broader political agenda. It is time the defenders of free speech pay attention to the latter effect. The exercise of free speech has never come free of consequences, for one and all. This is why every society defines that which is offensive which you may have a legal right to say, but will morally refrain from saying; but should you not, then it should not be surprising that it offends most decent people.