Jul 2007

When 'free speech' is just an excuse

Remember a couple of years back when right-wing Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, ran some controversial cartoons? There was a big kerfuffle about the whole thing… Imams in Denmark demanded that the government censure (and indeed censor) the newspaper; several groups of young men in Iran and elsewhere were filmed burning a variety of Scandanavian flags; and a popular boycott of Danish goods got organised in a few moslem nations.

Back in Europe this reaction was itself greeted with faux-shock. How dare they threaten our right to a free press! Bloody Islamofascists and their talk of a global caliphate! Soon we won’t be able to get a drink and our women will have to wear burqas! Except, of course, nobody was threatening our right to a free press. The Danish government never once entertained the idea of changing the law and punishing the paper. They made a few conciliatory statements for the benefit of the Danish Moslem minority (as you’d hope they would — given it was their job to ensure the situation didn’t escalate and create social unrest), but were abundantly clear on the point that the national press was free to publish cartoons mocking religion and religious figures if they so wished.

And that’s all as it should be. I fully support the right of Jyllands-Posten to publish those cartoons. It’s really important that I make that very clear. Because at the same time, I despise them for putting me in that position. The cartoons were shit. They were unfunny. Yes, even the “All out of virgins” one. It raised a smile only because of the sheer crapness of the company it found itself in. They had no redeeming artistic worth and none of them made a sharp or insightful point. In fact, the only possible reason that Jyllands-Posten had for publishing them was to offend the Danish moslem minority. I just don’t buy the claim that the merit in the cartoons is the iconoclasm involved. Publishing them in an Islamic country, as some editors later did… now that’s iconoclastic and challenges the established system. That’s a whole other statement. But publishing them in Denmark. That’s just belittling a specific minority.

And I hate the idea that I have to defend that in the name of free speech. Give me The Satanic Verses any day. I never finished it by the way — I don’t really get on with Baron Rushdie’s writing, but I accept that there may be merit in it.

As for the Danish boycott and token flag-burning? Let’s face it; it was all a bit half-hearted and clearly destined to fade fast. Despite the behaviour of their gutter press, Denmark just doesn’t have what it takes to inspire the kind of passion and hatred that, say, a Great Satan like the USA does.

Nothing surprising about the story so far… nasty newspaper prints desperately unfunny cartoons clearly aimed at offending and provoking a particular immigrant community (one that’s notoriously touchy and easy to provoke given the current global tension). The minority duly obliges; gets all offended, holds a few meetings, organises some protests and calls for a change in the law. The authorities (as usual) basically ignore the protesters, and except for the occasional scuffle between the police and those they deem to be “the extreme fringe”, it’s all a bunch of people shouting stuff. Nothing surprising, and roughly as far away from a genuine threat to Denmark’s free press as it’s possible to get.

Then however, something weird did happen. With no actual basis in fact, all across Europe columnists began claiming that freedom of the press was under threat. “Them beardy Imams!” they said, “They won’t stop until you can’t get a bacon sandwich east of Reykjavik.” And no matter how patiently you repeated the words; “Get a hold of yourself you twit. That’s not actually going to happen”; supposedly sentient beings were nonetheless using the words “Londonistan” and “Eurabia” without irony.

And then something very very weird happened. All over Europe — hell, all over the world — newspapers and magazines started to reprint the unfunny cartoons. 143 newspapers in 56 countries (according to this article here). The vast majority of whom were apparently making a statement about free speech. Vigorously defending the right of Jyllands-Posten to publish these cartoons. A right, let me reiterate, that was not under any actual threat.

I trust therefore, that some or all of those 143 newspapers in 56 countries will be reprinting the recently banned Spanish royal sex cartoon with all due haste? Here we have a cartoon that actually has been censored. A judge has ruled that it “insulted the royal family” which is against the law in Spain ( “Slandering or defaming the Spanish royal family carries a two-year prison sentence”)… a country, it should be pointed out, that was happy to allow the “Mohammed” cartoons published (they appeared in El Mundo, which has the second largest daily circulation).

Of course, the Spanish royal sex cartoon doesn’t have footage of youths burning flags to raise its profile, so I guess it would be unfair to expect all 143 aforementioned newspapers to pick up on this story. Nonetheless, given that this really is an assault on free speech (the authorities have ordered the seizure of the entire print-run!), whereas previously it was a powerless minority waving some placards, I’d expect quite a few of them to reprint the cartoon in solidarity with El Jueves magazine. Right?

Otherwise it would make their previous action look suspiciously like they were themselves more interested in sticking up two fingers at moslems than in some high-minded ‘freedom of the press’ schtick.

Posted in: Opinion