Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Intended Insults: Unintended Consequences

Intended Insults: Unintended Consequences

By Khalid Baig (
Posted: 6 Muharram 1427, 5 February 2006

On 31 January, Carsten Juste, editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, published an open letter to Muslims saying he was sorry that Muslims took offence from the cartoons (which his cultural editor had commissioned for the express purpose of causing offence). In that caricature of an apology he did not admit that the paper had done anything wrong. Rather he blamed the Muslims' poor understanding of the Danish culture for their getting so upset. Then he wondered, as did many media pundits, why Muslims were not buying his apology.

He also said in a separate comment that had he known the extent of Muslim anger, he would not have published those cartoons. Since then the same cartoons have been reproduced by one newspaper after another in Europe. How could these "especially commissioned works of art" be reproduced by other papers? Only if Jyllands-Posten, the original copyright holder, gave them permission to do so. That it should continue to let others reprint these despicable cartoons, while claiming that it had expressed its regret, is only fitting in a drama that continues to reveal the depths of hypocrisy in which Europe is mired today.

In a different setting, Jan Lund, the paper's foreign editor was more open. In his Guardian interview he said. "We apologised for hurting the feelings of a lot of Muslims in this. But we don't apologise for printing the cartoons." (Translation: I am sorry your father was killed. But I am not sorry for firing at him.)

And in the theatre of the absurd, the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, offered his own wise counsel. Even as the offending cartoons continued to be reprinted, he urged Muslims to accept the publisher's apology (which was never offered) and forget everything. "What is important is that the newspaper that initially published the cartoons has apologized, and I would urge my Muslim friends to accept the apology, to accept it in the name of Allah the Merciful, and let's move on."

It all started with a shrewdly prepared script. Jyllands-Posten would publish deeply offensive cartoons of Islam's holiest person, the Prophet Muhammad . If Muslims protested or tried to discuss it, they would be ignored. If the protests grew louder, that would be even better. They would gleefully present the images of the deeply hurt protesters from around the Muslim world, without ever explaining what made them feel so hurt, so the audiences could easily draw the conclusions about these "extremists and fanatics." That would fit in nicely with the current narrative about Islam and terrorism. In either case they would be winning.

And so it began. Stunned Muslims called the editor for a meeting and were refused. When ambassadors from twelve Muslim countries tried to arrange a meeting with the prime minister, he also refused to meet them, saying the government had nothing to do with the regulation of the media. This was a lie, but in this holy campaign that did not matter. Both did find the occasion to lecture the complaining Muslims on the virtues of democracy. Obviously there was no place for a dialog in their "democracy." Democracy meant only one thing: their unending right to insult Islam and Muslims and the unending obligation of Muslims to submit to that.

Then something unexpected happened. People in the Muslim world decided to take some action beyond protests. They decided to refuse to buy any products from Denmark. With just one company, Arla Foods, facing losses of 1.8 million dollars a day, the scene changed. That is when the newspaper and the government issued half-hearted and disingenuous regrets.

Islam Teaches Decency and Dignity

However, the media machine has framed it as a clash between Islam and the cherished European values of freedom of expression.

It is true that Islam teaches decency and prohibits provocations of followers of other religions. It teaches that we are responsible for every word we utter and will have to account for it in the Hereafter (Al-Qur'an, 50:18). The prophet Muhammad said: "Anyone who believes in Allah and the Last Day should either say something good or keep quiet." Muslims revere all the Prophets of God, from Adam to Noah, to Abraham to Moses and Jesus (peace and blessing on them all), and finally, Prophet Muhammad . While Muslims welcome debates with other religions, they want to make sure it is a civilized debate. No ridicule, no insults. They are even prohibited from using bad words about the false gods of other religions, meant only to hurt the feelings of their followers. (Al-Qur'an, 6:108). Obviously it does not recognize the endless freedom to insult.

One will be hard pressed to find comparable teachings in the Western world.

It is not that Europe is totally unaware of the idea of responsibility that should limit the freedom of expression. In every European country there are laws restricting the limits of expression. There are laws regarding libel, hate-speech, invasion of privacy, protection of national secrets, blasphemy, and anti-Semitism. However there is a fundamental difference between Islam and the West. In Islam the laws are based on eternal principles as laid down in the Qur'an and the teachings of the holy Prophet . In the West, the laws and policies are a result of compromises between competing interests. Stated principles provide a veneer but not the foundation. For example U.K. had a law against blasphemy but when Muslims tried to invoke it against the blasphemy perpetrated by the Satanic Verses in 1989, they were told that the law protected only Christianity, not Islam. What is the moral principle here? Why curbing insults against Christianity is a proper limitation of the freedom of expression but curbing those against other religions is not? Because underlying the law is not a moral principle but a compromise between Christian and secular forces.

