As most of the world now knows, on September 30, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Subsequent disputes have drawn in the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Council of Europe, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and Hezbollah, to name a few. Since not only freedom of the press but also freedom of religion are threatened, it is vital to be clear-sighted about the issues at stake.
In the light of Salman Rushdie’s case, the butchering of Dutch director Theo Van Gogh for his film on Muslim women, and death threats against Egyptian actor Omar Sharif for playing St. Peter on Italian TV, Jyllands-Posten wanted to test whether “we still have freedom of speech in Denmark.” Knowing that Islamic tradition forbids such portrayals, it commissioned illustrations for what editor in chief Carsten Juste called “an article on the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world.”
The paper expected a strong reaction, and got it. Immediately, two employees received death threats, and the paper hired security guards. Juste responded, “If we apologize, we go against the freedom of speech that generations before us have struggled to win.”
On October 20, eleven ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries asked to meet Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to complain about a “smear campaign” against Islam. He responded, admirably: “I won’t meet with them because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so. . . . As prime minister I have no tool whatsoever to take actions against the media, and I don’t want that kind of tool.”
With no apparent sense of irony, Egyptian officials then withdrew from a dialogue on human rights with their Danish counterparts. Subsequently, Arab interior ministers called for Danish authorities to “punish those responsible,” the Jordanian Parliament demanded action against those “striking at the sentiments of the Arabo-Muslim nation,” Iran and Iraq protested to Danish envoys, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait recalled their ambassadors, Libya closed its embassy, and Saudi Arabia and Sudan announced a boycott of Danish products.
In Gaza, thousand of protesters burned Danish flags while chanting “Death to Denmark,” and gunmen stormed the European Union office. In Iraq, Danish troops were put on alert after a local fatwa was issued. In Kashmir, shops closed in protest. Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami party placed a bounty of 50,000 Danish kroner on the cartoonists. Jihadi websites are threatening suicide bombings in Denmark. Hezbollah’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, declared if Muslims had carried “out the fatwa of Imam Khomeini against the renegade Salman Rushdie, the scum who are insulting our Prophet Mohammed in Denmark, Norway, and France would not dare do so.”
Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, head of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, proposed to raise the matter with the “U.N.‘s concerned committees” and human rights groups. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Arab League want the U.N. General Assembly to pass “a binding resolution banning contempt for religious beliefs and providing for sanctions to be imposed on contravening countries or institutions.”
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour, replied to the OIC, “I find alarming any behaviors that disregard the beliefs of others.” She launched investigations into “racism” and “disrespect for belief,” and asked for “an official explanation” from the Danish government. However, despite being a professed defender of human rights, she showed no alarm at the OIC’s disregard for the Danes’ belief in and commitment to a free press.
Thereafter some newspapers took their own steps. The Norwegian Magazinet republished the cartoons on January 9. Then, on February 1, seven European papers including Italy’s La Stampa, Spain’s El Periodico, and the Netherlands’ Volkskrant followed suit. Germany’s Die Welt did likewise, arguing that in the West there is a right to blaspheme. France Soir published them, along with Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian caricatures, under the headline “Yes, we have a right to caricature God.” Other media, including the BBC, are taking similar steps.
Gaza gunmen then threatened to kidnap French, Norwegians, Danes, and Germans unless their governments apologized. Meanwhile, France Soir’s managing editor was sacked, as was the editor of Jordan’s Shihan, which ran some of the cartoons to show how offensive they were, while urging Muslims to “be reasonable.”
Defending freedom of religion and freedom of the press requires distinguishing who is being criticized, and distinguishing criticism from threats. It is one thing to condemn Jyllands-Posten for offending millions of people. It is a very different thing to criticize the Danish or other governments, since the criticism itself, even apart from invidious calls for cartoonists to be punished by the state, assumes that government should control the media. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their authoritarian brethren, as well as jihadist vigilantes, are attempting to export and impose their media censorship and version of sharia on the world at large, using economic pressure, international organizations, or violence.
Hence, as Rasmussen correctly stated, he was sorry that Muslims “felt insulted,” but the Danish government“cannot be held responsible for what is published in the independent media.” Similarly, Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg was sorry “this may have hurt many Muslims,” but said the Norwegian government “cannot apologize for what the newspapers print.”
As a man of principle, Rasmussen should also tell the Egyptian and other ambassadors that not only is this none of the Danish government’s business, but, since they are ambassadors of countries, not religions, it is none of their business either. They, especially the Saudis, may reply that they do not make that distinction. Our response should be to state clearly and firmly that we do, and that protecting religious freedom requires us to uphold it in our dealings with others.
Finally, amid current calls for “toleration” and “respect for belief,” we need to be very clear about the distinction between religious toleration and religious freedom.
Religious toleration means not insulting somebody else’s religion, and it is a good thing. But religious freedom means being free to reject somebody else’s religion and even to insult it. Government should want and encourage its citizens to be tolerant of one another, but its primary responsibility is to protect its citizens’ rights and freedoms. The fact that people are sometimes insulted is one cost of freedom. The Jyllands-Posten affair calls us to uphold that principle internationally as well as domestically.