Offensive Cartoons and Need for Standards of Decency

Though chronologically it is the 21st century, a new millenium, politically we are still mired in one of the bloodiest centuries ever, the 20th Century. Thoughtful people from traditions have worked hard to bring peace and understanding to the tortured world, but with faster mass communication, it is getting easier to be profane and inflame than to educate.

Chronology of events:

A rightwing Danish paper wantonly solicited cartoons on the prophet of Islam to gratuitously offend the followers of Islam invoking freedom of the press. Danish Muslims requested a meeting with the Prime Minister of Denmark. The Prime minister not only refused to meet them, but also snubbed the ambassadors of Muslim countries who tried to elicit a dialogue.

Without redress, it took four months to permeate the rest of the Muslim world. Muslims feel incensed and express their displeasure with peaceful demonstrations and boycott of Danish products. The legitimate Muslim protests are being marred by mindless extremists who think violence, intimidation, arson and even killing is permissible, insulting and injuring the religion they purport to defend.

Freedom of the press by many in the West is being caricatured as license to insult and injure those whom they do not understand and the right to protest by some Muslims is being confused with a right to assault.

Injury to free speech in the West:

Freedom of expression, especially freedom of the political expression has been a corner-stone of pluralistic democracies, enshrined in most modern constitutions.

Historical experience teaches that suppressing any speech can result in the suppression of all expressions opposed to those in power. Therefore to protect legitimate political dissent even reprehensible speech is deemed protected. Often the rights to stupidity are less challenged than the right to hold the governments accountable. When political dissent is curbed states become oppressive. Horrible modern examples are the fascistic and communistic regimes of mid twentieth century.

Until mid 20th century, ugly caricatures of Blacks in the US and Jews in many Western Christian countries were rampant. The resulting Nazi holocaust jarred the West, leading to a well-deserved guilty conscience. The denial of Holocaust is a criminal offence not only in Germany, but also in Austria, France, Belgium, Poland and Switzerland. David Irving, a British historian is being prosecuted in Austria for this offence. Historic mistreatment of Blacks in the US has so shamed the nation that certain derogatory words have been expunged from the public discourse. In the US incendiary public speech about any particular group is considered a hate speech. Under certain circumstances it is illegal.

These do circumvent the right of free speech, but evolving civil society considered it necessary to protect the freedom from the extremists. Thus putting a limit to the free speech.

Though Section 140 of the Danish Penal Code prohibits blasphemy, apparently it has not been enforced since 1938. Section 266b prohibits expressions that threaten, deride or degrade on the grounds of race, color, national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation. The Danish public prosecutor determined that the offensive cartoons did not violate either law. It is a subjective opinion not allowed to be tested in the courts. Another prosecutor may have reached a different conclusion, with far different outcome.

The dictionary definition of a bigot is – A person who holds blindly and intolerantly to a particular creed or opinion. The widely understood definition is- Bigots tend to generalize without exception, such as all Christians, all Muslims, all Hindus, all Jews, all in the west or east are such and such.

The right wing Jyllands-Posten of Denmark egregiously with the intent to offend published the cartoons. Some newspapers in other European countries that circumvent the right of some free but offensive speech callously republished those offensive cartoons, self-righteously claiming to defend the right of free speech, landing with both feet in to bigotry. The Muslims correctly see it as hypocrisy. In the West, in some quarters Islam is an easy mark these days. Muslims increasingly feel that they are being treated in the West as Blacks and Jews used to be.

The rise of profanity:

It is important to remember that Western media is often profane. Unfortunately, with crass use of freedom the public discourse in the West has become more crude and profane. In mid 1980s in the US a Museum exhibited Andres Serrano’s Crucifix in urine, a painting in 1990s had Madonna smeared with dung.

It should not go unnoticed that the US and British governments as well as many European governments have condemned the egregious nature of those cartoons. The newspapers in the US and Britain as well as major newspapers in many European countries have not published them. Not because they were afraid, but because they decided not to fall in the gutter with the exploiters of free speech, such as tabloids.

The injury to Muslims:

The widespread civil protest by Muslims is completely justified, as a long established civil right. The boycott of Danish products that subsidize the offending Danish paper through advertisements was a proper retaliation. But the criminal behavior of some protestors is an insult to Muslims and the prophet who lived and preached civility, consideration and the rule of law.

Destruction of Embassies and deaths of innocent people is barbaric and against the tenets of Islam. If those countries do not prosecute to the fullest extant of the law they should be considered complicit. Prophet Muhammad and early Caliphs especially admonished the mistreatment of ambassadors.

An Iranian paper has asked for cartoons about holocaust in retaliation. Iran has many political grievances against Israel. Targeting Jewish calamity is reprehensible. It does insult the victims of holocaust, but even more so, it exposes their narrow minded, misplaced vindictiveness, and insults the tenets of Islam.

Most Islamic scholars have condemned the violence. It is on utmost importance for all Muslims to strongly condemn and eschew violence and rude remarks. With the connivance of the hoodlums, it only re-enforces the caricature that some would like to propagate.

What needs to be done?

Freedom of political thought, speech and action is the most important corner stone of democracy. It should be protected and nurtured. The freedom of belief and practice of a religion, or to believe or not to believe should also be sacrosanct and should not be violated.

It is easy to demand that there ought to be a law! The problem is crafting a law that is narrow enough in definition so that politicians may not exploit religion and religious partisans may not exploit politics, and wide enough in practice to cover almost all situations.

Such a law is excruciatingly difficult to design. A badly crafted law is worse than no law. Blasphemy laws do exist in many countries. Experience has shown that usually they are either not used or misused. To craft a good law that can be implemented requires deep understanding and enormous work to bring about a consensus. It may eventually be too difficult to craft a usable law, but it is possible to craft a standard of ethics as a sense of the society that can be widely accepted and followed.

Fortunately we have a world body, the United Nations that can and should take a lead. Perhaps Article 18 pertaining to freedom of belief and religion of the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" can be modified to include a language that inhibits a wonton disregard to sensitivities of religions. Though often maligned by the powerful for their own ends, the UN has helped in creation of and eventual adaptation of better laws by many countries that initially resented them.

Average Danes, Europeans, Muslims and all others want to respect others and be respected. They feel helpless and are gradually being polarized by the cacophony of charges and counter-charges. In the West thoughtlessly some feel obliged to defend crude, inane and gratuitous insult to Islam in the name of the freedom of the press, and among Muslims, some feel licensed to violence in the most un-Islamic defense of Islam.

Religious zealots particularly in the Europe have a long history of insulting other religions even persecuting believers of other religions as well as those who choose not to believe. In modern times this tendency has been on the rise. Unfortunately secular zealots do not have a better record either. In the communist countries religions have been persecuted and in most Western countries all religions especially Christianity and now Islam have been considered fair games.

These are tough times for all, especially for the Muslims. But all turbulent times are also windows of opportunity. It is very important for us to speak out, speak in measured voices, and speak with courage, decency and justice. Things will change as they always have. It is up to us to affect that change. We should not allow the worst among us to drive the agenda.