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The Right to Be Offended | The Nation

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The Right to Be Offended

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In April 2003 Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons offering a lighthearted take on the resurrection of Christ to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Zieler received an e-mail from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, saying: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry. Therefore I will not use them." Two years later the same paper published twelve cartoons of Muhammad, including one with him wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a burning fuse. Predictably enough, it created an outcry. How we got from there to talk of "the Muslim threat" to the immutable European traditions of secularism and freedom of speech, while Scandinavian embassies burn in the Arab world, is illuminating.

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Gary Younge
Gary Younge, the Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the New York correspondent for the ...

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Four months after the cartoons were published, Jyllands-Posten's editor apologized. In the intervening time Muslims engaged in mostly peaceful protests. Several Arab and Muslim nations withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark while demonstrators picketed embassies. According to Denmark's consul in Dubai, a boycott of Danish products in the Gulf would cost the country $27 million in sales.

All of this went largely unnoticed in the West, apart from critics who characterized the protests as evidence of a "clash of civilizations." In their attempt to limit free speech, went the argument, the demonstrators proved that Islam and Western democracy were incompatible.

Even on its own terms this logic is disingenuous. The right to offend must come with at least one consequent right and one subsequent responsibility. People must have the right to be offended, and those bold enough to knowingly cause offense should be bold enough to weather the consequences, so long as the aggrieved respond within the law. Muslims were in effect being vilified twice--once through the original cartoons and then again for having the gall to protest them. Such logic recalls the words of the late South African black nationalist Steve Biko: "Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked."

Nonetheless, the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric framed the discussion for the almost inevitable violence to come. For as criticism mounted, other European newspapers decided to reprint the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. This was clearly inflammatory. Now the flames have reached all the way to the Middle East, where Danish and Norwegian embassies have been burned down. And the violence has been characterized as evidence that Muslims are plain uncivilized.

There seems to be almost universal agreement that these cartoons are offensive. There should also be universal agreement that the paper has a right to publish them without fear of violent reprisal. When it comes to freedom of speech, the liberal/left should not sacrifice its values one inch to those who seek censorship on religious grounds. But the right to freedom of speech equates to neither an obligation to offend nor a duty to be insensitive. If our commitment to free speech is important, our belief in antiracism should be no less so. Neither the cartoons nor the violence has emerged from a vacuum. They are steeped in and have contributed to an increasingly recriminatory atmosphere shaped by, among other things, war, intolerance and historic injustices. According to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, racially motivated crimes doubled in Denmark between 2004 and '05. These cartoons only served to compound Muslims' sense of alienation and vulnerability. The Jerusalem Post has now published the cartoons. Iranian newspaper Hamshari is calling for illustrators to ridicule the Holocaust. The race to the gutter is on.

The acts of violence, including death threats to Jyllands-Posten's editor, should be condemned. The fact remains, however, that the overwhelming swath of protests, particularly in Europe, where crass banners and suicide-bomber attire were the worst offenses, have so far been peaceful. But those who see this episode as freighted with weightier cultural meanings have another agenda. "This is a far bigger story than just the question of twelve cartoons in a small Danish newspaper," Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten's culture editor, told the New York Times. Too right, but it is not the story Rose thinks it is. Rose claims that "this is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society." In the mistaken belief that Europe is a monoethnic continent to which nonwhite people have just arrived, Rose is not alone in refracting every protest by a minority through a racial, ethnic or religious lens.

In so doing he displays his ignorance of both modern secular society and the role of all religions within it. Without anything as explicit as a First Amendment, Europe's freedom of speech laws are far more piecemeal than those of the United States. Many were adopted as a result of the Holocaust--the most potent reminder of just how fragile and recent this liberal secular tradition truly is in Europe. Last year the French daily Le Monde was found guilty of "racist defamation" against Israel and the Jewish people. Madonna's book Sex was only unbanned in Ireland in 2004. Even as this debate rages, David Irving sits in jail in Austria charged with Holocaust denial over a speech he made seventeen years ago, Islamist cleric Abu Hamza has been convicted in London for incitement to murder and racial hatred and Louis Farrakhan remains banned from Britain because his arrival "would not be conducive to the public good." Even here in America school boards routinely ban the works of authors like Alice Walker and J.K. Rowling. Such actions should be opposed; but no one claims Protestant, Catholic or Jewish values are incompatible with democracy.

Which brings us back to Zieler. We will never know what the response to his Christ cartoons would have been because they were never published. (The paper's announced plan to reprint some cartoons about Christ fails to mitigate its double standard.) That fact alone shows that the question has never been whether you draw a line under what is or isn't acceptable to publish, but where you draw it. There is nothing courageous about using your freedom of speech to ridicule the beliefs of one of the weakest sections of your society. But Rose and others like him clearly believe Muslims, by virtue of their religion, exist on the wrong side of the line. That exclusion finds its reflection in the Islamist rejection of all things Western. And so the secularists and antiracists in both the West and the Middle East find their space for maneuver limited, while dogma masquerades as principle, and Islamists and Islamophobes are confirmed in their own vile prejudices.

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