The Brussels Journal has been closely following the Danish cartoon affair. Unlike the meanstraim media, who (apart from Denmark) are not interested in the case, we think it is very important for the future of Europe. Today we received a long email from a Muslim reader explaining why he takes offence at two of the twelve cartoons (see them here) published last September in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Islam prohibits depictions of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. When a Danish author complained that he could not find an artist to illustrate his book about Muhammad, the paper decided to ask Danish cartoonists to draw them pictures of the prophet. Our reader’s letter is published below. But first, the latest events in this ongoing case.
An influential Islamic organisation, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), has called upon its 51 member states to boycott Denmark unless the Danish government “presents an official apology for the drawings that have offended the world’s Muslims.” Last Thursday, the foreign ministers of the 22 members of the Arab League also expressed their dissatisfaction with the Danish government. They demand that the Danish government change its attitude. So far Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has consistently refused to interfere, saying that his government has no power over what the media do.
Rasmussen has made it clear that people who feel that Jyllands-Posten has broken the law, should bring the matter to court instead of demanding media censorship from the government. According to Troels Lund, Rasmussen’s foreign affairs spokesman, the criticism of the Arab league will not make Copenhagen change its position. “It is important to stand our ground and say that we have a separation of powers in Denmark and something called freedom of expression,” Lund said.
Here is the letter of our Muslim reader, who lives in Canada:
Even in a democratic society with strong protections for freedom of speech and press, there are still limits that must be imposed. I have viewed all the cartoons and in terms of content, only two of them seem to me to be particulary problematic. Let me first say that I am a Muslim but I grew up and still live in North America, so I am accustomed to seeing newspaper cartoons that satirize every imaginable subject. Also, while there is a general prohibition among Muslims of graphically depicting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) and the other Prophets, such as Moses, Abraham and Jesus (peace be on them), that prohibition has never been absolute and in certain periods there have been images of the Prophets, although their faces are either featureless or covered by a veil). Of course those pictures were made to illustrate religious texts, not to criticize the Prophets.
Personally, the simple artistic depiction of the Prophet Muhammad by a non-Muslim does not particulary bother me, any more than the depiction of Jesus or the other prophets in, for example Renaissance Art. The two cartoons that I personally find offensive are the ones that depict Muhammad as a knife-wielding terrorist and as wearing a turban that is in fact a bomb that bears the Islamic creed, “There is no divinity but God and Muhammad is his prophet”.
Of course, I have seen in my lifetime many editorial cartoons that I personally found to be offensive and almost all of them were about subjects far removed from Islam. A cartoonist has the right to draw and I have the right to be offended. Generally, nothing more needs to be said or done. However, as a society, we must take into account the sensibilities of others.
The Danish case is particularly interesting because the intention of the newspaper was to stir up controversy. The intention was to offend Muslims. The newspaper set out to provoke and they succeeded. It is strange that having succeeded they and their supporters are so incensed over the reaction. Contrast the Danish publisher’s approach with that of U.S. newspapers. In the U.S., freedom of speech and press is almost absolute. Even so, on a few occasions in recent years when an editorial cartoon has elicited a large critical outcry, in most cases, the newspaper has apologized to offended readers, pointing out that the intention of the artist was to express an opinion, that the freedom to express an opinion is guaranteed and must be protected but that in hindsight it is apparent that the same message could have been conveyed without unnecessarily insulting a significant number of readers.
In your article, you refer to Madame Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is quoted as saying the cartoons were “an unacceptable disrespect”. Madame Arbour is a Canadian and she was for many years a respected judge in Canada. It is likely that her opinion in this matter is coloured by her experience as a Canadian jurist. Here in Canada, we have for many years had to reconcile a VERY multi-cultural society with our constitutional protections on freedom of speech and press. As a result, our basic freedoms are not absolute. We have a constitutional principal that basic rights are “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Two of those reasonable limitations concern “blasphemous libel” and “hate propaganda”. The criminal statute outlawing hate propaganda bars the WILLFUL promotion of hatred, which is defined as “communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group.” The law allows for certain defences. A person cannot, for example, be convicted “if he establishes that the statements communicated were true” or “if the statements were relevant to any subject of public interest, the discussion of which was for the public benefit [thus unlikely to cause public disorder], and if on reasonable grounds he believed them to be true.” Furthermore, no conviction can be obtained if the statement was to express in good faith an opinon on a religious matter, UNLESS that expression contravenes the blasphemous libel statute.
