Freedom of Expression
A Danish newspaper today offered an apology to Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular for publishing twelve cartoons
depicting the Prophet Muhammad. This is after a furor in the Middle East -- the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia's consul, a lawsuit by the United Arab Emirates, and a boycott of Danish goods which made a drastic reduction in sales.
Now, the apology may have been justified as some of the cartoons weren't particularly nice -- like the one that shows Muhammad with a bomb for a turban, or the one that depicts him with devil horns. I mean, really, if someone painted Jesus or Buddha with horns, one would expect some objection. The issue at hand, clearly, is not merely the depiction of Muhammad as some would have it, but also the way in which he was depicted.
Many of the cartoons, however, reflected ironically on the newspaper that put out a call for the cartoons in the first place. One shows the editor of the paper wearing a turban with a bomb labeled pr tucked in amongst the folds, another shows Muhammad as a modern teacher writing on a blackboard "Jylland-Posten's journalists are a bunch of reactionary provacatuers." Clearly, some of the artists were suspicious of the paper's motives in putting forth this call -- was it just to sell more papers, or was it really to test the limits of free speech?
Either way, the cartoons do raise some serious issues.
1) Where do
the limits of free speech lie? Internationally, the standard seems to be that anything goes, so long as you aren't actively encouraging people to harm others. The question remains though as to what what may encourage someone to harm others. Does it have to be something direct, like saying, go find a Muslim and kick him in the balls for Jill Carroll's sake? Or can something that reinforces negative stereotypes, and hatred of an entire people be sufficient?
Certainly many of the cartoons did just that -- reinforcing the notion that Muslims are irrational, violent, big nosed, sword wielding turban wearers.
There is a reason so many groups have challenged stereotypical portrayals -- from the Jews, to the Italians and Irish and Poles, to African Americans and Latinos -- and that is because stereotyping does indeed lead to harm to real people. Whether it be discrimination on the job, in school, in the housing market, stereotyping makes it difficult for people to live their lives. Does anyone really think that encouraging the notion that all muslims are violent and irrational will help resolve current tensions between Europeans and Muslims? Of course not.
However, facing this reality, is the opposite reality that it is impossible to regulate speech without the world turning into a replica of a Barney video. Are you going to outlaw sarcasm? Irony? Articles or stories that deal with real problems facing us? How can you possibly draw the line?
To me, it's clear that freedom of expression must be upheld, even the freedom to say hateful, horrible things. Hand in hand with that, though, must be an equality of opportunity, of access to the mass media. The Danish paper thankfully didn't supress the cartoons that took it to task for scandal mongering; and while it would have been nice if they could have found one cartoonist that was able to capture something of Prophet Muhammad's humanity, his wisdom and gentleness, his adherence to honesty and justice, I suppose it's not very surprising that his good qualities are not much touted in non-Muslim circles.
Unfortunately, all too often, it is difficult to get ideas contrary to the prevailing ones heard. Me writing on my blog doesn't quite carry the reach of even the smallest of newspapers. (Not yet at least, maybe after my books get published and reach best seller status. *wink*)
2) What is the appropriate reaction to hateful speech? I find the boycott of Danish goods, the removal of ambassadors and lawsuits against the paper to be rather out of proportion. After all, a lot worse is going on in the world than a few people drawing some pictures. Withdraw your ambassador because the US is adventuring in Iraq, maybe. Or because they rubber stamp oil corporations who would very much like to suck all the profit of natural resources which should be used to build the infrastructure of the countries beneath whose soil the oil lies. Yeah.
But all this furor because someone depicted prophet Muhammad? Heck, Muslims themselves have depicted Prophet Muhammad, such as in this picture
where he is shown being carried by Gabriel, or these
where he is shown without a face, or this one
where Gabriel is presenting him the city of Madinah.
To be honest, such depictions would no doubt be condemned by the people who condemned the Danish cartoons -- the consensus for the greater part of Muslim history has been that drawing the Prophet is a big no-no. Some refuse to draw any of the major historical figures; others believe it is forbidden to draw any animal life, including people. But the point still remains that a handful of silly drawings is nothing compared to the real injustices that are occurring in many parts of the Muslim world.
My idea of an appropriate response -- a calm explanation that drawing (or acting the role of) goes against our religious teachings, which we'd really like for you to honor, and if you're not going to, then please don't insult our Prophet by portaying him as something he wasn't. I'd probably stop buying the paper myself. If I was in a position to be placing ads, my marketing dollars would go to other outlets. But lawsuits, recalling ambassadors, and boycotting all Danish products... umm, no.