This can take very interesting forms. Thus, on the one hand even objective inquiry into the history (of the Holocaust) is banned and people presenting an alternative view of history are sent to prison without anyone remembering freedom of expression, and on the other the filthiest of insults are permitted—even encouraged—against Islam. Very principled indeed!

The implementation of the laws follows the same "principled" approach. Thus, Denmark has laws regarding blasphemy as well as racism. Both of these laws have been violated in the current case, the assertion of the newspaper that it broke no laws, notwithstanding. Section 266b of the Danish Criminal Code provides:

Any person who, publicly or with the intention of wider dissemination, makes a statement or imparts other information by which a group of people are threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religion, or sexual inclination shall be liable to a fine or to imprisonment for any term not exceeding 2 years.

And its section 140, which deals with blasphemy, reads:

Those who publicly mock or insult the doctrines or worship of any religious community that is legal in this country, will be punished by a fine or incarceration for up to 4 month.

Similarly section 142 of the Norwegian Penal Code provides for punishment for any person "who publicly insults or in an offensive manner shows contempt for any religious creed...or for the doctrines or worship of any religious community lawfully existing here."

That these laws provided no protection to the Muslims, highlights the fact that despite their sizable populations, the Muslims carry no political weight in the European democracies.

Hence the importance of the economic boycott started by the grassroots in the Muslim countries.

The expressed worry of the pundits in Europe is that the Muslim do not understand their societies; their real worry is that the Muslims have begun to understand how these societies really work. The Muslims are realizing that if they want to get any rights and respect there, they will have to show their weight. The boycott of products from offending countries is a result of that realization and it is exactly the kind of step that, if continued patiently, can help Europe deal with its arrogance and Islamophobia. Europe could then see that dealing with Muslims with respect is a good policy. And in a land where honesty is the best policy (not principle but policy), that is the best one can hope for.

SOURCE: Khalid Baig,

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Danish Cartoons: Islam vs. Freedom of Expression?

Danish Cartoons: Islam vs. Freedom of Expression?

(Maulana Hafiz) Sikander Ziad Hashmi,

Cartoons are doing what so many couldn’t: Unifying Muslims across the globe.

On the other hand, a growing number of brave freedom-fighters, led by journalists, are standing up to “reaffirm the principle of free expression.” And non-Muslims are wondering why this unified outrage is a no-show when it comes to seemingly more important issues such as beheadings, honour killings, and suicide bombings.

As a Muslim journalist, that puts me in a tough spot, doesn’t it?

Well, not really.

Let’s get the facts straight. What exactly is the issue?

The Danish paper Jyllands-Posten printed a total of 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad last September, one showing him wearing a headdress shaped like a bomb with the kalimah inscribed on it, while another had him saying that paradise is running short of virgins for suicide bombers. A Norwegian publication reprinted the caricatures in January and publications in at least four other countries jumped on the bandwagon in the last couple of days to express their support for the principle of free expression.

Muslim outrage has spurred protests, kidnapping and death threats, boycotts of Danish products, and diplomatic spats. Danish dairy firm Arla Foods has announced 125 layoffs as a result of the boycott; national leaders have jumped into the foray, and even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has issued a statement in an attempt to cool the growing crisis. Editors have been sacked in what’s seen to be an attack on editorial independence.

Media reports are quick to point out that Islamic traditions ban depictions of the Prophet. Thus, the understanding is that the outrage has been caused by the seemingly blatant disregard for this “Islamic taboo” by the publications in question, which is why Reporters Without Borders and other journalists and non-journalists alike are resisting, if not fighting, this wave of rage.

I’m pretty sure many outraged Muslims will also point to that as the source of their outrage.

But I ask: Would Muslims express an equal amount of outrage had the Prophet been shown in a positive light based on his teachings, perhaps instructing a would-be terrorist not to kill innocents?

Probably not. Yes, there might have been some disappointment over the depiction of the Prophet , but it wouldn’t be anywhere near what we’re seeing now.

Thus, the main issue here isn’t the depiction of the Prophet , but rather, the depiction of the Prophet in an incorrect and dishonest manner.

As a journalist, I truly value our freedom of expression and as my colleagues on this message board know, I attempt to stand by that principle whenever possible.

We all know that the right to free speech is an integral element of a democratic society. Those of us living in democratic societies enjoy that right on a daily basis.

However, no right is absolute. There are always limitations and exceptions.

