Thursday, February 02, 2006

Danish Cartoons and Freedom of Speech

As I was travelling in to college this morning, an unprovoked Ray D'Arcy, decided to commit a crime against humanity and played the latest 'song' from Girls Aloud. Immediatedly, my primitive survival instincts kicked in and I changed station, to 2fm. What I stumbled across was a debate, for lack of a better word, on the G-Ryan show about the recent Danish cartoon controversy.

Briefly, the cartoons were published in last September in a Danish newspaper, depicting the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb on his head and elsewhere saying that paradise was running short of virgins for suicide bombers. This sparked outrage in the Muslim world, with Saudi Arabia and Syria recalling their ambassadors to Denmark and drawing threats from Islamic militants. Since then, the cartoons have been published in 7 newspapers across Europe, in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. The editor of France Soir, Jaques Lefranc, was sacked yesterday for publishing the cartoons, as 'a powerful sign of respect for the intimiate beliefs and convictions of every individual'.Gerry and his callers were considering the effect these caricatures would have, and the topic evolved quickly onto the true extent of freedom of speech/expression.

He began with a Muslim caller, who was understanably upset at the publications and believed that it was right for the French editor to lose his job over the matter. He stated that the editor would have known the hurt this would cause in Muslim circles and as such had a duty not to publish them. European Muslims reacted similarly with the vice-chairman of the central council of Muslims in Germany, Mohammad Aman Hobohm saying 'It was done not to defend freedom of the press, but to spite the Muslims'.

Gerry took this as his cue and launch into proclaiming that by the days end the cartoons would be in every nook and cranny of Afghanistan and that there would be 'Jihad' over them. He said that he could easily envisage a scene where an Islamic suicide bomber would blow himself and a newspaper office to bits over the cartoons. Noting the riots in Paris last October, he predicted that similar riots could occur in this instance and with this in mind asked the question of whether the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech/expression should be tempered when it comes to satirising religious leaders and icons.

Next came the proponents of free speech to champion the cause. One caller proclaimed that the French editor was fired for 'doing his job' and that the problem was that 'these people [Muslims], just don't have any sense of humour and don't understand how comedy works'. Gerry in accepting this point 'completely' stated that Muslims are on the whole far more serious about their religion that Christians.

A subsequent caller argued that freedom of speech is almost absolute in Western Society, stating that if someone takes offense to something somebody says or prints, that's there problem. He also asked whether the principles of liberal Western Society should be tempered just so we don't offend the 'medievil' culture of the Middle East, one which isn't 'compatible' with ours anyway?

The caricatures in question did not break any laws in any state they were published in. So, should freedom of speech be restricted where such speech will offend a religious movement? Or how about if such speech will cause widespread offence in general? Or should freedom of speech be held hostage by a fear of a violent reaction from the Arab world, or other factions within our society?

I'm at a loss to find a satisfactory middle ground on the issue. Freedom of speech, like every other right, is not absolute in Western society, despite what Gerry's callers might believe. Even the right to life is conditional in some Western democracies (cough, the 'land of the free'). If we take it as true that the caricatures in question create the risk of violent recriminations from Islamic militants, then it seems logical that people should be wary of offending such people. However that is hardly satisfactory as Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus etc. are unlikely to react violently to being similarly offended and thus we create a special case for Muslims, where all other religions are fair game. Conversely we could go down the road of making all religions a special case, where none can be criticised in any way, for fear of causing offense. Again that is hardly a satisfactory solution.

My gut reaction to the issue however is that society should be as free as possible, and any restrictions on that freedom should come solely from the people, acting through their elected Government. As such, I am ill at ease with the idea that freedom of expression should be tempered purely because of what Islamic terrorists might find sufficently offensive to react violently to.


Simon said...

i have been followin that story since before christmas. It is interesting case not sure what is the correct responce. But i do remember tommy tiernan on the late late getting in trouble for making fun of religous teaching. I think he even got death threats.

Eamonn said...

yes, there was a backlash to Tommy alright.... Something like 450 phoned in, and 20 people wrote emails. There was no violence and as far as I'm aware, he didn't recieve any death threats, but i stand to be corrected if somebody can show differently.

Simon said...

i could of course be wrong on the death treat thing. it just makes the point better ;)

Anonymous said...

I too have been following this story. It seemed every five minutes I got an email alert today with a new alarming update; bomb threats, gunmen, flag burning ... Given its past a country like Ireland knows only too well the danger of unchecked religious power. I do not believe that religion and religious beliefs should have a sacred and unquestionable status in society. The row over the cartoons has proved just how indivisible religion and politics are. For this very reason we must preserve our right to question, criticise, ridicule, and satirise.

Simon said...

But looking at the BNP in britain there is a question where does freedom of speech end and racial speech begin

Simon said...

you can see the pictures here

half way down the page