In September 2005, twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad were published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten daily and then reprinted in a Norwegian magazine in January 2006. The cartoons included a portrayal of the prophet wearing a time-bomb-shaped turban and show him as a wild-eyed, knife-wielding bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.
The cartoons sparked an uproar in the Muslim world, where images of the prophet are considered blasphemous. Public protests have been held, embassies have been closed, and there has been some violence. Meanwhile, the Danish Government has refused to apologise, saying that Islam has an argument with the paper, not with them, and that they cannot restrict the ‘freedom of the press’. Western free speech advocates have flocked to support the Danish position.
So … it would appear that we in the West have finally proven our moral and cultural superiority over our Islamic brethren of the East. Our communities might be disintegrating. Our kids are running amok with sex and drugs. We are over-stressed and over-worked. Our debts are mounting up while our families are breaking down BUT … at least now we have shown our great superiority in one central area: we uphold the right to ridicule the beliefs of others!
Against the objections of Islamic worshippers worldwide, Western governments (and a fresh group of until-recently-dormant social activists) have upheld the right to produce religiously defamatory cartoons, as such productions embrace what is at the heart of all freedom-loving democracies – the right to free speech and a free press.
What a load of crap!
I am not convinced that eradication of all censorship is a sign of a progressive society, nor that it indicates real ‘freedom’. Either way though, it is just plainly false to suggest that the Western press is free to publish whatever it will.
In some very progressive Western democracies it is against the law to deny that the Holocaust happened. Is this a curtailment of free speech? I guess so, but it’s also an attempt to stem anti-Semitism and to show respect to a generation of human beings who suffered enormously. Maybe that’s more important.
When I was at University studying Social Work, I still remember being sickened by some of the‘progressive’ lecturers who took great pride in explicitly discussing the great variety of sexual practices going on in our community. What sickened me most back then was not so much the content of the discussion as such, but rather the pretension of the speakers, who considered themselves more liberated than those of us who considered some of those topics to be inappropriate for public discussion.
For the truth is that these persons had their boundaries too. They would laugh and joke and speak very explicitly about heterosexual and homosexual practices, bestiality and necrophilia, and loved to give the impression that nothing was off limits for discussion. It just wasn’t true. They stopped short on discussing paedophilia in such detail – thanks be to God. There was no laughing or joking in that area, and no explicit discussion.
We all have boundaries. We all recognise that some things just shouldn’t be the subject of humour. We all exercise discretion in what we talk about, laugh about and joke about. We just draw the boundaries at different points.
And so we find out – surprise, surprise – that our Islamic neighbours draw the boundaries of acceptable humour more conservatively than do we in the West. They do not appreciate jokes about the prophet Mohammed. For that matter, they wouldn’t appreciate jokes about Jesus either, who they also consider to be a prophet.
We in the West are at a different point culturally. We have become hardened to religious humour that targets our cherished beliefs. Things that would have appalled our parents and which might have had our grandparents taking up arms, nowadays are just considered part of the landscape. Does this mean that we in the West are more ‘advanced’? I wouldn’t say that.
Perhaps the greatest irony in all this is the way in which this ‘free speech’ in the ‘free press’ has led to further caricaturing of the Islamic community as a whole.
Most people I speak to are appalled at the violent reaction of the Islamic community that this cartoon has engendered. Somehow these people seem to have missed the fact that most of the protests about the cartoons have been peaceful, and that where people have been hurt, they have generally been Islamic people.
How did we miss this? Did our free press somehow not report on these matters in a fair and balanced way? Could it be that there are vested interests at work, influencing the way that these things are reported. Could it be that some of our media magnates would like to see a hardening of the division between the Islamic East and the Christian West?
It makes you wonder how we really should define ‘freedom of the press’?