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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Muhammad cartoon row intensifies

Religious freedom in conflict with freedom of expression.

This BBC piece indicates just how far the conflict in Europe is developing over the publication of cartoons that have images of Mohammad in them. Apparently, Islam doesn't permit any images of the prophet, let alone satirical ones.

While I don't think any media (or person) needs to be dismissive or rude (or blasphemous) toward a religion, I clearly believe that freedom of expression is a basic human right (so does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the way). My right to offend may not be a very nice one, but it trumps someone's right to control my thoughts, words and writing/art...because of their religion.

This is fundamental (pardon the use of the term).

What do you think? Are you allowed to make fun of, criticize, challenge, question or even speak against religion? Is it your problem if that offends? Where is the line?

I have been thinking about this issue for a while and haven't come to a clear conclusion. But I tend to side with you Gary. Did all Christians rose up and cried murder and foul when Monthy Python's stuff came out? Ah, I guess this post was not about the issue to compare Muslims and Christians... Nevertheless, I wonder what Allah or Mohammed had to say to the followers of Islam who find it necessary to blow up air-liners, or themselves and innocent bystanders. Isn't that a bit more than placing blasphemies in a newspaper? Not that I wish to get into a "quantitative" argumentation here, but Arab Muslims today have on my count not a very high score on my slate on moral or civic issues. Anyhow, the stuff (the cartoons) haven't been published in a Muslim country, so what the heck - if that had been the case, it might have been a different story altogether.
Gosh Gary!
This is of tremendous concern to me. My very existense is considered blasphemous in at least 7 different relgions (including Zoroastrianism).
Plus, Apparently I exude sarcasm (actually, it's Sarcasim, and it's from Gloria Vanderbilt).
Things like this are awfully scary to us poor, humble, meek librarians!
where does the line cross over, religious mocking in cartoons to where many americans were outraged at a cartoon that was posted a couple xmas's ago where the tag line was 'i'll be home for christmas' and the cartoon was of several coffins with the u.s. flag on it. or in more recent days the cartoon posted (think on the 29th) in the washington post of an injured soilder with no arms/no legs; and an image of rumsfeld with 'i'm listing your condition as battle hardened' and 'i'm prescribing that you be streched thin ... ' ... and both those cartoons have outraged amany of u.s. military and civilians. ... as i see it, one is as bad as the other, however, i take it with a grain of salt ... just a damn cartoon ... ; insensitive maybe to some, but so is life ... . maybe my thoughts would be different if there were the constant hammering of such cartoons from one outlet, or endorsed rather than published. ... (shamefully, the american ones, i chuckled) ... and given the political climate, i have compassion for the middle eastern religious views/feelings; which in essense, is a double standard by some.
I'm very much against that kind of censorship. I value the freedom of expression, even when it doesn't work in my favour, and I think this is outright bullying.

So, have we heard from the North American Muslim community on this one?
I agree.

One is a matter of extremely bad manners and bad taste. The other is a matter of repressing freedom.

Freedom must always be upheld first and foremost - even at the risk that there will be those who will use that freedom to express themselves in offensive ways.
Several years ago, considering Law, it occurred to me that all laws are based on one of two premises: treat people fairly, and don't hurt anyone. But hurting people doesn't seem to be fair, so I suppose the real issue is, what is fair? In this particular, this is an issue of primaries - whether it is greater to recognize God, or to be free to express oneself.
With that said, we live in a society (you more than I) that values tolerance and diversity; and so we simply cannot have someone telling us that this-or-that is sanctified, and then demand that all others at large should recognize it as such - although they are free to make these demands in the confines of their own temples. But we cannot allow them to have society-at-large as their temple.
What if someone wanted to make a movie, say of Ali, where Muhammed appeared as a minor character - what then?

And this occurred to me regarding the placement of the Ten Commandments in public places controversy ongoing in the states: what if they were taught in the schools as "How to Blaspheme?" Surely the children could not be expected to properly blaspheme without prior knowledge of the Ten Commandments. Would this be acceptable?
And in this situation: would a cartoon of the not-Muhammed have stirred a such strong indignation?

I suppose, at its base, I consider a persons relationship with God to be a very personal and intimate thing; and so I become offended quite readily when someone would say that this-or-that is an imperative rule. How odd it is that people would wish for God to live within a fence of imperative rules...
I think it is dangerous to restrict the freedom of speech. While I favor respect for diversity, I don't care for that sort of censorship. I guess this is a case in which we have to take the bad with the good.

I agree wholeheartedly with PTrad, too, that religion is a personal and intimate thing. Just keep it out of my face, and we'll get along fine.
Long live the freedom of speech!

