The right to caricature God!and his prophets

About the author
Doug Ireland is a radical political journalist and media critic. He runs Direland.

The western European democracies do not have the absolutist guarantees embodied in the American constitution's first amendment. Indeed, most of them have laws that would be repellent to a strict first amendment devotee of free speech – laws against "hate speech", which forbid written or oral incitation of hatred on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion (a reaction to the horrific racism and anti-semitism of the Nazis and fascists during their second world war reign).

That's what makes it all the more interesting that a raft of European newspapers and magazines have reprinted the contentious cartoons of Mohammed from the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten that have sparked calls for boycotts of Danish products (which have already cost little Denmark roughly $90 million) and even death to the cartoonists, followed – after a week of protests – by the burning of the Danish embassy in Lebanon, and the sacking of the Danish and Swedish embassies in Syria.

One would like to think that when European papers reprinted those cartoons, it was genuinely an undiluted act of solidarity in the defence of press freedom, with no thought as to how the cartoons might boost circulation.

Doug Ireland is a radical political journalist and media critic. He runs Direland and comments on the Danish cartoon controversy here

Doug Ireland contributed to openDemocracy's roundtable on the Iraq elections in January 2005 (with Huda Jawad, Khalid Jarrar, and Douglas Murray): "Rethinking Iraq" (February 2005)

Neither Die Welt nor Corriere della Sera, for example, have a reputation for sensationalism. The same cannot be said for France Soir. Once the largest French daily in the days when it was run by the legendary Pierre Lazareff and built a half-million circulation on scandals, celebrities, and what the French call faits divers (human-interest stories), France Soir is a shadow of its former self. Its constantly declining circulation is now barely 70,000, and it teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, with three different owners in the last couple of years. The current owner is Egyptian-born speculator Raymond (Rami) Lakah – who just happens to own two airlines (Air Horizons and Star Airlines) which do the lion's share of their business serving Islamic countries in Africa and the Mediterranean crescent.

When the paper's managing editor, Jacques Lefranc, reprinted the Danish cartoons, he did so under a front-page banner headline that shouted: "One Has the Right to Caricature God". Not for long – Lakah fired Lefranc "as a powerful sign of respect for the intimate beliefs and convictions of every individual." Bilge. The paper's unrepentant editor, Serge Faubert, got it right when – after the firing of Lefranc – he editorialised that "A fundamental principle of democracy and secularism is being threatened."

Including, we should add, by his paper's owner, whose actions are open to the interpretation that he was more concerned with preserving his business and landing privileges in countries that revere Mohammed and in not making his airplanes a target for Islamist hijackers than he was with the ethos of democracy and journalism.

The United States press has been a model of cowardice. Not a single major daily newspaper ran even one clear image of the twelve cartoons until a week after the protests began, when the Philadelphia Inquirer became the first daily to run one of the dozen caricatures. CNN has continuously pixellated the sole cartoon it has deigned to run so that nothing can be seen of it.

Even Bill Bennett – the former Reagan drug war czar, author of The Book of Virtues and other preachy tomes, and a commentator on CNN's payroll – told Wolf Blitzer in a 3 February debate about the cartoons on CNN that he found the network's failure to show any of the offending cartoons "appalling". That same day's New York Times finally ran – buried on page 43 – an oh-so-carefully cropped reproduction of the France Soir front-page that featured one cartoon (which one would need a magnifying glass to discern).

Although orthodox Muslim doctrine forbids paintings showing the human image, this has not always been universally observed in Islamic countries. There was, for example, an important tradition of Shi'a art dating back many centuries depicting human beings – examples can be seen today in mosques and public buildings in Isfahan, for instance. And while depicting Mohammed's face is supposed to be "blasphemy", his face has frequently been represented in Islamic countries with a veil to hide certain of his features.

Moreover, the Islamic affairs specialist for the international francophone channel TV 5 – Slimane Zéghidour, author of many books on Islam and the middle east – told his audience that, in his travels, he has collected "pious" images and postcards of Mohammed as a child, an adolescent, and as an adult in various Islamic countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and the Arab emirates. (Alas, on 2 February, TV 5 –which airs the evening newscast of France 2 public television thirty minutes after its broadcast in France – cut entirely Fr2's reportage on the cartoon controversy because it actually showed the cartoons.)

Also in openDemocracy on the "cartoon crisis" wracking Europe and the Muslim world:

Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity" (February 2006)

"Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" (February 2006) –a compendium of writers' views, including Zaid Al-Ali, Sajjad Khan, Patrice de Beer, and Roger Scruton

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Behind the mask of religion

It is to be noted that the public protests and street demonstrations over the issue have hardly been universal in the Islamic world. There have been none to speak of in the country with the world's largest Islamic population, Indonesia – except for one egg-throwing demonstration by the ultra-fundamentalist Islamic Defence Front that garnered only 150 participants. Nor have their been any large protests in Turkey, whose modern republic (under its founder Kemal Atatűrk) abolished the caliphate based in the country in 1924).

No, the largest and most violent protests have largely been confined to Libya and the Arabic countries of the middle east (Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Palestine; in Lebanon, Saad Hariri – head of the party of his assassinated father, Rafiq Hariri – said in a weekend press conference that the incendiary Beirut protest had been organised by foreign elements from Syria).

Now, these are all countries which have been repeatedly criticised in the west for purveying anti-semitic caricatures and defamations, like that infamous forgery and hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There is, therefore, not a little payback and hypocrisy in these protests – all of which are organised by hate-purveying extremists like the Islamist fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian al-Aqsa brigades (the latter, whose hobbies include suicide-bombings of civilian targets, has threatened that "every Norwegian, Dane and Frenchman in our country is a target", while fundamentalist clerics in various countries have called for the cartoonists to have their heads [or hands] severed.) But, as the editor-in-chief of the Jordanian independent newspaper al-Shihan – which ran the cartoons – told Agence France Presse: "People are attacking drawings that they have not even seen."

What's really going on here is an attempt to extend to the west the kind of theocratic censorship that Islamic fundamentalists enforce by intimidation or law in countries from Morocco and Algeria to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. There is a long and rich tradition in western countries of caricatures of religious figures and leaders, including Jesus himself.

Those of us who are not god-botherers need to raise our voices loudly for a secular approach to the news, and condemn the newspapers and TV networks that have knuckled under to fear of the fundamentalist theocrats' threats. I don't always agree with Salman Rushdie, but he was on target when he said: "Fundamentalism isn't about religion. It's about power."

The western media outlets that have refused to reproduce any of the cartoons – especially those in the United States – have just handed the theocratic primitives a victory, and thus increased their power. Instead, let's hear a loud cheer for irreverence – the intelligent person's response to the mad fantasies of all revealed religions.