Free speech in the frontier-zone

Saskia Sassen
20 February 2006

Could it be that what the Danish cartoons conflict has done is to tip a larger process in the making, and in this tipping make that larger process visible?

I want to emphasise the "making" that has also been part of these events, besides the ideological routines that have proliferated. There is making in shaping new rights and new political subjects/actors. Rights and political subjects are both collective productions. History shows us that much sweat and blood have been shed in their making. Anti-racist, feminist, anti-colonial, human and environmental politics and rights, arose from struggle. And they took time, often centuries, each going through many different iterations until acquiring a stabilised meaning. Such a meaning made possible its filtering across a society and at the same time its emergence as a distinct, recognisable entity.

Saskia Sassen is professor in the department of sociology at the University of Chicago and at the London School of Economics. She has completed for Unesco a five-year project on sustainable human settlement for which she set up a network of researchers and activists in more than thirty countries. Her book (co-edited with Robert Latham) Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm (Princeton University Press, 2005) is based on a five-year project on governance and accountability in a global economy.

Her latest book is Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2006); this article is based on chapter 4 of the book.

Also by Saskia Sassen in openDemocracy:

"A universal harm: making criminals of migrants"
(August 2003)

"Fear and camouflage: the end of the liberal state? " (December 2005) – part of openDemocracy's worldwide symposium, "What does 2006 have in store?"

With free speech it is no different. Emphasising the making of the right to free speech brings out the specific histories of its shaping and the intense lack of agreement that permeates this shaping. It was not too long ago that the distinction between free speech and hate speech was carved out – again through struggle.

What is the fuzzy edge of this foundational right to free speech that is becoming visible today?

Some distinctions and achievements forged out of past struggles might be helpful here to capture what liberal democracies have succeeded in clarifying, and the new alignments that the current events are putting on the historic agenda.

The not-so-distant past: stable rights in liberal democracies

When Catholic artists caricature Jesus – and they do this frequently – they are recognised as having this right even when severely criticised (and even when some governments, e.g. the United States government, withdrew funding already granted to such an artist and to the gallery showing his art). But this is Christians criticising, even attacking, other Christians: an old fight between familiar enemies.

Is this different from the use of racist language against blacks by whites and against Jews by Christians? In the US, a fine and often problematic distinction has been carved out between free speech and hate speech. Behind this distinction lies the US past as a slave-based economy and its present as a racist society and second-class citizenship of African-Americans continuing. I accept this distinction and I think it is critical, and perhaps especially so in situations of latent or open conflict and racialisation.

When the sophisticated magazine the New Yorker, read by a sophisticated audience rather than a mass audience, published a caricature on its cover that made "fun" (an ambiguous notion when dealing with these types of subjects) of a particular Jewish practice, the reaction in New York City was sharp and swift, with accusations of anti-semitism. When a politician in the US or in Britain makes openly racist comments he or she will be held accountable. Such speech is rarely seen as freedom of speech. It is seen as unacceptable hate speech. But nobody is going to claim the head of the editor of the New Yorker, or of the politician at fault, even though there will be strong public condemnation across the public media.

Beyond this distinction with hate speech, do conditions of extreme stress and latent violence affect what is and what is not free speech? Would today's notion of free speech justify the publication of strongly anti-semitic cartoons and caricatures during Hitler's reign? The more measured response has been to qualify this by saying that the regime itself was neither democratic nor supportive of free speech and hence is not a justifiable comparison.

I would agree with this. But how about the anti-Zionist notions promoted by a few minority sectors among the Muslim population that invoke historical falsehoods about various types of Jewish conspiracies to control the banks or cause world wars? Is that freedom of speech and hence justified? In this case the more measured response has been no, because these accusations are known to be ungrounded. I would also agree with this.

Moreover, what about the (much criticised and condemned) decision in 1977 by the American Civil Liberties Union (Aclu) in the US to support the demand from a neo-Nazi organization to hold a public march in Skokie, a small town in Indiana. I would agree that the Aclu was right in invoking the formal right of free speech, as is being done by the newspapers that published the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

These cases, and there are many more, point to the ease with which these collective productions can have fuzzy edges. They also reveal the power of a society's dominant culture at a given time and its capacity to accommodate considerable diversity, but within limits. The struggle for gay-marriage rights makes such limits visible. The struggle for poor people's rights to shelter and food on the other hand, is nowhere on the agenda, making the dominant culture's power evident.

Freedom in a no-man's-land

Critical, then, is distinguishing between the formal right and the conditions within which it gets invoked. This means it is not enough to invoke only the formal right, as the pertinent newspapers and their supporters have done. We need to add several other elements to make sense of the current debacle.

Some sharp, interesting, and illuminating answers have emerged from the events of the last two weeks. The contributions to openDemocracy's symposium on the cartoon conflicts, brilliantly summarised by Sarah Lindon, stand out in this regard. In their dissecting of what is easily represented as clear and completed, such as the right to free speech, they illuminate a world of debates, disagreements, innovations, new struggles that lie ahead in carving out a terrain for free speech that, to use my words, can function in the frontier-zone, one where liberal democracies are but one collective actor.