I can express myself by screaming, for as long as I wish, but not to the detriment of my neighbours. Similarly, I can publish whatever I want, as long as I don’t tarnish anyone’s reputation by spreading lies or promote hatred against anyone.

I can even publicly express damaging, unflattering comments about someone, as long as they’re in the public interest and I don’t do it with malice.

The cartoons of the Prophet , especially the one with his headdress shaped like a bomb, can be given three general interpretations in today’s context:

a) He was a terrorist.
b) He supported terrorism.
c) Islam is a religion of terrorism, since he symbolizes the religion

Anyone who is familiar with the life and the teachings of the Prophet knows that he was not a terrorist. There is no such thing as a terrorist Prophet and if there was, it would mean he and his followers would live to terrorize others, which we know is certainly not the case.

Yes, he did lead and fight in battles. But since when did fighting wars become terrorism? If that’s the case, any leader that takes his nation to war should be considered a terrorist.

As for the second interpretation, once again, anyone who is familiar with the teachings of the Prophet knows that he did not support terrorism. He forbade the killing of innocents and even ordered his followers not to kill birds and other living creatures unnecessarily. And even though the Makkans had terrorized him and his followers, he did not retort with the same when he conquered Makkah later on, nor did he let any of the followers terrorize anyone either, even as victors.

As for the last possible interpretation, once again, if anyone studies the teachings of Allah and the Prophet Mohammad in their entirety, they will know that Islam is not a religion of terrorism. It’s just not true. Yes, there are groups and individuals who attempt to justify acts of terrorism through Islam, but that does not mean that Islam is a religion of terrorism. If it was a religion of terrorism, Muslims throughout history would have been terrorists, which just isn’t the case.

Therefore, we can conclude that if the cartoons are interpreted as a) and b), they are slanderous and libelous, or if they’re interpreted as c), they promote hate by branding all followers of Islam as terrorists, and since no one likes terrorists, people will naturally be led to hate Muslims.

This issue is not about Muslims hating freedom of expression. Rather, it is about the abuse of the freedom to spread hate and fuel stereotypes.

There is no doubt that the cartoons were originally published with malice and spite, to spread stereotypes and provoke a group that has already been victimized as a whole for the actions of a few.

But that’s not the only reason for the outrage.

The level of love and sentimental attachment many Muslims have for and with Mohammad is unparalleled, and may in fact be very difficult to comprehend for non-Muslims.

Think of your dead parents or grandparents that you loved dearly. If someone were to slander them publicly and make a mockery of them, how would you feel? Would you not react angrily and defend them?

You probably would, except the chances of anyone paying attention may be slim, since you would be alone, or perhaps have the support of a dozen or two people.

For Muslims, their beloved prophet has been slandered and mocked. He is not here to defend himself, so his followers have taken on the task, out of their love and devotion to him.

What we see now is the result of compounded anger, which isn’t always expressed in the wisest manner, especially when emotions are running high.

The issue of incorrect attribution is an important one. If Osama bin Laden was the subject of the cartoons, hardly anyone would complain.

Thus, it must be understood that Muslims are not attacking freedom of expression. Rather, they are reacting to hateful, mean-spirited distortions.

As for the question about why Muslims are so sensitive about cartoons while they don’t speak out against other seemingly important issues, the fact is that these cartoons of the Prophet have struck a common, emotional nerve across the Muslim world, while unfortunately, there is no unanimous agreement on the other issues, with which some Muslims obviously do not have a problem since they take part in or support those actions, such as beheadings, honour killings and suicide bombings. It doesn’t make it right, but that’s the reason behind the muted or disjointed response.

Some have complained about the boycotts in response to the cartoons. What’s wrong with Muslims exercising their freedom of choice? Boycotting is a common tactic for expressing displeasure, even if it doesn't directly affect those at the root of the displeasure.

In fact, in 2004, a group of Americans residing across the border from the Canadian town of Nelson, British Columbia threatened to boycott the town if it went ahead with the construction of a monument to U.S. Vietnam War draft dodgers. The construction of the monument was a form of expression, yet the town was threatened with severe economic repercussions if it had gone ahead with the construction of the monument. It didn’t.

Publishing and protesting are both forms of expression, and they must both be exercised within reasonable limits.

Muslims deserve an apology. And they seriously need to learn how to contain their emotions and express their displeasure using non-violent means.

But as long as the incorrect analysis of the issue as a “freedom of expression vs. Islamic stigma” battle remains, I'm afraid the vicious cycle of publications and protests, and more protests and more publications, will continue.

SOURCE: (Maulana Sikander Ziad Hashmi, writing for