Free speech lost in translation

Ten years ago in September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons and sparked what the Danish prime minister described as the worst crisis in Danish foreign policy since the Second World War.

In his book, The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited A Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, Danish journalist Flemming Rose compellingly outlines what happened, and what the events meant for the fight for liberty in free and unfree countries.

In 2005 Rose was the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten. He commissioned and published the cartoons in his section of the paper. And it was Rose who, more than anyone else, bore the brunt of the backlash — as well as being the most prominent defender of the decision to publish. First published in Denmark in 2010, his book was written at first to justify his actions and respond to critics. It has just been republished by the American free market think tank the Cato Institute, but developed into a longer discourse about free speech and censorship.

The purpose of the cartoons was to take a position in favour of free expression, and to editorialise against self-censorship in Denmark. The Jyllands-Posten editorial team were interested in the fact that a Danish children’s author, Kåre Bluitgen, had only been able to get an illustrator for his book on the life of Muhammad if the illustrations were done anonymously. In the middle of a Danish debate on self-censorship, this was an opportunity for the paper to take a stand: not a stunt, or an experiment, but a statement of principles.

Most strands of Islam are aniconic: that is, they oppose the depiction of images of their god and their Prophet Muhammad. Yet the question facing Jyllands-Posten was not whether Islam, as practiced in by Europe’s muslim migrant communities or the Islamic world, was aniconic. Rather it was whether the prohibition on depicting Muhammad was to be applied to non-Muslims in a non-Muslim country. Some potential illustrators for Bluitgen’s book had contacted Islamic religious and academic authorities in Denmark, who had given the project an all clear (at least one of those authorities, Rose notes, took a lead in the anti-cartoon reaction).

The twelve cartoons were published on 30 September 2005. Not all of them depicted Muhammad. At least two caricatured Kåre Bluitgen, suggesting the whole affair was a publicity stunt. Another was of a school child going by the name of ‘Mohammed’ — implicitly mocking Jyllands-Posten. But the most provocative cartoons directly connected Muhammad with terrorism. One — possibly the most iconic — was a picture of Muhammad’s face with a lit bomb in his turban. On the bomb was the Islamic creed ‘shahadah’. Others cartoonists offered more neutral portraits. One showed a cartoonist looking over his shoulder as he nervously drew the Prophet — also a comment on the Jyllands-Posten commission about free speech. All the cartoons were printed around a comment piece by Rose discussing the cartoons’ publication as a statement against self-censorship and in defence of freedom of speech.

In 2015 political backlashes are almost instantaneous. The cycle of outrage, counter-outrage and resolution can be completed within 24 hours. Ten years ago — that is, before social media drowned out the public sphere — political outrage took more time to build up.

Some newspaper sellers declined to sell the issue of Jyllands-Posten on the day. A few days after the publication, a group of Muslim leaders and activists agreed to take political and legal action against the paper. Two weeks later 3,500 Danish Muslims peacefully protested the cartoons’ publication. And there the reaction stalled. As the Danish scholar Jytte Klausen writes, ‘there was no groundswell of support for the mosque activists and imams who led the charge against the newspaper and the government in Denmark.’

It was the international events that brought the crisis to a head. As part of their political campaign against the paper, the Danish imams had petitioned the ambassadors of Muslim countries in Denmark to raise the cartoons as a diplomatic issue with the Danish government. In October 2005, a diplomatic protest was lodged by the ambassadors of eleven countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Indonesia. Their protest was acknowledged by the Danish government. But the Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, head of a centre-right coalition, affirmed the paper’s right to free expression.

Feeling themselves unsupported, the imams decided to directly appeal to Middle Eastern governments. In December 2005, they travelled to Cairo armed with a dossier that included the cartoons.

The imam’s dossier — all 43 pages of it — was probably the most inflammatory part of the entire affair. It included not just the cartoons and translations of Jyllands-Posten’s editorials on Islam and self-censorship, but other material as well. There were abusive letters which the imams said had been sent to Muslims in Denmark. There were clippings from other papers, images completely unrelated to Denmark and Jyllands-Posten, unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims about the relationship between Denmark and its Muslim community, and a host of other material designed specifically to rile up Muslim readers. According to the secretly recorded statement of one of the Danish clerics, the dossier was intended to ‘create a climate of hate against the newspaper, God willing’.

In this, the dossier was a great success. The result of the fundamentally political decision to create a dossier that exaggerated and distorted the actions of Jyllands-Posten was devastating. Throughout February 2006 — more than four months after the publication of the cartoons — protests and riots erupted throughout the Muslim world. The targets of ire were not just symbols of Denmark but other countries whose newspapers either reprinted the cartoons or were generally presumed to be in league with the anti-Muslim sentiment contained within. The Danish embassy in Damascus was stormed. The European Union offices in Gaza were stormed. Riots occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In Nigeria, protestors attacked and burned down local Christian churches. Some estimates suggest that globally 200 people lost their lives in the aftermath of the cartoons’ publication.

In Denmark, Rose and the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard were the subject of numerous death threats and assassination plots. One particularly close call occurred when a Somali man invaded Westergaard’s home with an axe and a knife. Westergaard hid in a panic room until Danish police shot and wounded the man, who was linked to a radical Islamist group. Other plots disrupted include attempts to attack the offices of Jyllands-Posten — a disturbing foreshadowing of the devastating Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year.

