Together with several related conflicts, the cartoon war has suggested a sharp conflict between basic liberties, between free speech and the right to exercise one's religion. A revival of blasphemy laws faced the difficulty that the offense sounded so archaic, but other efforts to limit speech used much more current justifications. In the name of preventing "hate speech" against particular religions, European states have extended laws originally intended to fight incitement to violence, and have expanded their scope to cover attacks on religions or religious doctrines. This tendency has resulted in draconian prosecutions for what look like forceful arguments rather than "fighting words," as in American constitutional doctrine.
The attempt to regulate intemperate speech has produced results that alarm European secularists and would trouble many Americans. If an American political leader denounced some particular race or religion, that act would probably blight his or her public career and perhaps lead to protests, but it would not be a matter for official intervention. Evangelist Franklin Graham faced no criminal charges for characterizing Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion." In England, in contrast, promoting racial or religious hatred can be a criminal offense. In 2006, BNP leader Nick Griffin was tried (though ultimately acquitted) for asserting, among other things, that Asian Muslims were trying to conquer the United Kingdom, and for describing Islam as "this wicked, vicious faith" that "has expanded from a handful of cranky lunatics about 1,300 years ago."20
Other recent cases involve the prosecution of major writers, rather than gutter journalists, for remarks on Islam that should be seen as trenchant and polemical rather than abusive. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was prosecuted for her attacks on Islam after 9/11, in her book The Rage and the Pride. In this work, she attacked "arrogant. . . Albanians, Sudanese, Bengalis, Tunisians, Algerians, Pakistanis, Nigerians who with much fervor contribute to the commerce of drugs and prostitution." Muslims "breed like rats." She also found Pope John Paul II too soft on the Muslim danger, asking: "Your Holiness, why in the name of the only God, don't you take them into the Vatican? On the condition that they don't smear with shit the Sistine Chapel." In a follow-up volume, The Force of Reason, she warned of Europe's descent into a barbarous Eurabia: "Europe becomes more and more a province of Islam, a colony of Islam. In each of our cities lies a second city: a Muslim city, a city run by the Koran. A stage in the Islamic expansionism." Yet despite their harshness, Fallaci's opinions struck a chord: The Force of Reason sold 800,000 copies in Italy alone.21
Another controversial figure was French novelist Michel Houelle-becq, who was tried (and acquitted) for inciting hatred when he denounced Islam as "the dumbest religion" ("la religion la plus con") in an interview with the magazine Lire. He added that "when you read the Koran, it's appalling, appalling." Official interventions in such cases herald a kind of ultra-sensitive group libel law radically different from anything in U.S. experience.22
The conflict between different concepts of liberties arose in acute form in Great Britain, which since 1976 has enforced severe restrictions on speech directed against racial minorities. This category was taken to include Jews and Sikhs but did not include Muslims, since Islam is not a racial label. In 2005-2006, the British government tried to expand these protections under a Racial and Religious Hatred Bill that would make it a criminal offense to incite "religious hatred through threatening words, actions and insults." A broad coalition of intellectuals and libertarians complained that the new law would severely restrict serious debate over religion. The campaign found an effective face in comedian Rowan Atkinson, best known through his role in the BBC shows Mr. Bean and Blackadder. In 2006, opponents achieved a rare example of a victory over Tony Blair's substantial parliamentary majority, forcing the government to water down the law. Under the revised version, anyone accused under the law could invoke freedom of speech safeguards to show that the words had no "hateful" intent.23
Despite this victory, it is remarkable that a liberal society could come so close (one vote in parliament) to passing a law that would probably have been used to suppress virtually any unflattering reference to Islam. To indicate the possible outcome, some British Muslim leaders had threatened to take action against uses of the term "Muslim terrorists," since that linkage demeaned the religion. This approach has won the sympathy of EU authorities, whose recent guidelines urge member states to eschew terms like "Islamic terrorist," preferring "terrorists who abusively invoke Islam."24
At the same time, European governments long proved themselves uncertain about how to respond to various forms of hate speech by Muslim activists themselves when the words were delivered in the form of religious exhortations. Matters have changed, however, following the recent terrorist upsurge, and the furious incitements to armed terrorism delivered by Britain's Abu Hamza did indeed lead to his imprisonment. Interestingly, the rabid extremism of some of the cartoon protests themselves forced European governments to reexamine what had seemed their limitless tolerance of loud-mouthed dissent. In Britain, the overt celebrations of the subway bombings and the open threats of repetition were sufficiently maddening to force official intervention, and several protesters were charged with "using words or written material to stir up racial hatred." One of those charged was a leader of al-Ghurabaa'. Muslim protests in Britain were also counterproductive in other ways, in persuading enough members of parliament to vote against the proposed new law against religious hatred. Another law that actually did pass in 2006 criminalized any action or speech that "glorifies the commission or preparation" of acts of terrorism, a concept that undoubtedly will lead to intense legal debate in years to come. Given the very broad definitions that some writers have applied to "terrorism," there is no reason the law should not be used to penalize commemorations of the American, French, or Irish revolutions. British authorities are now contemplating an unprecedented ban on publicly burning the national flag.
Though prosecuting seditious speech by some Muslim activists, European governments have not hitherto intervened forcefully as they might against other rhetoric not openly directed against the state. Although Muslim activists demanded stricter speech codes and hate crime laws, they faced the obvious paradox that the cartoon portrayals of Muhammad were nothing like as offensive as the outrageous portrayals of Jews and Jewish themes that are a staple of Islamist pamphlets and periodicals, both domestically and internationally. At the height of the cartoon controversy, the hit film in Turkey was Valley of the Wolves (Kurtlar Vadisi Irak), an exposé of Jewish and American plots in which an American-Jewish doctor harvested the organs of prison inmates for wealthy patients in New York, London, and Israel. The film was a sensation in Turkish areas of Germany, and Berlin audiences responded to scenes of the defeat and killing of Americans with cries of "Allahu Ak-bar!" While demanding that Denmark apologize for the misdeeds of its media, Muslim nations have not offered their own regrets for such eruptions.25
Was this article helpful?