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Location: Aarhus, Denmark

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Of Free Expression (Danish Cartoon Controversy)

by Ripudaman Singh -
A year ago I invited Shafiq, one of my close friends from Pakistan, to join me in watching ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. I got this movie as a present and was told that it was based on fiction where Jesus was depicted to have survived the crucifixion and died as an old man after engaging in all worldly duties. Because of the nature of the subject the movie was labeled as blasphemous by many Christian sects and had been banned in some countries. Half way through the movie Shafiq expressed his unwillingness in continuing watching it. He said, “If they can’t respect their prophet, it doesn’t mean we are not supposed to do that”. With that our movie session culminated.

A few months later, in September, I received a phone call from Shafiq. In a somber tone he said Jyllands-Posten has published some cartoons of ‘Sal-ul-lah-ho-allhe-wassallam’. Since childhood I had known that any figurative depiction of Prophet Mohammad was against Islamic norms. At first I thought Shafiq might have been misinformed, and I enquired if he had seen the caricatures. He replied, ‘some guys distributing the newspaper in the morning saw it’. Later the same day he sent me the link to the newspaper webpage where the caricatures were published. They were all there; twelve cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad in different forms. There was a common theme in most of the caricatures; an angry and aggressive man supporting a long beard and a turban. An international issue had been conceived.

It was the month of Ramadaan, and the devastating earthquake in Kashmir had just shown its wrath. This, along with the cartoon issue, became a common topic of talk in the evening dinners where all students from Pakistan got together and ate their meals. Most of them also worked as newspaper distributors for Jyllands-Posten and hence were in a moral dilemma. Some of the guys immediately left their jobs in protest, while others opted for a lesser extreme step. They decided to meet the newspaper administration and hand in their protest. Until the matter was resolved they decided to donate the salaries generated from newspaper distribution to the earthquake victims. The distribution manager from the newspaper company invited them for a meeting. Though the manager didn’t come up with the reasoning behind publishing the cartoons, a demand for apology by the newspaper was out rightly rejected by her. Another demand of publishing a news item on student’s behalf reporting their unhappiness with these publications was also rejected. After the meeting they felt dismayed and helpless. Shafiq had also been to the meeting and later left his job.

Something had gone terribly wrong. In a matter of days so many students left their jobs. Was anyone to be blamed for that? Had a line been crossed by someone, somewhere? Or was it just an over-reaction to routine journalism?

Scandinavian countries are considered to be among the most liberal countries in the whole of Europe. Denmark takes the credit of being one of the first countries to legalize gay marriages, and the only country to have a registered neo-Nazi party. And all of this justified under the name of ‘freedom of speech and expression’. A couple of years ago killing of Theo van Gogh, a famous Dutch filmmaker, by a Muslim extremist, after he had made ‘Submission’, a controversial film on Islam, had started the debate about ‘freedom of speech and expression’ afresh. Does this freedom know any boundaries, or it is as absolute as the universe itself? Does the freedom of expression of one person need to be in consideration, or can it infringe the freedom of expression of the other person? To be able to talk and express freely without the fear of persecution, and to give a legitimate voice to those who otherwise don’t have the just right to express is the core idea behind the concept of ‘freedom of expression’. Instead, using this basic human right of expression for the purpose of denigration, abuse and defamation of others only besmirches its true essence. It only beckons animosity and leads to prejudice and social intolerance.

In a face to face conversation it is easy to hold on to the boundaries of ‘freedom of speech’. Our words are always guarded and we try to be cautious of what we are saying, as not to offend the listener. However, these boundaries tend to shrivel when we start transcribing our thoughts. In the absence of someone listening to us firsthand, we get more time to maneuver and most of our ideas are guided by our perceptions of current events. That’s when we tend to generalize most and hence it becomes essential that we uphold our self-restrain. We don’t need rules of certain ‘civilizations’, but common sense bestowed by mutual respect, to guide this self-restrain. If freedom of speech is our right, then common sense is our duty.

Trying to (un)explain the boundaries of ‘freedom of expression’ by so-called notion - ‘clash of civilizations’ is based on the assumption of the domination of one form of culture over the other, where the proprietorship of free expression dwells with one group. This disposes the idea of ‘exporting’ and imposing free speech along with the other values such as democracy over the other civilizations. And in multicultural societies this paves the way for widening the gaps between groups of people. This eventually plays very well in the hands of extremists on both sides, and eventually results in a cycle of animosity, hostility and hatred between different ethnic groups.

The cartoon row took five months to germinate into a full scale international issue. Following that, scores of lives have been lost during some violent protests in many countries. Danish, and other Scandinavian business and governmental establishments have been assaulted. Once a peaceful, harmonious and fairyland country, unknown on the world political scene, has taken the center-stage of world politics. The issue has polarized the whole world just a bit more. And everything comes down to the virtue of a few people who had the original stake in the decision on publishing of the cartoons.

The present multi-ethnical and multicultural societies necessitate a sensible and sagacious use of our rights including ‘freedom of expression’, appraising all its consequences. It is also expected from well educated and modern societies that these sensitivities are always taken into account. The collective wisdom of the multifaceted societies is there to consign check and balance. As Sikh religio-political leader Master Tara Singh once said ‘Freedom to speak anything is not freedom of speech; but to be able to speak the right thing is freedom of speech’.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to read your post!

7:17 PM  

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