Faith versus Freedom? Some Clareifications
It has been a year and a half since the now infamous cartoons depicting Muhammad first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. On September 30th 2005, the stone was cast, its ripples rising to a tsunami that would engulf much of the globe in protest, both peaceful and violent; a banshee wail of an outcry that would ultimately leave more than a hundred dead. On February 2nd 2007, that now much abated ripple finally reached Cambridge when the reprinting of one of the cartoons in Clareification led to more modest condemnation. And somewhere in between the raging debate that might be seen to have set faith against freedom of speech, a more modest question must be asked. Can the experience of Jyllands-Posten and the right-wing dailies that followed in its footsteps be compared to that of Clareification, or would such a comparison be to conflate two quite separate issues?
For the wider world the issue has often been painted as a fundamental conflict between the demands of a religion based on ancient texts and the principles of modern liberal democracies based on inalienable rights to freedom of speech, thought and expression. Some have gone as far as arguing that the two are diametrically opposed, recalling Huntington’s controversial Clash of Civilisations. For Huntington, it is folly to assume the universal applicability of Western values, particularly when exporting them across the ‘bloody borders’ of the Islamic world. Or, as George W. Bush so succinctly simplified for the lay reader: “They don’t like our freedoms”. But to paint such a gloss over the cartoon controversy, trumpeting the progressive Western values of freedom of speech versus the reactionary demands of Muslim communities, (perhaps the embattled armies of Christendom in a valiant last attempt to defend Jerusalem against Salah al-Din’s approaching hordes) is to ignore one crucial factor to this equation: Islamophobia.
Let me be clear, freedom of speech must be a fundamental, immutable right. There can be no compromise on this. Temporal matters should always take precedence over spiritual and no religion should hold the power of veto over what is permissible to publish in a free press. Faith, no matter how strongly held, cannot dictate to freedom. I would, therefore, recognise the right of papers to publish the cartoons. At the same time, however, I am strongly opposed to the publication of the cartoons in papers such as Jyllands-Posten. The reason for this is their intent. Religion does not, and should not, have the right not to be offended or, more importantly, to be criticised. But the publication of the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and many of the right-wing papers that followed it was not simply a harmless and humorous attempt to ridicule and satirise religion. They did not do to Islam what ‘Life of Brian’ did to Christianity. Instead we must see the publication of the cartoons as an explicit attempt to target what constitutes a victimised minority in many European countries.
As we have seen, Jyllands-Posten, a paper which can be noted for its established record of hostility to immigrants, on a separate occasion significantly rejected cartoons depicting Jesus. Whilst it contends that this was due to the poor quality of these cartoons, one might also identify through both its editorial policy and its political stance an express intent to target the Danish Muslim minority. As the controversy erupted, right-wing papers across Europe flocked to reprint the cartoons of Muhammad. They jumped on the bandwagon under an illusory banner proclaiming the defence of free speech, but their effect and indeed their cause was to throw fuel to flames which would predictably stir up anti-Muslim sentiment. And whilst commendably no British daily newspaper reprinted the cartoons in the wake of this controversy, it is important to note that amongst the first British media outlets to display them was the website of the explicitly racist and Islamophobic British National Party. Across Europe, the right-wing press have been responsible for creating a moral panic over the issue of asylum and immigration out of all proportion to the actual effects of these processes. They have fostered what can only be seen as a form of legitimised racism. The cartoon controversy is not a matter of faith versus freedom. The real issue is that it has been used as a weapon to target Muslims who, of all immigrant communities, have been amongst the most demonised by the media and by far-right parties such as the BNP. For this reason, it is not at all inconsistent to both support the right for these cartoons to be published, whilst utterly opposing their publication where it constitutes an Islamophobic attack thinly disguised by a veil called freedom of speech.
The same cannot be said for Clareification where there cartoon was not intended as an attack Muslims, but was part of an issue, re-named Crucification, intended as a broad satire on religion. Local Muslims may have been offended, but to offend is not to commit a crime. Satire is a healthy aspect of debate, a vital tool of criticism and a fundamental function of a modern liberal society that permits freedoms of speech, thought and expression. To compare the situation of Clareification to that of Jyllands-Posten and the gutter press that followed it in an Islamophobic crusade against vulnerable communities is not merely to misrepresent the issue, it is to grant the right-wing press a victory that should not be granted. This is not a victory of freedom versus faith, it is a victory of prejudice versus tolerance.