I wasn’t going to comment on the Danish cartoons, because there can't be much left to say that hasn't already been said. But I've been participating in discussions on the subject in other "progressive" fora, where I've been really stunned at some of the ugly sentiments about Muslims and Islam that this affair has dredged to the surface, and I'd like to respond to some of the things I've heard. In short, my own view of the cartoons is that they are gratuitously and deliberately offensive, and their offensiveness was deliberate. So the issue they raise is not free speech per se, but the use of free speech to express and incite religious and racial hatred. I also believe that in Denmark both racial incitement and blasphemy are illegal, so if someone commits those offences, you seek redress by taking them to court.
In considering some of these points, I am going to reproduce some undeniably offensive images, including the worst of the Danish cartoons. It would be absurd to try to talk about why the Danish images are as offensive and hateful as caricatures used to demonize other minority groups, without being able to look at them. If you are uncomfortable at the thought of what you might see - and I assure you there will be something to hurt everyone's feelings - then don't click the links or thumbnails.
I'm going to write about several diverse issues that don't real hang together very well. So I'll post them separately over the next few days, and lump them all together in a single post when I'm done.
1. Racism disguised as freedom of speech
"People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use." - Soren Kierkegaard (1815-1855), Danish philosopher and theologian.
I first saw the Danish cartoons on 10 January, when they were published by a Norwegian publication (whose name I don’t remember, if I ever knew it) , to show “solidarity” with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. To be honest, I was really underwhelmed by them, and came away thinking they were just plain dumb. Some of them were innocuous pictures of a generic Middle Eastern man, and I had no idea what that was meant to convey to me. Others I thought were certainly racist in the way they drew Muhammad with exagerrated stereotypical "Arab" features, and some were anti-Muslim in that they depicted him with horns or made the simple equation Muhammad=Terrorism. And I rolled my eyes when I saw the one repeating the "Muslims blow themselves up so they can have 72 virgins" meme. But my principal gripe with them was that they just weren't funny. What I mean by that is, we generally accept exaggeration or caricature in our cartoon figures, sometimes when it’s offensive caricature, because the cartoon is being used as the vehicle to convey some satirical or ironic or insightful message. But in this case, I could see the offensive caricature, but I couldn’t find the insightful message. The cartoons didn't seem to have any message at all, except for the ones that explicitly presented Muhammad as a bloodthirsty deviant Arab, and nothing about that message struck me as particularly satirical, ironic or insightful.
Anyway, later I read that the reason I couldn’t find a message in most of the cartoons was because there was none. The fact that the cartoon was drawn at all was the message. Apparently, Flemming Rose - the Culture Editor at Jyllands-Posten - had heard that strictly-observant Muslims did not allow images of the Prophet, because to them it smacks of idolatry; he therefore commissioned Danish artists to draw pictures of Muhammad, twelve of which were then published to send the message “You can’t do this, but we can. Because we’re free.” Or something like that.
My first reaction to that rationale was that “freedom of speech” is a very noble-sounding defence, but being deliberately offensive to observant Muslims is a bit of an odd way to express your freedom isn't it? I mean, I am glad to have the right to free speech too, but that doesn't mean that I pride myself on going around saying and doing gratuitously rude things to people. I have known religious Jews who didn't like to print out anything from the computer with the name of God on it, in case it's disposed of improperly and ends up getting scrunched up and dumped in a trashcan. I don't share that belief about the sanctity of the name of God, but it never occurred to me to print out verses from scripture and deface them in front of those who did, just because I could. I have been stationed with colleagues who had to sleep Friday night with the light on because some smartass would stick their hand in the dorm room as they walked past and flick on the light switch, knowing that Sabbath had begun and the person inside was too observant to switch it back off. Personally, I'll switch my bedroom light on or off whenever I like, but that doesn't mean I'm going to switch on my colleague's light too, just to send the message that I think his religious observances are stupid. If someone's conscientiously-held belief doesn't hurt me or anyone else, what does it cost me to show some respect for what they believe, whether or not I believe it myself?
At least once I heard the “free speech” rationale, I understood why some of the cartoons seemed to have no message, but to just be a picture of a Middle Eastern man. Because drawing Muhammad was itself the statement of free speech. I could understand the logic behind that, and probably wouldn’t have given those cartoons a second thought if the innocuous ones had been the only ones published. But they weren’t, were they? Jyllands-Posten didn’t use its freedom to simply say “in our culture, we can publish pictures of Muhammad”, but to say say “in our culture, we can publish pictures of Muhammad and, additionally, we want to take this opportunity to say that he’s a hateful, bigotted perverted old Arab and by implication so are all his coreligionists. So there.”
