Freedom of Speech: Cartoons and Responsibility [Part 1]
By Dr Khan Dawood L. Khan
Chicago, IL

Publication of 12 cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in Denmark’s largest broadsheet, Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten [JP], has caused much anger among Muslims worldwide. In response, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief (Carsten Juste) and the editor (Flemming Rose) of its controversial ‘Culture’ page which carried the cartoons, have both tried to explain their decision and position [cited in italics], on the paper’s website [] and in interviews in the US and other media.
It seems JP journalists noted several cases of writers in Denmark and elsewhere practicing what JP calls “self-censorship for fear of offending prominent Muslims.” On this, JP had also published a few articles. The apparent last straw for JP was the case of Danish author Kaare Bluitken who had great difficulty in finding an illustrator for a primarily educational children’s book about Prophet Mohammed: only one finally agreed but only anonymously. [Note: Flemming Rose has taken a leave of absence from JP, effective February 10, citing "exhaustion." This was two days after he made a controversial comment about publishing holocaust cartoons in JP, which was immediately over-ruled by Carsten Juste.]
Then, it became JP’s professed “goal” to find out “whether self-censorship exists in Denmark to a greater degree than generally acknowledged….[and] whether or not Danish newspaper illustrators dared to draw Mohammed.” JP took the position that “it is untenable for non-Muslims to be bound by Muslim scripture,” and asked a number of illustrators in Denmark “to submit their own personal interpretations of how the prophet might appear.” Juste knew, beforehand, the anger the drawings would cause among Muslims, and even admits it in his interview with John Hansen on 18 December 2005 (also on JP website): “There were some journalists here at the paper, including some who write regularly about Muslims, immigration, and integration, who strongly advised us not to do it….. Personally I thought the cartoons were harmless - very much in fitting with our Danish tradition for caricature. If some of the cartoons had been cruder - if an illustrator had given us Mohammed pissing on the Koran, for example - then it would have been pulled. The same way I’ve pulled a lot of cartoons over the years that devout Christians might have found insulting. Or others because they were too vulgar or too crude. I didn’t feel that these were, and so we went ahead.” That’s strange, because to prefer NOT to publish something because he thinks it is “too vulgar or too crude” (or “cruder”) IS also “self-censorship”! And, a personal choice – not any different from the “self-censorship” that he criticizes in other journalists!
Then, on 30 September 2005, JP published drawings submitted by from 12 (including 3 in-house JP artists) of the 40 illustrators JP had invited. Juste claims “[i]n some places, like Iran, you can even buy pictures of Mohammed.” If that were true, why then was such a strong reaction against it in Iran? And, he asks if Muslims can’t draw this picture, “What about non-Muslims?” He adds: “If the newspaper had chosen instead to refrain from publishing drawings of Muslim religious symbols, this in itself could have been interpreted as an expression of discrimination against Muslims.” Strange logic ! Juste “categorically reject[s] any suggestion that JP was trying to provoke Muslims.” That’s NOT true, because his own journalists told him earlier that it would do nothing but “provoke Muslims.” Instead, he says they “were provoking the illustrators who didn’t dare use their freedom of expression, out of fear of reprisals from extremist Muslims.”
“Self-censorship” is actually an important responsibility that comes with freedom of one’s speech and tolerance of similar rights of others. This is what it means in the US. Freedom of speech does NOT mean falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, or freedom to insult or provoke religious sensibilities of ALL people, equally. What about religious tolerance and social responsibility in a diverse democratic society and the rights of a minority to practice their faith without intimidation and harassment? Muslims do not want to see, much less draw, their Prophet’s likeness, because of their basic anti-idolatry beliefs. Despite knowing this ahead of time and against the advice of some, JP editors made it their “goal” to test how far they can provoke Muslim religious sensibilities. How can JP Editors now claim not doing what they had decided to do, and did precisely that?
Juste admits that ‘freedom of _expression’ is not limitless: “We have a set of ethical guidelines that require us to be considerate of people, of minorities, etc, and we viewed these drawings in that light. Even now, when I look at those drawings I still ask myself: ‘How in the world could anybody react so dramatically to what for me are simple, commonplace, and harmless cartoons?” Mocking and insulting minorities, and their beliefs and practices: NOT how most people in a civilized democratic society go about showing how “considerate” they are of others. Having “a set of guidelines” is also a part of ‘self-censorship’!
Juste thinks “the cartoon in which Mohammed has a bomb in his turban has been singled out for particular criticism. But for me, the association is obvious. It’s a way of portraying the problem of fanatical, Islam terrorists, who themselves make the connection - between their attacks and the religion itself and its content. That’s what our cartoonist wanted to show. It’s a common topic of discussion: ‘To what extent does Islam in and of itself contribute to the creation of terrorists? Does Islam create its own terrorists?’ I think it’s a fair question. I never imagined that we would experience the reaction we got.” A specious argument! Naming the person depicted in the cartoon as “Muhammad” is no way to separate the prophet from so-called “fanatical Islam terrorists”!
As to whether it was intended as a provocation, Juste says: “‘No, that never occurred to us.” That’s patently false, because he himself told us earlier that some of JP journalists “who write regularly about Muslims, immigration, and integration, who strongly advised [the editors] not to do it.”
Even after the reaction the cartoons produced, he still maintains: “We won’t apologize for publishing the cartoons, because we have the right to do so. That’s why we’ve said that if people feel insulted, we regret it. Insulting people was never on our agenda. But there’s absolutely no way we will apologize for publishing the cartoons. If we apologize, then we let down the many generations who have fought for freedom of expression and other civil rights….. ’If we said: ‘Sorry, we shouldn’t have published the cartoons’, then we would also be letting down moderate Muslims - and fortunately there are many of them - and those Muslims, like Hirsi Ali, who fight against repression in the Islamic world. We won’t do that. We can’t.” Another self-contradiction: IF “insulting people was never on [their] agenda,” why did they plan to do just that, and then tried to justify it anyway because they believe they “have a right to do so”? Moderate Muslims “who fought against repression in the Islamic world” were fighting for something else, and NOT demanding a right to insult the Prophet!
He thinks the protest of ambassadors from 11 Muslim countries to the Danish government merely showed “a clash of cultures” and “a plus for us.” He insists : ““There is absolutely no doubt that our newspaper has the right to publish the cartoons,” and the reaction to them has managed to turn the focus on matters of principles (Freedom of expression and religion).” That means, to him: “Regardless of the original reason for publishing the cartoons, you can say the reactions to them have been a justification in hindsight.” That “hindsight” seems just another ‘after-the-fact-rationalization’!
However, now Juste doesn’t think “Mohammed will be drawn in a Danish newspaper for the next 50 years.” What happened to freedom of expression? And as to publishing more ‘Mohammed’ cartoons in JP itself, he says: “I think we ought to take a little break.” Is this NOT “self-censorship”? [To be continued]


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.