One way of reading it all – both the texts and the events – is to see the beginnings of new perspectives and the possibility of a new politics. A modest beginning can be found in the many voices heard in Europe – from governments, citizens, and civil-society organisations – criticising the use of the right to free speech to publish material which borders on hate speech. Similarly, many reasonable voices have been heard, also in the Muslim world, deploring both the hate speech of these caricatures and the violent reactions among particular Muslim groups.

The conditions on the ground are by now familiar. First, the politics of the initial and the later newspapers that published the cartoons: they are all recognised as rightwing papers.

Second, the Bush administration has stoked the fires of rage in the Muslim world with its actions of the last four years – the war on Iraq, the singling out of Muslims for surveillance, rejection of visas to the US, incarceration without probable cause.

Third, global awareness of the cartoons (though not at the time of the original publication, 30 September 2005) coincided with a new US-Muslim world contest: Iran's nuclear-energy development plan and its insistence that it has the right to develop nuclear energy for civil purposes, which it has according to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1970). Whatever the doubts we might have about Iran's assertions about peaceful purposes, the decision by the west to punish Iran is inflammatory for many (though not all) Muslims in the current context; further enraging many in the Muslim world is the double standard evident here, because the Bush administration and several European countries now also have decided to develop nuclear energy.

Also in openDemocracy on the "cartoon war" in 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 Fauzia Ahmad, Zaid Al-Ali, Patrice de Beer, KA Dilday, Sajjad Khan, Shaida Nabi, Roger Scruton, and Adam Szostkiewicz

Doug Ireland, "The right to caricature God…and his prophets"
(February 2006)

Tariq Modood, "The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification? "
(February 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "A post-Satanic journey" (February 2006)

Sarah Lindon, "Words on images: the cartoon controversy"
(February 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Blasphemy and power" (February 2006)

S Sayyid, "Old Europe, New World"
(February 2006)

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Fourth, regardless of these contingent conditions, the line between free speech and hate speech may have been crossed in some of the cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jylands-Posten. It is likely that publishing and republishing across Europe a caricature of a bearded man representing Jehova, deploying a missile such as those used to shoot on Palestine, would anger and offend many Jews in Israel and would be seen as hate speech more than free speech. These are gods that are not meant to be represented in human imagery. Over the centuries, both Jews and Muslims have suffered multiple forms of persecution and aggression at the hands of Europeans. The Catholic inquisition, pursued mostly its own – the enemy inside. Caricaturing the Christian God in Europe, where Christian faiths dominate, is caricaturing your own; there is a difference.

Where does that leave us? The mix of stressful conditions signals that in terms of strict content, at least some of the caricatures are much closer to hate speech than to free speech. Bush's declaration of a global "war on terror" colours the publishing of the more egregious images: they become yet another shot fired in this war. This is particularly so given that all the newspapers involved are rightwing papers, and, further, that the global war on terror is itself a fuzzy war and hence easily seen through ideological lenses. The result is a combustible mix: hate speech at a time of war. At a time of war at least some will respond to this as an attack, not as free speech. And then the familiar and tragic cycle continues: more war is the response to war.

But beyond all of this, I think something else is becoming visible, even though it may have been taking shape for many years. This is the making of a new political zone – a frontier-zone – occurring through the emergence of a new political actor on the global stage (just as, particularly after the end of the cold war, the norm of liberal democracy reignited as the deserving actor for dominating the global stage).

Though none uses the term, several of the contributions to openDemocracy's symposium on the cartoon conflicts, point to such a "making" of new alignments and a new political subject. Faisal Devji's almost visionary article in the Financial Times, "Islam offers a role model of the most modern kind" (13 February 2006) is a brilliant capturing of such a new political space and new political actor.

I want to emphasise the formation of a frontier-zone – a no-man's-land where the rules of engagement are not specified, and where those who interact may bring very different notions about rules of engagement. Each frontier is specific – whether the "far west" of the old Americas or my argument that today's global cities are a post-colonial frontier-space. There is something specific, different about invoking free speech in the frontier-zone. The cartoon conflicts have made visible this frontier-zone, the fact that we are not only functioning within the space of western democracies.

There is a new frontier-zone today, and we are in it. It has no specific geography – it is a mistake to think it can be reduced to the countries with strong Muslim cultures.

Frontier-zones are spaces of imbrication. They are not lines where civilisations clash. They are areas of hybridity. What liberal democracies are experiencing is the limits of their closure and of the presumption that the world should like the way they look.

This process is not confined to the issues discussed here. In my own research I also see ways in which specified aspects of liberal democracies are, as it were, becoming obsolete: for instance, the abuses of power by the executive branch of government (whether it is the extremes of the Bush administration or the incipient abuses in Britain, not to mention a whole series of other countries). Such abuses amount to the piecemeal overriding of the foundational doctrines of liberalism – checks and balances, and a private-public division whereby executive power is subject to public scrutiny and citizens' privacy rights are protected.

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