Most of the cable news reporting I have seen has tended to minimize the offensiveness of the cartoons by suggesting that the story is simply about Muslims being offended by graphic representations of Muhammad, which is a restrictiveness most of us in the U.S. would find rather difficult to identify with. But when you actually listen to what Danish Muslims themselves are saying, they seem to be much more offended by the fact that some of these cartoons are crudely anti-Arab and anti-Islam. I watched the PBS coverage of the delegation of Danish Muslims who briefed the Arab League in Cairo on February 6, and that was definitely the centre of their complaint. They provided the Arab League with A4 posters of the cartoons, so that everyone could see what the dispute was about, which really suggests that they didn't have a problem with pictures of Muhammad per se. And they explicitly said that their problem was with those cartoons (e.g. left) that presented the violence that a tiny minority of Muslims commit as representative of all Muslims and of Islam itself, a complaint that I think most of us would not find nearly so difficult to understand. It’s not that “they hate our freedom” (of speech), but they do hate the fact that a leading Danish newspaper would print material that stirs up hatred against Denmark’s small, vulnerable and unintegrated Muslim minority, for no better reason than “because we can”.
It’s important to remember too that these images were not printed in a vacuum: there is a political context to Jyllands-Posten's actions that makes their actions seem much less like free speech and more like an exercise in gratuitous Muslim-bashing. Denmark is currently governed by a right-of-centre coalition whose Minister of Culture, Brian Mikkelsen boasted last fall that his government has “gone to war against the multicultural ideology that says that everything is equally valid," and that the next front in the war for “Danish values” will be the war against the acceptance of Muslims norms and ways of thought [link ]. Furthermore, the government relies for its Parliamentary majority on the support of the far-right Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party), whose representatives have made it quite clear that when they speak about “cultural restoration” and “Danish values”, they mean Christian values. Speaking in Parliament, where they enjoy immunity from prosecution for inciting racial hatred (no First Amendment in Denmark, remember), DPP members Louise Frevert, Jesper Langballe and Soren Krarup have referred to Denmark’s Muslim population as “a cancer on Danish society” and Islam as “a plague over Europe”. Now, speaking about a minority group as a cancer or a plague is not a neutral or benign thing to do. It doesn't matter how different to us another group is: so long as we still speak of them as people, we recognise that communication and coexistence is possible on the basis of our shared humanity. But we don't share humanity or anything else with viruses or bacillae. Their very existence is a threat to us as human beings. It is impossible that we can tolerate or coexist with them; in fact, for our own survival we are forced to fight them and destroy them. And if you think that equating the Muslim minority with a plague or cancer is just hyperbole that doesn't really amount to anything, then maybe you should reaquaint yourself with what happened just two generations ago when rightist “Christian” politicians demonized a religious minority as a “plague” on Christian Europe, and see how religious hyperbole prepared the ground for real-life genocide. [Footnote 1].
Add to that the fact that two of the Dansk Folkeparti parliamentarians I just quoted are ordained ministers in Denmark’s national (Lutheran) church – no separation of church and state either in Denmark – and the line between “defending Danish values” and “Christians inciting religious hatred against Muslim immigrants” becomes very blurred. And it is against this background that Denmark's leading newspaper of the right decided to commission and publish a series of cartoons of Muhammad that have nothing more profound to say to Muslims than: "We hate you and your stupid religion". Bearing this context in mind, it's not entirely unreasonable for a Danish Muslim to look at those cartoons and understand them not as an exercise in free speech but as part of an ongoing attack on you, by people in positions of power who despise you just for being you, and will say so precisely because they take for granted that you are too powerless to do anything about it.
If you can't put yourself in the shoes of a Danish Muslim, remember that all of us belong to some minority or other, and see how it feels when the minority that you belong to is the one being attacked under the guise of free speech:
If you're Catholic, how do you feel when evangelical Protestants label you "satanic" and "Jew-killers" and belittle your Mass as "cookie worship". How do you feel when your Church - all its saints and martyrs and 2,000 years of unbroken Apostolic Tradition - is routinely caricatured as nothing but a bunch of paedophiles?
