“Some have pointed out that the rising tide of Islamophobia, where one can say and do things against Muslims purely because of their religious beliefs and ethnic background, is comparable to the rise of anti-Semitism in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe.”
In early 2006 I was a guest of Ilisimatusarfik, the University of Greenland. The university is based in the capital city, Nuuk, on the milder west Greenland coast. For most of the two months I was there I sat by a large window in a small house, writing and thinking, watching the ravens playing in the wind (I got to know them so well that I gave them names), the fishing boats running up and down the fjord, and the amazing black hills on the other side of that fjord, their ravines and gullies outlined in snow. But I was also invited to speak at the Theological Society’s bi-monthly lecture. The topic: since Denmark and the whole world were still buzzing over the infamous ‘Mohammed Cartoons’ that had appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005, I was asked to offer an outsider’s view.
These twelve cartoons, drawn at the invitation of the newspaper, depicted Mohammed in various caricatures and insulting situations, the most inflammatory of which was the turban of the prophet in the shape of a bomb. Soon the controversy grew, some or all of the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers in more than fifty other countries (including those in the Middle East), leading to peaceful and occasionally violent protests in many parts of the world from Denmark to Malaysia. Danish goods were boycotted, diplomatic protests lodged, official condemnations lodged, court cases begun, apologies made, ambassadors removed from Denmark, advice given to Danes not to travel in Muslim-majority countries, embassies stormed and set on fire in Syria and Lebanon, death threats made against the cartoonists, and the Danish Prime Minister said that he was in no position to curtail the freedom of the press. Indeed, the controversy continues, for the Danish secret police announced recently (13 February 2008) that they had ‘uncovered’ a plot to kill one of the cartoonists. Jyllands-Posten republished the cartoons, increased its circulation and the whole debate went through yet another cycle. Critics claimed that the cartoons were culturally insulting, Islamophobic, blasphemous, and intended to humiliate a marginalized Danish minority. Supporters of the cartoons claimed they illustrated an important issue and the publication exercised the right of free speech. They also claimed that there are similar cartoons about other religions, arguing that Islam and its followers have not been targeted in a discriminatory way.
So now, a couple of years after the controversy first began and shows no signs of abating, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on that issue – free speech. What I will do is comment on the positions that have been and might be taken on the whole controversy and then make some suggestions. There are, I suggest, four major positions, what I call the conspiracy theory, free speech, hypocrisy and an Orientalist position.
For some reason or other we never seem to get tired of conspiracy theories. We like to think that there is some deeper, hidden plan, and that we need to get to the bottom of it. The conspiracy theories that arose as part of the cartoon controversy are of the same type. We found them put forward by Muslims, Christians, Jews and purely secular commentators. Let me give you a few samples:
Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in his first reaction to the controversy on 6 February, 2006, that a ‘Zionist conspiracy’ was to blame for the row over the cartoons: ‘The reason for the Zionist action is because of the loss they suffered by Hamas winning’. Khamenai was referring to Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian legislative election in January 2006, several months after the publication of the cartoons.
You can trust the Zionist paper, The Jerusalem Post, to come up with a reverse conspiracy theory. Daniel Pipes argued that the pattern of events revealed the agenda of Muslim supremacism: ‘The deeper issue here, however, is not Muslim hypocrisy but Islamic supremacism’.  In the end, it all boiled down to deliberate intimidation by a bunch of Muslim thugs over some innocent cartoons. The disproportianate Muslim response was, suggested the Post, a form of ‘arm flexing’ by violent Muslim factions.
Then there are Christian and secular theories of a global jihad. The neurotic Paul Sheehan, an Australian commentator, argued that the contoversy was but one small episode in a ‘new global war’ that goes back to the age old battle between Christians and Muslims. It is nothing other than god versus god. Sheehan has a vision of a world overrun with billons of Muslims, since they breed like animals unlike the civilised West. In Europe, in Palestine, in the USA, Australia and elsewhere, there is a global intifada underway to take over the world. Sheehan writes: ‘The recent wave of violence in the Islamic world over cartoons published in Denmark was not a spontaneous eruption. It was a carefully orchestrated global intifada, sparked by the threat of the UN Security Council’s decision to impose sanctions on Iran for pursuing a nuclear weapons program’.  He finds the intifada under way in Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands … and, of course, Australia.
Another conspiracy theory is found among Muslims, Jews, Christians and those with no religious commitment: the cartoons set out, under the excuse of ‘freedom of speech’ to foster racism and Islamophobia. Thus the newspaper deliberately set out to offend Muslims and drive them from Denmark and Europe. For example, the General Secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Conferences stated that ‘It is evident that the intention of Jyllands-Posten was motivated to incite hatred and violence against Muslims’. 
Needless to say these conspiracy theories are the stuff of pure fantasy and neurotic nightmares. As always with conspiracy theories, the old saying still applies: what looks like a conspiracy is actually just stupidity.
Most of the debate, however, has circled around freedom of speech. The Prime Minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen – a vocal supporter of and apparent believer in liberalism – has used this line consistently in response to all manner of pressures to interfere. Despite many calls to censure and even punish Jyllands-Posten and its editors, he has said that freedom of speech is crucial to Danish self-understanding and for that reason he cannot tell the newspaper what it can or cannot print. This position, which many people support, I describe as freedom of speech at all costs. It was the reason Jyllands-Posten published the drawings in the first place.
Freedom of Speech at all Costs
Firstly, a little bit of background on freedom of speech in Denmark. Freedom of speech, along with modern democracy, was part of the new constitution of 1849. Parliamentarism followed in 1901 together with other liberties such as freedom of religion. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been defended vigorously ever since.
Section 77 of the Constitutional Act of Denmark (1953) reads: ‘Any person shall be at liberty to publish his ideas in print, in writing, and in speech, subject to his being held responsible in a court of law. Censorship and other preventive measures shall never again be introduced’. Freedom of expression in Denmark is also protected by among others the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Danish freedom of expression is quite radical. Thus, it is a place where neo-nazi propaganda has been printed, much to the chagrin of the German government. It has hosted a Chechen congress and for that the Russians accused Denmark of ‘solidarity with terrorists’. And Denmark consistently ranks first in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders. 
Many of the republications of the cartoons took place in Western nation-states from the Netherlands to New Zealand in order to take a stand for freedom of speech at all costs. Freedom of speech has in many respects taken centre stage as a pillar of Western democracy, something to be upheld against all attacks. Once you compromise freedom of speech, once you make restrictions, then before you know it you get secret police, oppression and totalitarianism.
Freedom with Responsibility
However, many in the debate hold a modified freedom of speech position which might be called freedom with responsibility. Thus, the section I quoted earlier from the Constitutional Act of Denmark (1953) reads: ‘Any person shall be at liberty to publish his ideas in print, in writing, and in speech, subject to his being held responsible in a court of law‘.
If we can trust the opinion polls, then most people in Denmark – of all religious persuasions and none – hold to this position, Danish Muslims included. Thus, most Danes polled believed at the time that the Prime Minister should not have apologized or told the press what to do, but they also believed that Jyllands-Posten should have acted responsibly and not published the cartoons. Further, they thought that Prime Minister Rasmussen should have met with the ambassadors of ten Muslim-majority countries when they requested a meeting with him to discuss the cartoons on 19 October 2005. In other words, those polled in Denmark would hold to a position like this – freedom with responsibility.
A significant number of influential people, both within Denmark and internationally, took a similar position. For example, on 20 December 2005 twenty-two former Danish ambassadors sent an open letter to the Prime Minister criticising his decision not to open a dialogue with the international representatives.  Former Danish minister of foreign affairs, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, criticised the drawings as immature and attacked Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten, as irresponsible.  As a final example, the Brussels-based Arab journalist Khaled Diab argued that Muslims should not insist that their values apply to peoples of other faiths. Freedom of expression means that people should be able to express their opinions, but that respect and sensitivity should lead the media to assess what effect the material they publish will have on their readers and society at large.  Around the world, many newspapers, governments and churches made similar noises about responsibility.
In the end, both variations on the defence of free speech begin with the private individual. The individual and his or her rights are the foundation, and one right is the freedom of speech. With this basis, you can assert either that the individual has an absolute right to freedom of speech, or that that the individual must be mature and responsible with it.
The third position on the cartoons controversy may be called hypocrisy – which is to say that it is simply hypocritical to claim that publishing the cartoons is an exercise of freedom of speech.
Almost as soon as the cartoons were published in the name of free speech, Muslim critics pointed to the double standards and hypocrisy of such a claim. Most of these criticisms are directed at the freedom of speech at all costs position. They argued that it seems fine to publish cartoons that ridicule Islam, but not Christianity and especially Judaism. For example, from Kuwait Mohammed al-Shaibani wrote: ‘In [the West] it is considered freedom of speech if they insult Islam and Muslims. But such freedom becomes racism and a breach of human rights and anti-Semitism if Arabs and Muslims criticize their religion and religious laws’.  Even more to the point, Muslim commentators have pointed out that in ten European countries, including Germany and Austria, there are laws that make denying the Holocaust a crime. These are also countries that champion freedom of speech. If, goes the argument, offensive images of Jews and Judaism are largely prohibited in the media in Europe, especially after the Holocaust, then why are offensive images of Islam allowed? In other words, there are double standards, one rule for Christians and Jews, another for Muslims. The immediate response to this criticism from Jyllands-Posten and many other places was that Christian figures, symbols and leaders have and do get represented in cartoons. But it seems to me that these citicisms have a point, especially regarding anti-Semitism. If there are laws restricting what can be said about one religious group, then freedom of speech has its limits.
Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism
In fact, some have pointed out that the rising tide of Islamophobia, where it is acceptable to publish and proclaim material that denigrates Muslims, where one can say and do things against Muslims purely because of their religious beliefs and ethnic background, is comparable to the rise of anti-Semitism in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe.
Asghar Bukhari of the British Muslim organization MPACUK made this point in a debate on a BBC News programme with Roger Koeppel, editor of Die Welt, the German newspaper that republished the cartoons. Bukhari suggested that a German paper should be very aware of the effect of publishing the cartoons. In light of the long history of anti-Semitic propaganda and demonization of Jews in German media prior to the Holocaust, when caricatures of Jews as rich financiers or evil Bolsheviks were commonplace, Bukhari warned against a similar pattern with regard to Islam.
Not that long ago, similar comments were being made in Australia by leading politicians. For example, during the time of the cartoons controversy, the former Prime Minister, John Howard, said that a section of the Muslim community was ‘utterly antagonistic to our kind of society’.  Peter Costello, the then Treasuer and failed aspirant to the throne, tried to go one better, saying that if he doesn’t want to take his shoes off before entering a mosque, he won’t. By analogy, if Muslims object to certain Australian ‘values’ (whatever they might be), he told them ‘don’t come to Australia’.  Comments like these, and the claims that they are perfectly ‘normal’, have all the marks of rising anti-Semitism in 19th and 20th century Europe. Focus on a particular ethnic and religious immigrant group directs people’s energies there, connects them to various social ills, makes them a scapegoat, and, before you know it, they get blamed for everything. It is an extremely cheap political move.
There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech
This is where Stanley Fish’s book is very useful – There is No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too.  Fish’s argument is helpful for three reasons, one for what he does argue and two for what he doesn’t. Firstly, Fish argues that free speech as it is usually understood does not exist. There is always some restraint on free speech. For example, a cartoon ridiculing or insulting the Queen of Denmark would never get published, for that is an offence, nor would an article that advocated assassinating the Prime Minister. In Australia, Denmark and other nation-states there are widespread laws against encourgaing and organizing what we now call ‘terrorism’ and the secret police have wide ranging powers to arrest people, hold them without trial, listen to phone calls, interrogate people in secret, and so on. In many countries there are laws against hate-speech, or inciting voilence and intolerance against other groups. We censor what books and films are appropriate for different age groups. Even though there is very poor quality pornography on some European cable television channels, most people would not think it appropriate viewing for children. In other words, every society, every person, exercises some form of censorship. We censor ourselves, we censor others, others censor us. The important question is then not a debate over free speech, but what types of censorship are helpful. Would you rather have the rich and powerful media moguls, the billionaries and the governments who do what they say, make these decisions for you? Or would you rather have laws that ensure tolerance, understanding and peace? I think Fish is right in this first point: we always speak and act with some form of restraint, some form of censorship, and without it we would not survive.
There is, however, a second point here that goes beyond Fish. Let’s go back to the cartoons controversy: what is the great opposite of free speech? Totalitarianism. Don’t we often find the argument that if freedom of speech is compromised, then we end up with totalitarianism, whether it is under a dictator like Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein, or under the ‘democracy’ of George Bush? So we end up with the opposition between freedom of speech and dictatorship. But that is rather unrealistic. Is there not a lot of middle ground between the two? If absolute free speech is hard to come by, then so are absolute dictatorships. Most countries that advocate some form of freedom of speech are actually in this middle ground.
Thirdly, the whole debate over free speech assumes that we begin with the private individual and his or her rights. But what if we didn’t? Or at least, what if we realise that this idea has its own history? The notion of a private individual comes out of the whole movement of the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the rise of capitalism. It is the great discovery of philosophers like Kant, or Rousseau, or Hume or Descartes. But what if we begin not with the individual and how she or he fits into society, but with a social collective first and then to the individual as a social being? It seems to me that then we would begin our debates with the discussion of responsible restraint, or responsible censorship. Or, since censorship has so many negative associations, perhaps ‘responsibility’ or ‘collective freedom’ would be the point at which to begin.
So we have three points from Fish: we always live and speak with some form of restraint, there is a lot of middle ground between absolute free speech and dictatorship, and then the possibility of rethinking the debate over free speech from a collective basis.
Rewriting the Story of the ‘West’
Yet it seems to me that there is something else going on with the cartoons controversy: it is the sign of a different story of Islam that is being told and written, and it is a story that some parts of the West do not like very much.
Let me begin by pointing to the surprise that many felt about the response to the cartoons – protests, violence, calls for apologies and so on. People in all positions of the controversy have said that they are surprised at what happened. After all, they are twelve cartoons of quite poor quality in a little-known newspaper in a small country.
So we find that, like many others in Denmark and elsewhere, some Muslims are puzzled by the reaction the cartoons have provoked. Naser Khader, a Muslim and member of the Danish parliament, said, ‘My impression from different Arabic media is that the dominant position – perhaps surprising for some – can be summarised as follows: We cannot as Muslims dictate that non-Muslims comply with the allegedly prohibited depiction of the prophet’.  In Brussels, Khaled Diab stated, ‘It is perplexing that a few crude cartoons can spark an international crisis overshadowing war, political oppression and economic and social injustice. It has hurt the image of Muslims and reflects poorly on their tolerance’. 
So the question then becomes: why should the cartoons have caused such a response? Is it because of Muslim intolerance? Oversentivity? Provocation by some naïve and parochial journalists? I want to suggest that a major element in that response is what is now called ‘Orientalism’ – the idea first put forward 30 years ago by Edward Said in his book of that name. Despite its flaws (but is not every classic flawed in some way?), the points he makes cannot be ignored.
Said’s main point is that the ‘West’ has developed a certain image of the Orient, the East, the Arab world, call it what you will. (The ‘West’ includes what begins in Western Europe and then spreads with the age of imperialism over the globe to North America, Australia and New Zealand and so on.) That image is one of backwardness and corruption, chaos and disorder, a place with an ancient history but where nothing changes, societies where brutality, violence and danger are everyday realities, but also a highly exotic and sensual part of the world. So the East was both seductive and dangerous. The Orient became defined as a place isolated from the mainstream of human progress in the sciences, arts, and commerce. Hence, as Said writes, we now have an image of the East that focuses on ‘its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habit of inaccuracy, its backwardness’. How did this image arise?
A major factor, argues Said, is the academic discipline that used to be called Oriental Studies. Its purpose was to study the languages, cultures and histories of the East, which spread all the way from Indonesia (the East Indies) to Turkey (the Near East). With the spread of European empires, especially the British, Dutch and French, into these areas, the study of their languages and cultures became even more important. In the words of Lord Curzon, a British Viceroy of India in the nineteenth century, this study of the Orient was crucial for maintaining the Empire: ‘our familiarity, not merely with the languages of the people of the East but with their customs, their feelings, their traditions, their history, and religion’ provided ‘the sole basis upon which we are likely to be able to maintain in the future the position we have won’. But now, Oriental Studies has becomes Middle Eastern studies, which gives direct advice on government policy relating to the ‘East’.
