All entries for Monday 06 February 2006

February 06, 2006

Is this free speech?

These images depict the prophet Muhammed. One with a bomb and another with a dagger. Is this what the bastion of freedom and liberty, Western Europe, believes free speech to be?

Let us remember that Islam forbids depiction of Muhammed in any way, never mind in such an insulting manner. The European newspapers publishing these pictures are appealing as if protecting their rights against state intervention or secrecy: lest we forget, this is about cartoons. The first newspaper, Jyllands Posten, knew the furore this would cause and baited Muslims with their publication. This is not free speech - if John Locke and John S Mill were alive today, they would be disgusted. This is not what they had in mind when they thought of liberty, the promised land. This is the deliberate insulting of a religion with more than a billion followers –

Mistakes on all sides

Once again Muslims around the world have not disappointed the provocateurs. Embassies have been destroyed, diplomats attacked, a Catholic priest shot dead in Turkey, and much more. If the newspaper started out in the wrong, they now seem a distant object in the whole palaver thanks to the outrageously disgaceful behaviour of "a minority" of Muslims in several countries. How is it that "a minority" are always ready to take up arms and placards and pierce the air with outrageous claims and threats? That so many Muslims find it so easy to take up arms and engage in such bloodthirsty rhetoric is a worry for the world and does not make life any easier for the 'other Muslims'. Let us see for a moment what Arab newspapers carry occasionally:

It is true that many of these images are printed in the lunatic fringe of the Arab media spectrum, but not all. The image containing Ariel Sharon and the bloody sword is from Al-Wafd, the main opposition paper in Egypt, with substantial coverage. So hypocrisy comes into it also.

However, I believe Jyllands Posten was right to apologise but must retract the cartoons - the media cannot work on an eye-for-an-eye ethos. This conflict is being painted as the inevitable fight between Islamic censorship and Western liberty - sorry to disappoint, but it is not. It is a Vin Diesel while people are pretending it's a Schwarzenegger. The issue is right, but the provocation and timing wrong. The crucial issue here is this: if Islamic censorship causes problems within the 'Western' way of life, then there is cause for people to evoke freedom of speech. If, however, cartoonists and Editors go out of their way to bait a religious group and then hide behind freedom of speech, then we have entered a wrong alley.

The reaction by a lot of Muslims has been pathetic and horrendous; mostly overreaction. But we must not lose sight of the issue here: insult of a religion. The prophet Muhammed is a tremendous figure in history and should not be depicted thus. Muslim media needs to pay the same attention to its anti-Semitism, but just because media in Islamic countries show such flagrant hatred for Jews does not mean we demean and sully the image of their prophet in return.

There is a very thin line between freedom of speech and insult. It must be trodden very carefully. Damn those grey areas.


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