Anybody here with a handicapped child? Is it OK with you if I use my free speech to joke about your kid being a "retard"?
If you're a patriotic American who supports the troops, how do you feel when protestors picket the funerals of our soldiers killed in Iraq, to celebrate and thank God for the Improvised Explosive Devices that killed them?
If you're Jewish - or just anybody with even the slightest understanding of European history in the 20th century - and you can't see why it's offensive to personify the Muslim as a hook-nosed, bigoted, violent, stereotyped Arab old deviant,
(It is written in the Talmud: "Only the Jews are human beings. Non-Jews cannot be called human beings, they are like animals". Because of this, we consider non-Jews to be animals, and call them "Goy".).
(Money is the God of the Jews. They commit great crimes to acquire money. The don't stop until they have a bag of gold big enough to sit on. They don't stop until they are the king of money.)
[Just as an aside, there is surely a Ph.D thesis waiting to be written on Islamophobia as the latest manifestation of Antisemitism. When Western philologists and anthropologists first systematically studied the southwest Asian civilizations in the late 18th century, the line they drew between us and them was not between Europeans and Oriental Jews, but between the superior “aryan” peoples that produced the great ancient writings in Greek, Persian and Sanskrit and lived on in Western Europe, and the inferior, primitive peoples – Arab and Jew alike - with their supposedly ugly, gutteral semitic languages. Arabs were “merely Jews on horseback”, and they were both basically just orientals, as Benjamin Disraeli (Tancred, 1847) put it most succinctly. By mid-century, aryan cultural superiority began to morph into aryan racial superiority, e.g. “All civilizations derive from the White race... When the Aryan blood is exhausted stagnation supervenes." (Artur Comte de Gobineau, Sur l’inegalite des races humaines, 1854). And once you’ve started seeing the world in terms of racial purity, the very presence in your midst of the lesser, non-aryan parasite/plague/virus becomes an intolerable threat to you. In the 20th century, Europe’s Jews were the despised semitic religious minority that took the brunt of this world view. Now the Muslims are the oriental minority du jour, and the same images once used to dehumanize Jews as the depraved swarthy barbarian out to defile our European whiteness are resurfacing. Either that’s a remarkable coincidence, or we are once again tapping into an ugly, unresolved hostility to the semitic “other” that we thought had been discredited in 1945, but apparently never was].
Hopefully, you've found something in those links that really offends or angers you. Well, now you're feeling a little bit of what many Muslims feel at the sight of those cartoons. Most importantly, bear in mind that those cartoons were commissioned precisely to make them feel that way, and for no better reason than "because we could". Freedom of speech sounds like a noble defence, but it doesn't absolve you from responsibility for what you say. None of us lives in a vacuum. As long as we live in the company of others we all in practice recognize that there are limits to what sane, decent people say to and about each other. And when - as in this case - we decide to ignore the usual limits of decency, the onus is surely not on the offended party to explain why racist hate speech is offensive, but on Jyllands-Posten to explain why a national newspaper would want to use its free speech to express and incite hatred in the first place.
2. Selective free speech
"All immigrants bring exotic customs and attitudes, but Muslim customs are more troublesome than most.... West European societies are unprepared for the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene."
-- Daniel Pipes, “The Muslims are coming! The Muslims are coming!”, (National Review, 1991); cited by James Zogby, Jordan Times, 29 July 2003.
One issue that makes the "free speech" defence really problematic in this case is that Jyllands-Posten has been extremely selective in the past in the way it exercises its free speech. Three years ago the newspaper declined to publish cartoons lampooning Jesus - partly because the cartoons were unsolicited, partly because they were not funny (and the Muhammad cartoons are?), and partly because they would offend Christian readers:
Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today. The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.
In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten. Zieler received an email back from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."
- Danish paper rejected Jesus cartoons; The Guardian, 6 February 2006.
Furthermore, Flemming Rose (the sub-editor who commissioned the Muhammad cartoons) told the International Herald Tribune on 1 January 2006 that he would draw the line at publishing a cartoon that would be offensive to Jewish readers:
But Rose acknowledges that even his liberalism has its limits. He said he would not publish a cartoon of Israel's Ariel Sharon strangling a Palestinian baby, since that could be construed as "racist."
- Cartoons ignite cultural combat in Denmark; IHT, 1 Jan 2006.
