Freedom of Expression and The Offending Cartoons

I thank Paul Schneidereit, president, of the Canadian Association of Journalists for inviting me to participate in this panel. I have a soft spot in my heart for Nova Scotia, as my wife is from Yarmouth.

First I must say that I have four personal reasons for advocating freedom of expression:

  • 1. I am a Muslim. Islam, more than any other religion, makes it one’s religious duty not only to support — but also to protect — the rights of fellow human beings to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion.
  • 2. I am an academic. Academics are paid to speak, to use their voices as teachers and researchers. Any compromise to their freedom of expression, any silencing of their voices, adversely affects their own academic freedom, and ultimately that of their peers. Academic freedom is the basis for their social and economic contributions to the well-being of this country.
  • 3. I am a writer who addresses religious, national, and international issues.
  • 4. I am a Canadian activist — not only a Canadian activist but a Canadian Muslim activist — living in a post 9/11 era, marked by dangerously high levels of Islamophobia and the threat of further erosion to the civil liberties and human rights of the Muslim minority right here in Canada.

I agree with the notion that in Canada anyone can say almost anything, but the sad reality is only those with money can print or communicate it.

Journalists constantly make decisions about what other people will read, hear, or see. They are guided by their backgrounds and values. Factors such as standards of taste and judgments of importance also play a role. No editorial choices to publish, or not to publish, are value-free.

Editors are trained professionals who are supposed to strive for excellence. They should rise above personal views and follow basic principles of balance and fairness.

For example, cartoons glorifying the Holocaust, making fun of Jews, or violence against women; or those which ridicule gays, lesbians, the disabled, the mentally challenged, etc., are usually not published.

But the case for Islam and Muslims is different. The offending material is usually published. This is because:

  • 1. There are too few Muslim journalists in any senior editorial or corporate positions in Canada.
  • 2. Islamic groups representing Canadian Muslims are not as powerful as those representing Jews, gays, lesbians, women, the disabled, the mentally challenged, and so on.
  • 3. There is a general hostility towards Islam and Muslims which stems from political conflicts like the ones resulting from the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.
  • 4. The rise of fundamentalist Christianity and extreme rightwing politicians, especially in the U.S.
  • 5. Few Canadian journalists have ever met a Muslim or lived among Muslims.
  • 6. The high concentration of Canadian media ownership in the hands of a few families or corporations, none of which are friendly to Muslims.

In cases where objectionable material appears in a Canadian publication, special interest groups usually protest in a number of ways: using

  • (a). professional persuasion (e.g. meeting with editors);
  • (b). political activism (e.g. asking elected politicians to condemn the publication’s lack of sensitivity);
  • (c). emotional involvement (e.g. public expressions of displeasure, such as writing op-ed’s, letters to the editor, phone calls to complain, etc);
  • (d). economic action (e.g. boycotts, picketing); and
  • (e). legal or semi-legal responses (complaints to press councils, the CTRC, hate law enforcement agencies, civil suits, human rights).

This multi-dimensional form of protest has been used, and will continue to be used by special interest groups, seeking to prevent the publication of objectionable material.

But when Canadian Muslims tried to use the same methods in the case of the offending cartoons reprinted in Canada, months after appearing in a Danish newspaper, they were labelled as "extremists," "fascists," "Islamists," or "idiots," and dismissed as "not subscribing to Canadian values," or that they were "against free expression," they "have no sense of humour," and so on.

Their reasoned and peaceful objection to the publication and republication of the Danish cartoons was called "bogus" and those editors who ethically chose not to republish the cartoons were taunted as "cowards."

Now any publication which incites hate, or which spreads negative stereotyping about a Canadian minority is morally wrong, because it negatively compromises or erodes the well-being of all members of that minority.

The issue here goes beyond the boundaries of free expression; it is about the power of "free speech" to dehumanize fellow citizens and depict them as "not like us." Unfortunately, that consideration did not deter publications like the Western Standard.

In modern Germany, there are museum exhibits covering the period leading up to the Holocaust. Among those displays one can see "cartoons" depicting Jews as thieves, cheats, fools, liars, misers, etc.

The message was clear: "Jews are not like us — they are therefore not worthy to live with the rights and respect that we have."

