Intended Insults: Unintended Consequences

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 6 Muharram 1427, 5 February 2006

On 31 January, Carsten Juste, editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, published an open letter to Muslims saying he was sorry that Muslims took offence from the cartoons (which his cultural editor had commissioned for the express purpose of causing offence). In that caricature of an apology he did not admit that the paper had done anything wrong. Rather he blamed the Muslims' poor understanding of the Danish culture for their getting so upset. Then he wondered, as did many media pundits, why Muslims were not buying his apology.

He also said in a separate comment that had he known the extent of Muslim anger, he would not have published those cartoons. Since then the same cartoons have been reproduced by one newspaper after another in Europe. How could these "especially commissioned works of art" be reproduced by other papers? Only if Jyllands-Posten, the original copyright holder, gave them permission to do so. That it should continue to let others reprint these despicable cartoons, while claiming that it had expressed its regret, is only fitting in a drama that continues to reveal the depths of hypocrisy in which Europe is mired today.

In a different setting, Jan Lund, the paper's foreign editor was more open. In his Guardian interview he said. "We apologised for hurting the feelings of a lot of Muslims in this. But we don't apologise for printing the cartoons." (Translation: I am sorry your father was killed. But I am not sorry for firing at him.)

And in the theatre of the absurd, the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, offered his own wise counsel. Even as the offending cartoons continued to be reprinted, he urged Muslims to accept the publisher's apology (which was never offered) and forget everything. "What is important is that the newspaper that initially published the cartoons has apologized, and I would urge my Muslim friends to accept the apology, to accept it in the name of Allah the Merciful, and let's move on."

It all started with a shrewdly prepared script. Jyllands-Posten would publish deeply offensive cartoons of Islam's holiest person, the Prophet Muhammad SAWS. If Muslims protested or tried to discuss it, they would be ignored. If the protests grew louder, that would be even better. They would gleefully present the images of the deeply hurt protesters from around the Muslim world, without ever explaining what made them feel so hurt, so the audiences could easily draw the conclusions about these "extremists and fanatics." That would fit in nicely with the current narrative about Islam and terrorism. In either case they would be winning.

And so it began. Stunned Muslims called the editor for a meeting and were refused. When ambassadors from twelve Muslim countries tried to arrange a meeting with the prime minister, he also refused to meet them, saying the government had nothing to do with the regulation of the media. This was a lie, but in this holy campaign that did not matter. Both did find the occasion to lecture the complaining Muslims on the virtues of democracy. Obviously there was no place for a dialog in their "democracy." Democracy meant only one thing: their unending right to insult Islam and Muslims and the unending obligation of Muslims to submit to that.

Then something unexpected happened. People in the Muslim world decided to take some action beyond protests. They decided to refuse to buy any products from Denmark. With just one company, Arla Foods, facing losses of 1.8 million dollars a day, the scene changed. That is when the newspaper and the government issued half-hearted and disingenuous regrets.

Islam Teaches Decency and Dignity

However, the media machine has framed it as a clash between Islam and the cherished European values of freedom of expression.

It is true that Islam teaches decency and prohibits provoking followers of other religions. It teaches that we are responsible for every word we utter and will have to account for it in the Hereafter (Al-Qur'an, 50:18). The prophet Muhammad SAWS said: "Anyone who believes in Allah and the Last Day should either say something good or keep quiet." Muslims revere all the Prophets of God, from Adam to Noah, to Abraham to Moses and Jesus (peace and blessing on them all), and finally, Prophet Muhammad SAWS. While Muslims welcome debates with other religions, they want to make sure it is a civilized debate. No ridicule, no insults. They are even prohibited from using bad words about the false gods of other religions, meant only to hurt the feelings of their followers. (Al-Qur'an, 6:108). Obviously it does not recognize the endless freedom to insult.

One will be hard pressed to find comparable teachings in the Western world.

It is not that Europe is totally unaware of the idea of responsibility that should limit the freedom of expression. In every European country there are laws restricting the freedom of expression. There are laws regarding libel, hate-speech, invasion of privacy, protection of national secrets, blasphemy, and anti-Semitism. However there is a fundamental difference between Islam and the West. In Islam the laws are based on eternal principles as laid down in the Qur'an and the teachings of the holy Prophet SAWS. In the West, on the other hand, the laws and policies are a result of compromises between competing interests. Stated principles provide a veneer but not the foundation. For example U.K. had a law against blasphemy but when Muslims tried to invoke it against the blasphemy perpetrated by the Satanic Verses in 1989, they were told that the law protected only Christianity, not Islam. What is the moral principle here? Why curbing insults against Christianity is a proper limitation of the freedom of expression but curbing those against other religions is not? Because underlying the law is not a moral principle but a compromise between Christian and secular forces.

This can take very interesting forms. Thus, on the one hand even objective inquiry into the history (of the Holocaust) is banned and people presenting an alternative view of history are sent to prison without anyone remembering freedom of expression, and on the other the filthiest of insults are permitted—even encouraged—against Islam. Very principled indeed!

The implementation of the laws follows the same "principled" approach. Thus, Denmark has laws regarding blasphemy as well as racism. Both of these laws have been violated in the current case, the assertion of the newspaper that it broke no laws, notwithstanding. Section 266b of the Danish Criminal Code provides:

Any person who, publicly or with the intention of wider dissemination, makes a statement or imparts other information by which a group of people are threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religion, or sexual inclination shall be liable to a fine or to imprisonment for any term not exceeding 2 years.

And its section 140, which deals with blasphemy, reads:

Those who publicly mock or insult the doctrines or worship of any religious community that is legal in this country, will be punished by a fine or incarceration for up to 4 month.

Similarly section 142 of the Norwegian Penal Code provides for punishment for any person "who publicly insults or in an offensive manner shows contempt for any religious creed...or for the doctrines or worship of any religious community lawfully existing here."

That these laws provided no protection to the Muslims, highlights the fact that despite their sizable populations, the Muslims carry no political weight in the European democracies.

Hence the importance of the economic boycott started by the grassroots in the Muslim countries.

The expressed worry of the pundits in Europe is that the Muslim do not understand their societies; their real worry is that the Muslims have begun to understand how these societies really work. The Muslims are realizing that if they want to get any rights and respect there, they will have to show their weight. The boycott of products from offending countries is a result of that realization and it is exactly the kind of step that, if continued patiently, can help Europe deal with its arrogance and Islamophobia. Europe could then see that treating Islam and Muslims with respect is a good policy. And in a land where honesty is the best policy (not principle but policy), that is the best one can hope for.