"At least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols." --- Aldous Huxley
If I was to say ...Jesus !!1 what are we coming to....Immediately there is response amongst Fundamentalists I am taking the Lords name in vain.

I don’t say that often anyway, but the point I wish to make is it is not taking the lords name in vain, that's a literal incorrect interpretation. In a similar vein the outrage referred to in this post arises ia a fundamntalist type belief that their God is offended, and its followers demeaned.

Humour and satire are usually at the expense of other groups of people to some extent but we tolerate that providing it's not etched in violence or depravity.

It represents an expression of our freedom, allowing social aspects of our lives to surface that otherwise would be surpressed.

The suppression of this right inevitably leads to a diminution of freedom, a more fearful society and an excuse to exercise a power over it's citizens.
PT said it..

The colonial converting infidels age has past. Religion has become a personal thing and as such is part of the ego. Which is hurt on a daily basis on many aspects. Learn to cope with that or cast of ego shells.

Hiding behind a fundamentalist fence of lunacy is a clear indication of low self esteem to me.

Freedom of speech Yes. Freedom to insult? Appearantly it goes with the first one. Needless to say that many insulting cartoons are like oil on the fire and as such blameworthy.

I just (5 min. ago)saw a few special policecars driving by to our West Amsterdam court. In one of the cars would be Mohammed B. That's the fundamentalist that killed Theo van Gogh (yes family of..) two years ago. Van Gogh was a cineast, producer and writer and was constantly bashing on Muslims in general and Morrocans (retarded goat f%^*%rs, he constantly called them e.g.)in particular.

He got shot and stabbed for that. So Van Gogh is dead and Mohammed B. stands trial and will be sentenced for many years of imprisonment according Dutch law.

Many moralistic views have been expressed over here after the killing of Van Gogh. Everyone agrees he shouldn't be killed for his constant bashing. Many too believe he picked the quarrel.

I believe we should cherish the freedom of speech and not try to explore the edges of it..
Oh my - this is a wormhole... at least here at the moment. It's the first real terrorist threat Norway has gotten, and the publisher of the cartoon needed police protection (which is almost unheard of here - NO ONE except the king and his family, and a few politicians have police protection - and then only when they're on official business!) It's kind of absurd to see the Norwegian and Danish flags burned in anger.
I think both the "artist" and the publishers haven't done thier homework in this case. It is well known that Islam doesn't allow pictures of Mohammad, and for the publisher to excuse him self with "I didn't know" is just plain stupid. And certainly NOT good enough. As a publisher he should look into the matter before publishing.
That being said, the muslim communities have it all mixed up in this situation I think, when they crave the Norwegian government to officially appologise to the Muslims all over the world. Our Primeminister Stoltenberg has gone out in the media to say he's sorry the muslim world would take it in this way, but he can not appologise for the images being printed since we do have freedom of expression here. And I have to agree in his statement.

I have to draw the line at making fun of other religions. Criticize - yes, challenge - most definitely, question - absolutely. I would even go as far as one should be allowed to speak against religion. But not make fun of them.
first we have to decide whether there should be any reasonable limit on expression - I personally don't think that's too hard to decide, absolutes are always bad examples.

that being a given, we have to decide where to put that reasonable limit. that is beyond my own knowledge and expertise but I feel that the newspaper got it woefully wrong: not a strike against repression but an own goal in repression's favour.
Hmm, I looked up the cartoons and I find them somewhat amusing, not really offensive. You can find them HERE complete with english translation.
NADINE - hei på deg og heija Norge! Jeg tenker meg at det ikke ær noe som skylle være et problem...
in other words, I think the muslims are overreacting.
I was just trying to find the source of a quote, but I'm not sure I even have the correct wording of the quote. I just remember someone, a prof, saying once that self-censorship is the worst kind.

DA, I was listening to a report about Van Gogh just the other night, but there was no mention of him being provocative. It was interesting to hear about it from the point of view of someone in the Netherlands.

Gary, this post has inspired me to blog about a strange incident in my life related to this topic. I need to go back and count how many times you have inspired me to write on a topic!
As those of you who read my blog know, I am always in favor of freedom of expression. What a person does or does not do with it is a matter of taste and etiquette. We MUST be in favor of freedom of speech. If someone has bad taste or uses freedom of speech inappropriately, it's that person's responsiblity and problem. The fact that we have freedom of speech is not the issue. The argument some of the extremist groups are making is like saying we should cut out the lungs to keep people from getting lung cancer. This, of course, is ridiculous, but to most people who grew up in a Western culture, the idea of giving up free speech is just as ridiculous. (Sorry--I ramble)

What a great, provocative post, Gary.
This really is an interesting topic. Just got back from the doctor's, and I was reading about this very thing in the waiting room. The author of a short piece on college students in America (who are all for free speech unless they don't like the speech) pointed out that if you take away free speech, the first people to be muzzled will be minorities, the very people we often think need our protection from it.
Hope all is well JB..

