February 2006

Freedom of stupidity, not of speech

I doubt anyone has missed the commotion in Europe right now. The topic is a few caricature drawings of the prophet Mohammed, which originally appeared in Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) in September. A few days ago, Moslem groups voiced protests, and the drawings where then republicized, and later appeared in newspapers in a number of other countries, most notably France, with conflicts, flag burnings and export stops as consequences.

What I find interesting is that the focus is on freedom of speech; no Arab countries have the right to react, because journalists have the right to print whatever they want. And yes, they have that right. But to compare this to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is just… cheap. In the latter case, it is a conscious provocation, but one made from within a culture. It is also a book, and according to some a rather good one. In the former case, it is a small number cartoon-sized caricature drawings, made by Danish artists and publicized in a large, Danish magazine. There is a world of difference.

The main difference regards perspective; the drawings weren’t made to show disdain for Iran, Palestine or Saudi-Arabia. It was a big, fat fuck-you to all moslems living in Denmark. The last few years, xenophobia and racism has been growing in Denmark, both in culture and in politics (immigrations laws prevents non-European naturalized citizens from marrying non-Europeans and residing in Denmark, the xenophobic Dansk Folkeparti (The Danish People’s Party), the leader of which, Pia Kjärsgaard, has made several racist statements, is winning ground.) The publication of these pictures is really just a logical consequence of that development. While the editor in chief semi-apologized by saying that they “never intended to offend anyone,”
it is quite obvious that that was the original intent; “we will not only make fun of your prophet, we will further humiliate you by doing this in a manner forbidden by your religion; visual depiction of a holy person. Oh, and in the process, we’ll depict Islam as inherently terrorist.”

And France, that has the one of the longest histories of moslem citizens in Europe, and that already have a conflict with this population after the outlawing of head scarves in public schools, followed suit. What I am trying to understand is what the hell these idiots, sorry, editors, are thinking with. I am not saying it is right to burn Danish flags in Palestine, or to threaten Danish citizens. I am saying that it was incredibly insensitive and straight out dumb for anyone to public these pictures to begin with. This is not a matter of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of freedom of idiocy.

Swedish Newspaper Sydsvenskan‘s editor-in-chief Peter Melin defends his paper’s choice of not printing the drawings in this article: . He gives the following reasons:

1. I don’t see the publication -or not- as a matter of freedom of speech. Nothing prevents Sydsvenskan from displaying the depictions of Mohammed if we find reason to do so. This has happened and yesterday we printed the cover of the children’s book that is the cause of the last days’ commotion.

2. The caricatures are primarily a provocation. This is rarely a good starting point for good journalism. We don’t print anti-semitic drawings for the sake of provocations either.

3. The drawings can be seen as political persecution of an already vulnerable group.

4. There is a moral dimension. I find some of the images repulsive. They remind me of anti-semitic caricatures from the 1930s.

5. The images can be understood as sacrilege.

6. The drawings are in some cases so blunt that there is a risk that printing them is against Swedish law. They are dangerously close to a verbal hate crime (the law in questions is the law against hateful agitation against a specific ethnic or social group.)

I really couldn’t have said it better myself. I stay with my old position: people are dumb.



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