So the newspaper does not believe in unlimited free speech after all. It voluntarily places restrictions on itself and declines to print cartoons that could reasonably be expected to offend Christian readers or Jewish readers. But then it commissions and publishes cartoons designed to offend Muslims, and suddenly religious sensibilities can be ignored in the name of freedom of speech. You can't practice a double standard like that, and then seriously expect people to believe that this a free speech issue. If you don't believe that free speech gives you the freedom to insult Christians and Jews, but happily use it as an excuse for an attack on Islam, you don't really care about free speech per se. What you really care about is having the right to incite hatred against a small, alien and vulnerable population in your midst, without being held accountable for it.
 Examples of the Jewish “plague” on Christian Europe:
a. How urgent it is at present and how much it is upsetting the major nations becomes evident from the collective outcry against the invasion of the Israelites into every sector of public and social life; from the associations having formed in France, Austria, Germany, England, Russia, Romania, and elsewhere in order to stop it; from the outcrys which are beginning to make themselves heard within the parliaments; finally, from the great number of newspapers, books, and pamphlets continuously appearing in order to point out the necessity of stopping and combating the spread of this plague, and stressing its most pernicious consequences.
…So, in Germany, Austria and France, there is a school of thought which advances a remedy for liberation from the Jewish plague, that, per se, would be the most radical of all, but that wouldn't conform to the Christian spirit and whose realization would be impossible at present. (La Civiltà Cattolica, Series XIV, Vol. VII, Fascicule 961, 23 October 1890)
b. Thanks to the development of our modern means of communication, the Jewish question ought to be permitted to become a world question in the course of the twentieth century. As such, it should be solved in common with other nations and result finally in full separation, and if-- self-defense demands-- in final annihilation of the Jewish race. The "true" peace conference will be the one in which the peoples of the globe occupy themselves with the position of the Hebrews. Until then, however, it will be the affair of every individual nation to defend itself against the Jewish plague as best it can. -- (Hamburg Resolutions of the German Social Reform Party, 1899).
c. In Munich the violent, blatant Völkischer Beobachter, organ of Jew-baiting Adolf Hitler, reminded its readers that famed Jewish Biographer Emil Ludwig long ago quit Germany for Switzerland, clarioned: ‘We advise other Jews to leave Germany while they have the opportunity. . . . We are determined to free Germany of the Jewish plague!’ (TIME Magazine, 30 May 1932).
d. Many people are quite smug because the Jewish question in Germany is solved. The Jew is barred from civil life and politics. German blood is protected by the Nurnberg laws… Such persons are taking only a superficial view of the Jewish question. The German people will not be free of danger from the Jewish plague until the Jewish question is liquidated in its entirety. The danger of the plague infecting the German people will continue to exist as long as there is a seat of this pestilence anywhere in the world. (Julius Streicher, writing in Fraenkische Tageszeitung on 11 August 1938)
e. Just as the tapeworm requires a radical cure, so, too, does the Jew. World history proves that, over the millennia, Gentile peoples have resisted Jewish parasites. Millions of Jewish crooks where chased away by exploited peoples. Hundreds of thousands of those miserable criminals were hung on the gallows or burned alive. This is how these peoples hoped finally to free themselves from the Jewish tapeworm. But they were wrong! The Jews came back in even larger numbers. Just as a person can be cured of a tapeworm only when it is completely destroyed, so the peoples can be freed of the Jewish plague only when they make full work of it. It is not enough to render harmless only a part of Jewry, since the Jewish tapeworm always grows back! Then it is more dangerous than before! All the work was in vain!
Tapeworms and the Jew are parasites of the worst kind. If we want to free ourselves of them, if we want to be healthy and strong again, there is only one cure: their extermination. - Excerpt from "The Tapeworm", from a childrens’ storybook Der Pudelmopsdackelpinscher (The Mongrel Dog) by Ernst Hiemer, 1940.
f. The Jews have disappeared from Europe and the Jewish 'Reservoir of the East' from which the Jewish plague has for centuries beset the people of Europe, has ceased to exist. (Der Sturmer, 7 May 1942).
 Credits: The Roman Catholic/paedophile cartoons are from vic cartoons. The Nazi-era cartoons were all published in Der Sturmer and Der Giftpilz between 1934 and 1936, and are available online at Galleria del Lager. The anti-gay/Catholic/military photos are courtesy of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist "Church".