Regulating Speech

Responding to these events, and especially to the cartoon affair, some European thinkers and policy makers have demonstrated a remarkable willingness to concede that Muslim protesters did indeed have a point. Günter Grass, for instance, saw the cartoons as "reminiscent of the famous newspaper of the Nazi era, the Stürmer, which published anti-Semitic cartoons of a similar style. . . . Where does the West come by all this arrogance in dictating what is right and wrong?" European officials, meanwhile, have made every effort to be conciliatory. After the newspaper France-Soir published the cartoons, the French embassy in Algeria issued something close to an apology. (The newspaper's owner, a Coptic Christian, fired its editor.) The statement asserted that France was as "deeply attached to the spirit of tolerance and to respect of religious belief as we are to the principle of freedom of the press. In this light, France condemns all those who hurt individuals in their beliefs or religious convictions." Bill Clinton denounced the cartoons as "appalling" and "outrageous."12

Pressure to expand hate speech laws moved to the global stage. Members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference asked the United Nations to support enhanced protection for religion, and the issue surfaced in debates over the new Human Rights Council. The UN's Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Ardour, declared that the Danish cartoons constituted "an unacceptable disrespect" to Islam, and she appointed a special investigator to examine Danish Islamophobia.13

While formally acknowledging a right of free speech, Islamists are correct to point out that the modern European legal and political tradition has always recognized the necessity of restraint. As Sheikh al-Qaradawi notes, European laws enforce tight limits in some areas, especially in the matter of Holocaust denial, and he was writing before historian David Irving found himself imprisoned in Austria for this very offense. Germany and other nations are ferocious in prohibiting the display or possession of Nazi symbols or regalia, while even devoted adherents of free speech rights acknowledge the justice of suppressing anti-Semitic comments. Al-Qaradawi argued,

The Jews are protected by laws . . . and nobody can say even one word about the number [of victims] in the alleged Holocaust. Nobody can do so, even if he is writing an M.A. or Ph.D. thesis, and discussing it scientifically. Such claims are not acceptable. . . . We want laws protecting the holy places, the prophets, and Allah's messengers.

In 2006, the French Parliament criminalized the act of denying the Armenian genocide of 1915. Superficially, then, framing Muslim demands as a call for equal treatment of minority religions could prove attractive.14

But in the face of a frontal attack on free speech, conciliatory gestures looked like an unacceptable bow to repression. The European Union's foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana assured Arab nations that "you can be sure we will do our utmost to prevent such a thing [the Muhammad cartoons] from happening again." Yet such an assurance could scarcely be made in the context of free media and rather suggested a regime of state control. Franco Frattini, the EU commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, specifically proposed that media submit to a voluntary code of conduct. By doing so, "the press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right." Many observers found such promises terrifying, and not surprisingly, the nations most reluctant to consider such compromises were those eastern European states only recently emerging from Communism.15

Some European nations considered responding to calls to respect religious sensitivities by reviving long dormant blasphemy laws. In Britain, a celebrated trial as recently as 1977 showed that the ancient law against blasphemous libel still had teeth, at least in the specifically Christian context. In this case, the newspaper Gay News was successfully prosecuted for publishing a poem portraying Jesus as a promiscuous homosexual and thereby spreading "contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God." In the Netherlands, following the battle over the film Submission, the justice minister proposed reviving and enforcing a 1932 law prohibiting "scornful blasphemy." The goal, he added, was not to protect religion but rather to prevent political turmoil and destabilization. "It is not about religion specifically, but any harmful comments in general." Italian authorities have dusted off the old law, dating from the fascist era, which penalizes "whoever offends the state's religion by defaming it." The law's protections now extend to "any religion acknowledged by the state," which includes Islam. Even Denmark still has a blasphemy law, though authorities decided not to invoke it against the cartoons.16

It would not take much ingenuity to apply such laws to something like the cartoons, and the laws probably would pass legal muster at both national and European levels. In 1989, the British Board of Film Censors banned the film Visions of Ecstasy, which luridly portrayed St. Teresa receiving an erotic vision of the crucified Christ. The director protested that the existence of a blasphemy law was an absurd anachronism, but the European Court of Human Rights decided that freedom of speech also demanded "a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory." Nor, in light of recent demographic trends, does it seem logical to confine such a privilege to Christian "veneration" alone. In Britain, 58 percent of Muslims surveyed agreed with the statement that, despite the right to free speech, people who insult Islam should face criminal prosecution.17

Legality apart, the cartoon conflict has de facto reinstated sanctions against blasphemy in Europe, in the sense that force and the threat of force have succeeded completely in preventing offensive images being shown and in deterring any possible future repetition of the conduct. In practice, European media responded by accepting exactly the kind of self-censorship advocated by European bureaucrats, and already adopted by theaters. In a little-noticed aftermath to the cartoon affair, an Anglican paper in Wales published a mild cartoon featuring Muhammad. On realizing the potential for conflict, the proprietors immediately withdrew the offending item and apologized profusely to Muslim authorities. Meanwhile, the Rotterdam film festival canceled a screening of Submission that was to be included as part of a season of censored films. Also canceled was a showing in the EU assembly's press center in Brussels, a venue that should have come within the protection of the European parliament.18

Some observers see in the restrictions on religious criticism not just a simple curtailing of free speech but also a newly privileged role for the faith of Islam. After all, Christianity and Islam differ in terms of projecting their views in the wider society. Christianity emphasizes the conversion of individuals, who might as a group have the ability to affect wider values, or in biblical terms, to serve as the leaven that permeates the whole loaf. Islam's traditions, in contrast, are communal and collective, and so is the act of conversion. Islam dates its calendar from the creation of the first Muslim state and society, at Madinah in A.D. 622. Through history, Muslims have sought to create states and legal systems that are in accordance with Islam and Islamic law, presuming that mass conversions will follow gradually, perhaps over centuries—and their expectations have repeatedly been justified. In the meantime, faithful Muslims believe they have a duty to remove laws and customs flagrantly at variance with Islam. From this perspective, if a society conforms itself to Muslim legal and social norms, then it is already on the way to conversion. Of course, Ayaan Hirsi Ali had little time for anti-cartoon protests. Rejecting appeals to "religious sensitivities," she declares that "demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad's teachings should refrain from drawing him is not a request for respect but a demand for submission."19

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment