Insulting cartoons and the limits of free speech

01.03.06 Publication:

Editors of newspapers and magazines like to think of themselves as quite influential people. But usually they are not. Politicians do pay court to them, but not out of respect for their judgment and status: in reality, they care about editors only as a way to reach the publications´ readers, in the hope of getting their votes. As a result, although most editors enjoy access to the high and mighty, and the chance to eat large amounts of good food, they do not really feel that what they print has big consequences. So when it does, they are shocked.

That is what happened in Europe during January when some cartoons published in a Danish newspaper suddenly prompted protests by Muslims around the world, including violent acts in many countries in the Middle East. Embassies for Denmark and Norway (a Norwegian newspaper reprinted the cartoons) were burned down. Iran announced a boycott of Danish goods. The editor of a French newspaper, France-Soir, who copied the cartoons and added his own images, was fired.

It was an odd affair. The cartoons, it was said, caused offence among Muslims by featuring Islam´s holiest figure, the Prophet Muhammad, and by depicting him as a terrorist. That is certainly true: strict Muslims believe that to create images of the Prophet is itself blasphemous, even if he is depicted peacefully, so to portray him as a terrorist added insult to injury. Yet Muslim newspapers—or, at least, newspapers in Arab countries—carry cartoons every day that insult other cultures, especially Jews and American presidents.

It is not very nice to insult each other in this way, but equally it ought not to bring about violence. The other odd thing about the Danish affair is that the cartoons were originally published in September 2005, yet the protests did not begin until the end of January 2006, about four months later. Since newspapers are the most short-lived, disposable product of all, being out of date and thus discarded soon after they are printed, it was very strange that these cartoons were still thought to be offensive so long after they had been printed.

So why did it cause such belated violence, and were the editors right to publish the cartoons in the first place? The answer to the first question has to do with the very difficult politics of the Muslim world itself. It seems clear that some Muslim organisations began to plan the violence soon after the cartoons were published, deciding to use them as a rallying point for their supporters. They did so steadily during the four months that followed publication, demanding the newspaper apologise, and then that the Danish government apologies. Once both had refused such requests on several occasions, emotions had been stirred up among supporters and the violence could begin.

What this reflects is the lack of free political debate in countries such as Syria and Iran, and therefore the lack of outlets for anger and frustration. When a cause such as the cartoons appears, about which the government shows that it will allow protests, people exploit that fact to build their political reputations and stir up supporters. This explanation, of course, needs to be combined with the general high level of anti-western feeling in those countries, thanks to the violence in Iraq, the continued conflict between Israel and Palestine, and other grievances.

The answer to the second question, of whether the editors were right to publish the cartoons, is much more difficult to answer. One can judge it on grounds of taste: even though I cannot speak Danish, it is clear to me that the cartoons were in poor taste, with the Prophet shown with his turban looking like a bomb. That makes me think that the editors should not have published the cartoons, but should have found some better ones instead. But taste cannot be grounds to ban publication, nor to be violent about it: it is just a matter of personal opinion after all.

Instead, one can judge the decision in terms of the right to free speech, which is a fundamental value in all open, democratic societies. Even if you don´t like what someone says, or the ideas they express in their cartoons, they should have a right to express them. A free society is one that can be left to judge which ideas are good and which are bad.

That argument also applies to the cartoons that appear in newspapers in Arab countries, which portray Jews (especially Israel´s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon) in highly insulting ways. Those societies are not free, but still one can consider such drawings as part of a debate. They are free to insult Jews, while Danes are free to insult Islam. It is all fair game.

Or is it? In terms of rights, I think it is fair: the Danish editors had the right to publish their cartoons. But I don´t think that is enough to justify it. The reason is that freedom of speech is not an absolute, black-and-white matter. We all accept limits to our freedom of speech: some are expressed in the law, such as protections of people´s reputations against libel; some are expressed in national cultural taboos, such as the feeling in Japan that the imperial family should not be insulted or portrayed in an offensive way; others are expressed in our common sense of decency.

My sense, as a fellow editor, is that the Danish editors should not have published those cartoons. To portray the Prophet Muhammad in that way was indecent. Just because some extremists carry out acts of terrorism in his name, that doesn´t mean that it is right to attack all believers in Islam as terrorists.

Now, all editors can make mistakes, and it is possible that the Danish editors did not realise quite how indecent their cartoon actually was. But once this became clear, the right thing to do would have been to acknowledge that it was insulting and to apologise. The editors could have said, quite correctly, that free speech gave them the perfect right to publish their cartoons, but that such freedom did not make it right to have done so. Nor does the fact that Arab or other papers carry equally insulting cartoons. Just because someone else acts indecently or offensively does not mean that you are then justified in doing so.