Further, Said argues that Orientalism was crucial for Europe’s image of itself and that it is based on a false image of the ‘Arab’ world. He writes: ‘It has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world’. How this works is that the Arab, Islamic world becomes the opposite of Europe. If the West is innovative, dynamic and expanding, then the East is old, static and unchanging. In other words, the Orient became Europe’s alter ego, its opposite onto which all of Europe’s negative feelings about itself could be dumped. This gave Europe – desperate to claim that it was central to the globe – a sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority and therefore the ‘spectator, the judge and jury of every facet of Oriental behavior’. Thus, in 1810, the French author Chateaubriand called upon Europe to teach the Orient the meaning of liberty which he, and everyone after him, believed the Orientals knew nothing about. So it was Europe’s task to redeem a fallen Orient. It is no coincidence that current foreign policy statements from the United States and other Western countries sound remarkably similar.
This image of Arabs and Islamic culture is false, argues Said. It is based on the false idea that there is something that can be called ‘Islamic society’, the ‘Arab world’, the ‘Oriental mind’. Even further, it is assumed that Islam has possessed this unity since it began, and all of it boils down to the Qur’an. It ignores the debates, politics, differences and histories of very different groups in nation-states such as Indonesia, or Malaysia, or Egypt, and so on.
What Said has done is rewrite part of one of the big stories or grand narratives, namely the history of the ‘West’. Said takes this practice of rewriting history to show that the West has not arisen out of its own hard work and good fortune, but on the shoulders of the ‘Orient’. Not only did crucial developments in the sciences come from Arabic and Muslim scholarship, but the West was able to define itself by creating an opposite to itself. All that it did not like about itself it was able to dump on the ‘East’ or the ‘Arab world’. In its desperate effort to distinguish itself from a ‘Muslim East’, the ‘Christian West’ protests too much, for it could not have become what it is without the ‘Muslim East’. After all, was it not the expulsion of the Moors from Spain (signalled by the fateful year of 1492 when the last Muslim utpost of Grenada was captured) that marks the beginning of the Christian West? It could only claim such a status by trying to expel what was deep within it.
It seems to me that the cartoons controversy is a signal of a much larger rewriting of that story. The controversy has obviously been a spark for a whole range of feelings; it has been a point where so many pent-up feelings could be expressed on all sides. But it is also a sign that Muslims of very different types are rewriting their own history, especially its colonial history, and Western commentators do not like what they are seeing. I am not talking here of the calls for punishment of the cartoonists or the newspaper, nor of the violence or death threats, for these fall into the expected patterns of ‘Eastern’ behaviour. Rather, it seems that the responses to the cartoons from Muslims have been and are very ‘Western’ – pointing out hypocrisy, the widespread use of free presses, difference of opinion, newspaper commentary, organizing boycotts against Danish products, marches against violence, the use of diplomacy, using the Danish court system, and making considered approaches to the United Nations.
1. Jerusalem Post, 7 February 2006.
2. Paul Sheehan, ‘God v God in the New Global War’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 2006.
3. ‘OIC condemns publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’, Islamic Republic News Agency, 5 February 2006.
4. The Worldwide Press Freedom Index has published annually since 2005.
5. ’22 tidligere ambassadører siger fra’, Politiken, 20 December 2005.
6. Danmarks Radio, 8 February 2006.
7. Khaled Diab, ‘Graven images and poor reflections’, Diabolic Digest, February 2006.
8. Mohammed al-Shaibani, Al-Qabas, 30 January 2006.
9. The Age, 21 February 2006.
10. Sydney Morning Herald, 23 February 2006.
11. Stanley Fish, There is No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too (Oxford University Press, 1994).
12. 30 January 2006, ‘I Feel Insulted’.
13. Diab, ‘Graven Images’.
Roland Boer is Associate Professor in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University, Australia.