You're fine right?
Muslims are a bunch of conservative nutbags unwilling to accept anything new that has come along in the last 711 or 712 years.

George Bush is a fool if these people will ever accept any liberal Western ideas.

They need their own internal revolution if any of them are so enlightened, and I understand there is a movement of young Iranians leaning toward Revolution.
Easy on the generalizations there Bohemian... My friend Mamoun in Khartoum (he of the fine Scotch collection) and my friend Halah (she works for human rights) would not like your label.

I would argue that George Bush couldn't give a shite if these people accept liberal Western ideas - he hasn't accepted them yet himself.

I've heard also of a secular revolution brewing in Iran and I think you're right, there is a need for people to choose their path - to become more enlightened and less superstitious.

I think there is a clash between the principle of human rights (for every human) and religion, culture, oppresive regimes, global trade and probably a few other forces. The argument that human rights should be put off to cater to these forces doesn't wash. The strategy to get there, that's tricky in some cases. It can't be hitting others over the head, but it also can't be being so nice that rights are trampled.

Julian's story related to this topic is very interesting and a hell of a read.Julian Blue

Great comments here - thanks! A range of opinions and expressed well. That's what we like around here.
I think it's this link you want, Gary. Thanks again for the words.

DA, I'm fine! Just routine maintenance. I do appreciate your concern, though.
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Freedom of expression? Yes. But are we "depriving" people of a right when we place limitations on it? No. Part of the problem with the "rights" language is that it makes us forget about the obligations that we have to each other as human beings. The obligation to respect. And the obligation to not incite hatred, intolerance of the "other" or dehumanization.

I'm a strong defender of core human rights, but we cannot depict human rights in black & white imagery. Rights must be balanced with obligations. For that reason we have hate crime laws. Can such laws be abused? Absolutely. Thus the confusion of living in a world which is full of shades of grey. We must aspire to a world in which human rights are protected, but a world in which one person's rights are not achieved at the expense of another's.

My personal opinion is that not all of the cartoons were offensive. Some were distasteful. Some got an embarassed chuckle. But the one with the turban made out of a bomb was hateful. It equates Islam with violence, and presumably violence against non-Muslims (though as we see throughout the Muslim world, it is Muslims who overwhelmingly suffer at the hands of brutal regimes or armed groups). I see no difference with it and with cartoons used throughout European history showing Jews slaughtering Christian babies to make the Passover matza bread. Or Hutus depicting Tutsis as cockroaches. This is not to say that such a cartoon will lead to a genocide of Muslims. Nor should it have to for it to have crossed the line from expression to hatred. Such cartoons incite a climate of intolerance. The very thing that the cartoon is (I assume) criticizing. Here's a "product" plug: "Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination" by Sam Keen. It's a collection of hate-propaganda cartoons with insightful text.

I do disagree with how some Muslims have reacted to the cartoons. What comes to mind are the images of the face-covered-with-a-scarf, gun-toting young men. Hmm, how Sam Keen got it right: These images represent a fraction of the world's Muslim population, yet dominate our TV screens and newspapers because they're just so much more newsworthy than the average Muslims sitting around, discussing the cartoons in their living rooms, places of work etc.

So how to sum up this post? Nuance, reflection, and responsibility for our actions.
Anonymous - what a thoughtful piece of writing! Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (now deceased) and other eminent thinkers were working on a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations (seriously) - not sure where it is now, but it was intended to balance rights obligations.

I heard an editor in Egypt tonight on the radio. He printed these cartoons in his paper, with an editorial much like your words above anon - an effort to show his people what the context behind this is (including that most cartoons were inoffensive). He's under death threats now, has printed a retraction and is hiding out. Said he'd do it again if he had too.

Black and white? Hardly! Thanks.
I've thought about freedom of expression on and off through the years, trying to understand what it actually entails. Anonymous said it really well, "Part of the problem with the "rights" language is that it makes us forget about the obligations that we have to each other as human beings. The obligation to respect. And the obligation to not incite hatred, intolerance of the "other" or dehumanization." Many people forget basic respect for another being. They blurt things out and then plead freedom of expression as if it justifies anything they speak. With regards to these cartoons, I looked at them and tried to find them funny, but I couldn't. I don't know why.
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The latest: Muslims attack Danish embassy building in Jakarta
judging whether this was offensive is pretty pointless, isn't it? for whatever reason, people were offended, so the material has the power to offend. I mean, I'm not offended by butchery but I wouldn't dream of taunting a vegan with images of an abatoir. I'm not offended by pornography but then I'm not a woman. I still appreciate it has the power to offend.

rather than judging whether it was offensive or not, we should ask whether it needed to be said or not. I can't think of any useful reason.
I wonder how many would truly value 'freedom of expression' with a loud rock band rehearsing next door at two in the morning, every morning? Come on, there's no such belief! Who would die for their right to practice? Even if they quite liked the music.

truth is: I think these expressions (freedom of speech, human rights) are dished out like a panacea. But the more times they are used inappropriately - as in this case - the less force they convey where it really matters.

