Drawing attention to Mohammed

Five years after a Danish paper was fiercely criticized by Muslims for depicting the Prophet Mohammed in derogatory cartoons, Facebook and YouTube are under fire from Pakistan.

On September 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten – presumably in the spirit of promoting freedom of speech – made the decision to publish a series of 12 cartoons, all of which depicted the Prophet Mohammed in offensive ways. But not only were the content of the cartoons insulting to the founder of Islam (one depicted the Islamic prophet with a turban styled as a fizzing bomb, while another showed his image in a police line-up), they violated Islamic law, which decrees that it is blasphemous, and therefore punishable, to depict Mohammed in any way, shape or form. That would include cartoons.

The culture editor of the Danish newspaper, Flemming Rose, explained the paper’s decision as follows:

“The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule…we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Mohammed as they see him.”

In addition to calling for a boycott of Danish-made products, Muslim groups filed a complaint with the Danish police claiming that Jyllands-Posten had committed an offence under sections 140 and 266b of the Danish Criminal Code, known as the Blasphemy Law, which prohibits disturbing public order by publicly insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious order in Denmark. The law has resulted in one case, in 1938, involving an anti-Semitic group.

Danish prime minister at the time and current NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, described the international scandal that ensued “Denmark’s worst international crisis since World War II.” 

Debate moves to Pakistan

Now the controversy of self-censorship versus religious dogma is front and center once again, as Pakistan blocks user access to Facebook and YouTube, which is hosting a “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

Pakistan blocked access to YouTube – one day after it pulled the plug on the social networking site Facebook – after an online group invited people to enter the ill-conceived event. In response, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority ordered the facility to shut down YouTube "in view of growing sacrilegious content on it."

Najibullah Malik, Secretary at the information technology ministry, said Friday that the government has asked both sites to block the offending pages before Internet service is restored. Neither Facebook nor YouTube has made an official statement yet concerning the government request.

Is there a better way?

When Jyllands-Posten broached the sensitive subject of freedom of speech and Islamic law by publishing a full page of cartoons devoted to ridiculing Mohammed and the Islamic faith, my first response was one of incredulity and disgust – not by the reaction of Muslim’s, but rather by the decision to publish the inflammatory cartoons in the first place.

Five years later, with yet another in-your-face approach to the same subject courtesy of Facebook and YouTube, my opinion has not changed.

First, there are one million better ways of broaching this super-sensitive subject than dragging the Muslims – who are increasingly becoming our next-door neighbors in communities across Europe – through the mud in order to condescendingly prove that “we are right” and “your laws have no power against the freedom of speech.”

Denmark unwisely used a sanitized, rubber-gloved approach to get across its message to the Muslim community, as opposed to old fashioned tête-à-tête. Why didn’t Jyllands-Posten, with its alleged 150,000 subscribers, consider hosting a live debate on the issue first before doing something it knew would provoke unnecessary passions? Wouldn't a calm and collected debate in the margins of a newspaper be more in the spirit of the freedom of speech, as opposed to hiring a handful of cartoonists who were basically instructed what to draw (which, by the way, could also be considered a restriction on the freedom of speech).

After all, should we really expect every immigrant from abroad to immediately and unflinchingly accept our “foreign” and hyper-liberal ways? If that is truly our belief, then perhaps wide-scale immigration legislation should be suspended until these issues are better resolved. But before such draconian measures get a second look (which is already happening in many countries, including in the United States, a nation built on immigration), it may be better to ask if anybody truly lost their “freedom of speech” or personal liberties by restraining themselves from scrawling a picture of Mohammed? Personally, I don’t think so.

But many will object to that logic, arguing that it is the principle of not being able to do something that we should abhor. Okay, fine. But there are countless examples of people restraining their behavior for other causes.

For example, where were the brave defenders of the freedom of speech when the “debate” on whether or not to attack Iraq was steaming ahead? Although few, if any, journalists would describe it this way, the vast majority of American journalists subscribed to “self-censorship” – even when it became crystal clear that the United States was rushing into war because the United Nations weapons inspectors – then on the ground in Iraq – where failing to find any evidence to support the theory that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

Ironically, even Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper so concerned about the freedom of speech, was completely sold on the Iraq War, offering no alternative voice on the debate to its readers.

It is already well-known that the handful of brave souls who did speak out against the Iraq War were demonized, sidelined or ignored in the media. And those who were expected of stirring up trouble during the war were quietly relieved of their posts before the bombs started falling (Phil Donahue, for example, besides enjoying robust rankings, had his show removed from the airwaves weeks before the Iraq War, while CNN’s popular Talk Back program, which gave viewers the ability to have their opinions expressed on the air, was replaced with front-line reports from Baghdad. Lastly, the Dixie Chicks, a popular country band that criticized then President George W. Bush during one of their live concerts, was punished by having their songs banned on radio stations across the nation).

Increasingly in the West, we are confusing raw entertainment and “personal expression” (the animated comedy show, South Park, for example, recently jumped into the "debate" by depicting Mohammed in a bear's outfit) with the freedom of speech, while silently accepting the sanitized, corporate news version of events without having the ability to offer an alternative opinion. And with ownership of news outlets becoming increasingly concentrated into fewer hands, the room for a dissenting voice is quickly disappearing (Michael Moore drew international attention to this problem in his film Fahrenheit 9/11, which showed US media’s groveling subservience in the moments leading up to the Iraq War at a time when true, open debate was essential, yet largely unavailable). Thus, slamming Islam has become the latest pastime, not because we care so much about the freedom of speech, but because it gives us, in addition to a cheap, gratuitous South-Park laugh, a chance to rail about losing something that we have, for all intent and purposes, already lost – our freedom of speech.

Not true, you say? Well, if the Iraq example failed to convince you, then you may want to try this: the next time that the G8, G20 or International Monetary Fund pulls into town, see how close you get to having your opinion heard in the debate. Or see how close the protesters are allowed to get to the place where the delegates meet in order to discuss subjects that ultimately affect every person on the planet. You may have a chance to wave a placard, or standing in some isolated "free-speech zone," but as for enjoying the unobstructed freedom of speech, you’d be better trying your luck at writing a letter to your congressman instead.

Robert Bridge, RT