The blasphemous libel statute has rarely been used in Canada, but it remains in full force and effect. Under it, people can still argue against and criticize religious beliefs and persons but only with tact and circumspection. The statute says that “No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.”
What I am trying to point out here is that in Canadian law, our Parliament has protected freedom of speech on the one hand and sought, on the other hand, to limit any disruption of the social fabric by outlawing speech that is so intemperate that it could lead to public disorder or violence.
Of course, another aspect of the Danish affair is that the cartoons were not published in a vacuum. They were published against the backdrop of widespread anti-Muslim prejudice and of incendiary statements likely to provoke hate against Muslims in Denmark. The decision to publish them came only a few months after Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark was quoted in the London Telegraph as saying: “We have to show our opposition to Islam and we have to, at times, run the risk of having unflattering labels placed on us because there are some things for which we should display no tolerance.”
The Queen of Denmark (who is also titular Head of the State Lutheran Chruch) has called on her subjects to oppose Islam and to display intolerance even in the face of public criticism. (She obviously is unaware of the respectful position of most Christian churches, including her own, on Islam). If Her Majesty Elizabeth II, the Queen of Canada (or her Governor General) ever said such words, there would be a constitutional crisis and calls for the Sovereign herself to be charged with inciting race hatred under the Canada Criminal Code.
In a recent private letter to me, a Danish Lutheran theologian and social activist, had, in part, this to say:
“We are facing a difficult time in Denmark right now. Many people and consequently also many politicians are worried and afraid of the presence of Muslims in Denmark. We have about 4 % of the population which is Muslim today. In the 90s the rightist populist party ‘Dansk Folekparti’ (Danish People's Party) campaigned against the Muslims and other immigrants, but after 9-11 (2001) other parties joined in the chorus and at the election in November 2001 it was the main theme. The press from the beginning added fuel to the fire by focusing almost entirely on the problems with Muslims/immigrants and has presented social issues involving immigrants from a religious/Muslim angle. Finally our dear Queen has joined the populist chorus by her very problematic statements concerning some of her subjects, the Muslims!
(...) A number of individual members of the Lutheran church, including pastors and sometimes also bishops (and my humble self), have again and again spoken up against this campaign against Muslims. (...)
Nine of the ten dioceses in the Lutheran Church in Denmark have set up an organization called ‘Folkekirke og Religionsmøde’ (Folk church and Religious Encounter, or Church and Dialogue). I was the chairman for this organization for the first 3 years and we have worked to create a positive awareness among congregations concerning their Muslim neighbours. We have established a national dialogue forum with leaders of Muslim groups, and we are publishing materials to educate the congregations.”
Those, like yourself, who speak out in favour of freedom of speech and press should also speak out against the raising tide in Denmark of racial and religious intolerance. The Danish cartoon affair is NOT just a test of basic freedoms, it is a concerted attack on a visible minority and that attack is being waged not only by incendiary cartoonists but also by government officials included the Queen of Denmark herself.
Meanwhile in Sweden a jeans manufacturer, Bjorn Atldax, has designed a jeans brand with an anti-Christian logo: a skull with a cross turned upside down on its forehead. “It is an active statement against Christianity,” Atldax told The Associated Press. “I have a great dislike for organized religion.” He says he wants to make young people question Christianity, which he calls a “force of evil.” He added that he has plans “to make something anti-Hindu because I think its caste system is awful.” But he is not considering any anti-Islamic designs because “there are already a lot of anti-Islamic sentiments.”
As a Caribbean blogger observes: “By his willingness to offend Christians and Hindus, and his hands off attitude to Islam, Atldax is proving himself to be very European.” We trust that the UN’s Louise Ardour, the EU’s Franco Frattini and the Council of Europe will respond in the same way to Bjorn Atldax’s jeans as to Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons, and demand that the Swedish government take the same actions as they want the Danish government to take. Or will they, too, prove themselves to be “very European”?