In May 1934, the German newspaper, Der Sturmer, ran the headline Jewish Murder Plan Against Gentile Humanity Revealed. The newspaper ran also cartoons with captions like: "Jews are our misfortune," "The Jew is our greatest enemy," "Beware of the Jew," "Defend yourself against Jewish atrocity propoganda," and so on.

In February 1943, the same newspaper depicted a bearded Jew wearing a skull-cup, with the caption "Der Satan" — the Satan.

The stereotyped image of the European Jew showed him dressed in black, with dark eyebrows, a big nose, an evil or furtive expression, and usually hunched over, whispering anti-European conspiracies to his co-religionists.

All of these were caricatures meant to grossly exaggerate the physical features and perceived mannerisms of a targeted group.

I believe it was this sort of "free speech" that led to increasingly violent acts against Jews, culminating in events like Kristallnacht, and ultimately the horrors of the Holocaust. It was a gradual intensification of hate, with deceptively "harmless" things like cartoons helping pave the way for the evil that happened under the Nazis.

The Danish newspaper’s offensive cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a bomb-wearing terrorist, or a ridiculous fanatic, fall into the same divisive and dangerous stereotypical category as slogans like, "Jews are Christ-killers," "Christians are savage anti-semitic Crusaders," "Blacks are drug-dealers," "Aboriginals are lazy drunks," etc.

Ever since the news media broke the cartoon story from Europe, numerous Muslim and non-Muslim Canadians have objected to the publication of these drawings, especially in papers and magazines originating from within our own country.

One does not have to be a Muslim to feel the pain and betrayal these pictures convey. It is the same kind of pain felt by descendants of Holocaust survivors when confronted with the illogical ranting of those who deny it ever happened; or the pain of Black citizens faced with the spectacle of white supremacists marching down the main street of their town.

The editors of Canada’s largest-circulation newspapers made the right ethical and professional decision not to republish the Danish cartoons and the government of Canada expressed regrets that they were ever published in Denmark and republished in Canada.

They realized that those cartoons are not about a so-called "clash of civilizations," or the collision of Islamic and Western worlds.

The real issue is about a Western Muslim minority, struggling in a hostile post 9/11 environment to live as normally as any other group in our multicultural society. It is about a minority at a crossroads in their relationship with the Muslim world of their former home countries.

As such a community, Western Muslims have much to learn from Jewish history in both Europe and North America. Canadian Muslims know they must not stand apart from their fellow citizens, but must actively move into the concept of smart integration as the ideal model for social unity and cultural coherence.

One of the Danish cartoons, which depicts Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, suggests by inference that all Muslims are terrorists.

This is not merely offensive or insulting — it is enticing hate, pure and simple. And those rogue Canadian publications that insisted on reprinting it are therefore knowingly promoting hatred against Muslims. To condone such an explicit depiction of the Prophet of Islam as a terrorist, one has to be at the very least willful, in not acknowledging that such a depiction vilifies and discredits all Muslims, creating a dangerous climate for Muslims in Canada and everywhere else.

Canadian Muslims are a minority, often a highly visible one, and the vast majority of non-Muslim Canadians have grown up with stereotypical views of Muslims, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. The republication of the anti-Islam cartoons has served only to further stereotype Muslims as dangerous and threatening.

Canadian Muslims do accept and acknowledge that extremists exist and must be dealt with. But when the ideologies and actions of a very few are used as the basis to judge an entire people, distortion and unfairness are the inevitable result. Extremism is not in any way, shape, or form, the essence of Muslim life. Extremism, in fact, is no more a monopoly of Islam than it is of any other faith group, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Sikhism.

The vast majority of Muslims, though conservative, are moderate in their political views. Islam has long been regarded among its adherents as "the religion of the middle way." The Prophet himself, so misconstrued in the infamous Danish cartoons, repeatedly denounced extremism.

We Canadian Muslims share the same common values: a deep respect for knowledge; a passion for justice; compassion toward the sick, elderly, needy and underprivileged; devotion to the values of family life, including respect for parents and elders; and acceptance of the "other," the strangers and travelers in our midst.

We live today in one world, a global village continually connected via instant communication. Our world economy is an interdependent entity, where a ripple on one continent can cause a tidal wave on another. Consequently, the selfish and irresponsible publication of hate literature, even if some consider it "funny," damages the world we live in. We need to stop, think, and care — after all, it’s the only world we’ve got.


* A talk given at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association ofJournalists, Halifax, Nova Scotia, May 14, 2006