The Cartoon Affair is putting the Belgian authorities in a pickle. On Friday one of its citizens, the Arab immigrant Dyab Abu Jahjah, who lives in Brussels, decided to put a daily cartoon on the website of his organization, the Arab European League.
“After the lectures that Arabs and Muslims received from Europeans on Freedom of Speech and on Tolerance […] AEL decided to enter the cartoon business and to use our right to artistic expression. […] If it is the time to break Taboos and cross all the red lines, we certainly do not want to stay behind,” he wrote. According to Mr Jahjah he has the right to show abusive cartoons if Western papers have the right to show cartoons that are considered abusive by Muslims whose faith forbids the mere depiction of the prophet Muhammad.
The three AEL cartoons posted so far have been very instructive in that they have all mocked the Nazi persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust, as if Mr Jahjah wants to emphasize that “islamofascism” is indeed the ideology he adheres to.
The first cartoon, posted on Friday evening, shows Anne Frank in bed with a naked Adolf Hitler. “Write this one in your diary Anne!” Hitler says. The cartoon of the Führer and the little girl in his bed is eerily reminiscent of a story I once heard about a certain leader who took himself a child wife, but I have forgotten who it was. The second cartoon, posted yesterday, shows Jews amidst Auschwitz corpses. “We have to get to the 6,000,000 somehow!” one Jew tells another. “I don’t think they are Jews,” the other one replies. The third cartoon, posted today, shows Steven Spielberg ringing Peter Jackson to ask for his assistance with a Holocaust movie. “I don’t think I have that much imagination Steven, sorry,” Jackson replies.
Personally, I share the American view that – apart from incitements to violence and slander – freedom of speech allows people to say what they like so long as they do not impose their views on others in public spaces and at the taxpayer’s expense. Mr Jahjah says he shares the same view on freedom of expression.
In general, there is a danger in prohibiting certain opinions and an advantage in not doing so. The danger is that prohibition often makes the forbidden acts more attractive. The advantage of allowing people to say whatever they like helps other people to acquire useful information. Indeed, by their words people can be judged. Freedom of speech makes it plain for all to see how despicable some people really are. The AEL cartoons strikingly show where one can find the true heirs of Adolf Hitler in contemporary Europe. If Mr Jahjah had not published his cartoons, the proof that he is an islamofascist would still not have been conclusively delivered. But now it has.
On Dutch television on Saturday evening Mr Jahjah said that people who exercise freedom of expression without tact should be able to stand being offended themselves. “Europe also has its taboos, though they are not religious taboos,” he said referring to the Holocaust.
The AEL cartoons violate Belgian law, because denying and minimalizing the Holocaust is a criminal offense in Belgium. If the Belgian authorities take their own laws seriously they will have to prosecute Mr Jahjah. So far, however, the Belgian authorities have tended to leave Muslim radicals alone (though Lebanese born Mr Jahjah, whom some suspect to be a Syrian agent, has been arrested once, following riots in an Antwerp suburb). The Belgian authorities deny it, but there have been consistent rumours from the 1990s onwards that Brussels has made a deal with terrorists, agreeing to turn a blind eye to conspiracies hatched on Belgian soil in exchange for immunity from attack. In a statement of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), an al-Qaeda subsidiary, addressing the Belgian King but posted to the French Embassy in Brussels in June 1999, the terrorists explicitly referred to such a deal dating from the summer of 1996.
In 2004 the authorities in the Netherlands prohibited the book “The Way of the Muslim” published in 1964 by the Algerian born Sheikh, Abu Bakr Jabir al-Jaza’iry, dean of the University of Medina. The book states that men are allowed to beat women and that sodomy should be punished by death, specifically as follows: “Take them to the highest building and throw them down with their head to the ground. Then stone them.” While the authorities in the Netherlands banned the book – the only book to be prohibited in the Netherlands apart from Hitler’s Mein Kampf – the Belgian authorities refused to do so.
The Belgian minister of Justice, Laurette Onkelinx, a leader of the Parti Socialiste (PS), told the Belgian Parliament when politicians asked her to follow the Dutch example: “A prohibition might upset the delicate balance between certain cultures.” Ms Onkelinx referred to freedom of speech. “Freedom of speech is one of the foundations of a democratic society. […] This applies not only to information or ideas that are well received, or regarded as harmless or to which one is indifferent, but also to ideas which offend, shock or cause unrest.” She added: “Similar texts have been circulating on our territory for many years and are freely available in certain Islamic bookstores in our country. As far as I know this has not caused deviant behaviour among members of the Islamic community.”
During that same year 2004, however, Ms Onkelinx and her party applauded the banning of the right-wing Flemish secessionist party Vlaams Blok (VB), Belgium’s largest party. Ms Onkelinx' party is currently demanding that the Vlaams Belang party, the successor of the VB, be stripped of its funds because the party is said to be “Islamophobic.” It will be interesting to see whether the Belgian government will prosecute Mr Jahjah, thereby antagonizing radical Muslims.
Meanwhile the Dutch website Retecool has called upon its readers to send it pictures of Muhammad advertising everyday products. The website is a huge success, though many of the pictures are truly offensive.
The Belgian Muslim artist Chokri Ben Chika who offended many Catholics with his depiction of a partially naked Madonna last September, told a Belgian newspaper on Friday that what he did is allowed because “it was my own constructive attempt to contribute to a multicultural society.” Depicting Muhammad, however, should not be allowed. Mr Ben Chika, who is of Tunisian origin, said: “In Islam it is not done to depict Muhammad. That has [...] to do with the essence of this religion itself. No-one will attempt to make an image of the prophet. There is no tradition of depicting the saints [in Islam], while in Christianity there is.”
Asked why he treats Christianity differently from Islam he explained: “I am an artist and not a hero or kamikaze. I have a daughter, you know.” He added that he understood Muslim anger. “The anger of the Muslims was just the last straw. The Islamic world has been made to suffer one abuse after another: politically, socially and economically.”