In the UK, we don't have absolute freedom of expression and I'm not sure anyone's demanding it.
Jonathan Sacks is chief rabbi in UK. We have a daily Thought for the Day on BBC radio - the profundity is variable, but the balance good (though many complain there's never any secular voices).

I'm not a fan of Sacks, I find his speaking manner, like many top job religoes, a bit too 'superior'. (in total contrast to Rabbi Lionel Blue, a mere foot soldier who is warm and generous - if you get the chance, listen to him.)

Anyway, this morning Sacks talked about this issue and he was right on the money, imvho.


(there's usually a transcript on the page - when someone at the beeb gets around to it. maybe tomorrow). ;o)
Ian, thanks for your thoughtful posts on this. (He takes great photos too if anyone wants to visit Sculpting With Soup

You might find my next post interesting Ian.
It's a slippery slope. Sure, there are some things we think are pointless and just plain offensive, and in the market place of ideas, I'm not buying that crap. But I don't want to see basic freedoms slip away just because I want to stifle the speech I dislike. I don't want someone else deciding FOR ME what is offensive and what is not, either.

In the United States, there are limits on freedom of speech. For example, you do not have the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater and put people's lives at risk. The founders were most concerned about political speech. But I remember someone once saying what if you find an artist's political message offensive?

Cindy Sheehan was arrested for showing up at the State of the Union address wearing a T-shirt bearing the number of soldiers killed in Iraq. Was her message political or offensive. I say political; I know many more people who live around me who say it was OFFENSIVE as HELL!

I do like the link Gary posted above about the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities and the idea that with more rights come more responsibilities and with individual freedoms come social obligations.

Ah, Gary, you have the best blog! It's so interesting to come here and read and think.
Thanks Julian! I like your blog too.

I'm with you on this too - we can all learn to use discretion, be respectful in what we communicate etc. but as far as laws go - they should protect our rights to free expression and limits should be very carefully made - inciting hatred, leading to harm (such as the "Fire!" example, libel, fraud etc.)

It's a messy thing, but it's a foundation of democracy and of people keeping tyrants (religious or secular) from controlling us. It's also a matter of the spirit - as a life diminished by others controlling free expression is.... well, a diminished life.
I think that, in this particular instance, we have moved away somewhat from the issue at hand, which is should Danes have the right to print the cartoons they want to in their own newspapers without starting a riot, to greater, more generalized concerns, such as what limits on our freedom of expression could be considered reasonable. I would like to return the the first concern.

JB has a good point. I remember years ago, I went to an art show where one of the artists introducing his work spoke of how the one piece has caused somewhat of a furor locally due to the fact that he had used a part of the American flag in the work. It also had barbed wire and pieces from a WWI gas mask in it. I understand how the purists might be offended, but I wasn't. I suppose I was more in tune with the art, the mood he was trying to convey. But was the pieces of flag necessary to the greater work? It would have been different without it, but I think he might have found a way to make it work. Still, I see the ideal as deserving of more respect than the symbol of the ideal. Perhaps that the flag served as such a symbol added to the power of the piece.

As for the religion aspect, I grew up in a very fundamentalist-type church that taught that all Catholics are going to hell because they're all idolaters. They never started a riot about it though, never protested the Catholic church, never demanded an apology, etc. They were fully content to feel smug in their own salvation. Though admittedly unpalatable, smug is preferable to violent.

So, while I believe it would have been wrong to publish these cartoons in a muslim journal or in a predominantly muslim nation, I still believe that the Danes should have final editorial input into their own newspapers. I think the media (and a few unwitting muslims) are feeding into a streotype here by pushing this more than it really needs to be. I believe that the fact that we have hate speech substituting for Islam in the states, aka Louis Farakhan, should be of more concern to muslims than a childish drawing by a non-believer.
Interesting example, PT. I would say that work of art would have been something different entirely, reflecting someone else's vision, perhaps, had that flag been removed. The flag was part of the whole. It reflected something the artist wanted to say. Does that make sense?

This morning I was reminded of that shameless MOCKER, Jonathan Swift. Would we want to stifle Swift?

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