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Opinion: Caricatures Raise Questions of Freedom, Fairness

Peter Phillip (jen)February 2, 2006

Should Islamic states accept caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed appearing in other countries? Or should press freedom end where religious beliefs begin? DW's Peter Phillip looked at the issues involved.

Who should decide what the press has a right to print?Image: Illuscope

"We would never want to insult anyone over their religious beliefs, because we are strong proponents of religious freedom," wrote a contrite-sounding Carsten Juste, editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. "We respect every person's right to freely practice their own given religion."

So said Juste, writing in an "open letter to all Muslims living in Denmark," as he tried to calm the increasingly powerful waves of opposition to 12 editorial cartoons his paper published at the end of September.

Pushing the limits

The drawings depicted the Prophet Mohammed in ways fairly guaranteed not to promote interfaith religious understanding. One showed Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban.

The paper said its aim was to "test" the limits of press freedom. Its critics say that, in the first place, Islamic law does not allow for the Prophet Mohammed to be depicted. Secondly, the drawings equated Islam with terrorism.

As a result, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Kuwait have recalled their ambassadors from Denmark. In Teheran and Baghdad, Danish diplomats were summoned to the Foreign Ministry. In Gaza, the offices of the European Union were stormed. Every day, more Arab and Islamic states are boycotting Danish products, and the Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen is warning its citizens from travelling to certain Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia.

Paper apologized

Juste now recognizes that perhaps the drawings "were interpreted as a campaign against Muslims in Denmark and the rest of the world because of cultural misunderstanding." But, he said, that wasn't his newspaper's intention. And he offered an apology to anyone whose feelings had been hurt.

Mohammed Zeichnungen Demonstration gegen Dänemark in Pakistan
Pakistani religious students burned the Danish flag at a demonstrationImage: AP

Muslim groups in Denmark, with their interest in continuing to live in Danish society, have accepted the apology. The same does not go for Arab and Muslim countries, however. That constitutes the second aspect of this scandal: Certain actors in the Muslim world seem to view the event as a welcome opportunity to accuse the entire western world of arrogance and insensitivity to Islam.

The caricatures were spread throughout the Muslim world -- along with other, worse ones that Carsten Juste said his paper did not publish "because they breached our code of ethics."

Basic misunderstanding

The issue was made worse by a basic misunderstanding on the part of the protesters: Arab nations demanded an apology from the Danish government and also asked Copenhagen to punish the authors of the drawings. However, neither act is possible for a western democracy.

In this case, Denmark's reaction only fanned the flames. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen did distance himself from the publication of the caricatures, but he cited the rights of free press and speech while doing so. Norway's reaction was similar: There would be no political reprimand of those responsible.

Anger rose on the part of the Arabs, and one Saudi commentator even said it was more than clear that the West considered Islam as an enemy. Holocaust denial in the Western media is punishable, but those who vilify Islam and its prophets go unpunished.

The Ayatollah affair

Once again, ignorance and intentional demonization supplemented each other. Like years ago, when well-known German television personality Rudi Carell made fun of Iranian revolution leader Ayatollah Khomeni in a tasteless sketch, bringing about a political crisis between Tehran and Germany.

At the same time, Western secular society needs to give new thought to the relationship between religion and the state. Like the discussions that followed the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, we need to think about whether certain rights should really remain unrestricted, or whether they should be limited to the point at which they breach someone else's freedom.

Opposing freedoms

In this case, that would pit the freedom of press and expression against the freedom of religion, and the right of minorities to protection from persecution, oppression and denigration. A religious minority -- which is what Muslims are, in our western democracy -- has a right to be protected from such hostility. And the majority has the obligation to vouchsafe that protection. Otherwise, the noble basic rights of democracy aren't worth much.

Naturally, liberal thinkers see that as a danger. For example, Berlin's left wing tageszeitung newspaper wrote in a commentary that no one can guarantee that something like the Denmark case won't happen again.

"It is a demand that cannot be fulfilled, unless we all agree that priests, rabbis or imams should decide what we are allowed to read, hear or see. In the end, these religious authorities have for a long time proven to be formidable repressors when it comes to freedom of expression."