The Danish cartoons crisis has, in light of subsequent events, taken on a deeper meaning. But in 2005 the political undercurrents of clerical aniconism seemed to be at the forefront. The Danish imams were playing Danish politics when they compiled their dossier of grievances. One cleric had been particularly incensed with Jyllands-Posten for publishing details of a sermon he had given in which he described women as the devil’s work. He saw the cartoons as an opportunity for some payback.

Likewise, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran had their domestic audience in mind when they lodged their Danish protests. The violence emanated primarily from within Muslim countries and not from Muslim migrants in Denmark. Local riots always have local causes. Attacks on Christians in Muslim-majority countries were as much driven by local prejudices as anything else.

In some countries — such as India and Pakistan — extremists used the existence of the cartoons as a way to destabilise domestic regimes. Other protests were sponsored by the governments of Iran and Syria to underline their own regimes’ religious piety.

One notable aspect of the Danish crisis is the relationship between Jyllands-Posten’s decision to publish the cartoons and the blame laid by critics on the Danish government. How does a feature in an independent newspaper so quickly become a question of diplomacy between national governments? We are used to political leaders sharing their views on the non-political scandals of the hour, but the Danish imams and the eleven Muslim governments were after more than just a side-comment by Prime Minister Rasmussen. They wanted a legal and political response.

The principle of a free press not subject to direct controls by the government of the day is a liberal one. Yet this liberal idea is not internationally unanimous. The countries that protested so vigorously against the cartoons do not share the ethos of the free press. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran impose the death penalty for blasphemy. Turkey, Indonesia, Libya and Morocco also impose judicial punishment for blasphemy. Perhaps what the world saw in 2005 and 2006 was an international clash between two societies. The virtues of free expression were lost in translation.

And yet this explanation is too simple. Freedom of speech is hardly an overriding concern in the West either. One need only look at the repeated legal actions taken against Charlie Hebdo to see that. Or indeed, against Jyllands-Posten. Denmark has a blasphemy law which prohibits the public ridicule of a religious community. Denmark’s blasphemy law is a criminal law, rather than a civil one. The committee of imams complained to the police that such a violation had occurred, but the outcome of the police investigation was that the cartoon publication would be protected by exceptions covering matters of public interest.

What messages do such laws send? They suggest that religious insult is a matter for state supervision. Moreover, they imply that the bounds of public discourse should be determined by legislation, and that the proper response to offensive newspaper publications is to approach the police. No wonder the immediate appeal of the imams — and the foreign governments — was directed to the Danish government.

Hate speech and blasphemy laws undermine the liberal firewall that exists between individual expression and the views of society as a whole. Once we have established the principle that the nation can prevent offensive speech, it is unsurprising that people blame the nation for having failed to prevent offence. Rasmussen’s response to the diplomatic protest stated that: The freedom of expression has a wide scope and the Danish government has no means of influencing the press. However, Danish legislation prohibits acts or expressions of blasphemous or discriminatory nature. The offended party may bring such acts or expressions to court, and it is for the courts to decide in individual cases.

Pleading the fundamental right to freedom of expression simply looks false when blasphemy and hate speech laws are sitting on the statute books, waiting to be used. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015, world leaders, foreign ministers, ambassadors and other dignitaries gathered in Paris to take a stand against Islamist violence. Linking arms they walked solemnly down a Parisian boulevard, looking as if they were leading the protest marches that had brought more than a million people onto the streets in Paris that day.

In fact, this was an illusion: the famed photo-op was conducted in an otherwise empty and secure side-street, far away from the crowds. More egregious, and more suggestive, was the fact that many of the leaders who attended the protest apparently in defence of freedom of expression were in charge of countries that aggressively stifled expression at home. Take, for instance, Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt, marching at the very time that Al Jazeera journalists, including the Australian Peter Greste, were locked up in a Cairo prison. So too was the Russian foreign minister — envoy to a country that targets journalists and whistle blowers for criticising the government.

Even Western, liberal leaders like David Cameron and Angela Merkel preside over laws that prohibit and punish hate speech. And Australia, of course, has section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. After the Charlie Hebdo killings Tony Abbott argued rightly that ‘from time to time people will be upset, offended, insulted, humiliated … but it is all part of a free society.’ Yet our legal system does not reflect this basic liberal principle.

Speech laws, we have been told time and time again, play as much a symbolic role as a practical one; showing who we are as a nation, the language and sentiments we will not tolerate.

Rose’s Tyranny of Silence is especially good when it contextualises the cartoon crisis in the long historical contest over individual liberty and dissent. As a journalist, he spent a great deal of time talking to Soviet dissidents who wanted the same sort of liberal freedoms enjoyed in the West. Many Muslims now want the same freedoms but are prevented from expressing their desire by a stultifying public sphere in Islamic countries and the aggressive political dominance of radical Muslim ‘spokesmen’ in the West.

As Rose points out, Western liberalism’s weak and hesitating defence of free speech is not only a poor defence of its own values, but it abandons liberals in the Muslim world who are looking for alternative political paths. There are many human rights activists in the Muslim world crying out for the liberties which we now bargain away in the mistaken name of ‘toleration’.

Defending freedom of expression is not some academic preoccupation. It is fundamental to our idea of ourselves — to our liberties, and ultimately, to our civilisation.