Religion, reaction and free speech

Submitted by Anon on 2 March, 2006 - 8:37

by Martin thomas

Danish author Kare Bluitgen could not find an illustrator for a children’s book on Islam. The illustrators were scared of being attacked by Islamists. Eventually Bluitgen found an illustrator to do the work anonymously.

A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, picked up on this story. They asked cartoonists to draw Muhammad. I do not suppose that they had any higher motives than staging a stunt and provoking a stir.

One of the cartoonists did not draw Muhammad at all, but instead tried to poke fun at the Jyllands-Posten. Two of them focused on the plight of scared cartoonists. A few lampooned violent Islamism directly. Jyllands-Posten published all the cartoons on 30 September 2005. A small demonstration by Islamists, and death threats to two of the cartoonists, followed. One of the cartoons — the image of the turban/bomb — could be interpreted as suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists. As we said in our original statement on this issue, such a view “is blatantly untrue and fuels racism. We want to make it very clear that we strongly reject the notion that all Muslims are somehow responsible for Islamist terrorism.”

However, the actual objection of the anti-cartoon campaign has always been to all twelve “blasphemous” cartoons, not to one or two claimed to be “racist”.

On 19 October, eleven ambassadors from Muslim countries requested a meeting with the Danish prime minister to get him to condemn the cartoons. The prime minister fobbed them off. In November and December a delegation of Danish Islamists toured the Middle East with the cartoons (and, apparently, some others added and misattributed, to spice up their case).

Eventually their lobbying paid off. Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan started an active campaign. From 26 January, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Denmark and started a boycott of Danish products. Other pressure by Muslim states on Denmark followed.

Violent agitation also started. On 30 January, Palestinian gunmen (Al-Aqsa Brigade, apparently, not Hamas) stormed the European Union’s offices in Gaza and threatened to kidnap the workers there. The Danish Red Cross took workers out of Yemen and Gaza because of threats; on 31 January Jyllands-Posten evacuated its offices in Aarhus and Copenhagen because of bomb warnings.

By then the issue was not the good sense or otherwise of the original editorial decision by Jyllands-Posten, but whether a precedent would be set that Islamist threats can prevent any future publication of images which mock or deride Muhammad, or maybe even of any that depict him at all. A large number of other European newspapers started printing the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. A scattered few had done so before that.

On 1 or 2 February, 22 papers in 13 European countries published some or all of the cartoons. Papers in the Czech Republic and Poland followed on 4 February.

In Britain, Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty published the cartoons on our website on 4 February; and Maryam Namazie of the Worker-communist Party of Iran published them on her blog. But here, alone of big European countries, no bigger paper published them (in print or on its website) — despite coverage of the cartoons affair filling the papers’ pages and often their front pages.

The record of papers like the Sun and the Mail makes it unbelievable that a greater “sensitivity” than the European papers was the reason; and the emphatic praise for the papers by the British Government suggests that the papers’ policy was shepherded by the Government, worried about the implications that publication might have for British troops in Iraq and for the extensive British trade and investment in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

In short: the basic driving force has been dogged political-Islamist agitation — without which any outcry in Denmark would probably have faded away quickly — and the economic muscle of the Saudi monarchy. The British establishment has bowed to that pressure because of its international capitalist/ imperialist connections and interests.

In the USA, two student newspaper editors have been suspended for reprinting some of the cartoons. The editor of France-Soir, the first paper to publish them in France, was sacked by the paper’s owner.

In Jordan two newspaper editors have been sacked and arrested for printing some of the cartoons. (The charges against them were later dropped). The Malaysian government has shut down two papers which published some of the cartoons, the Yemeni government three papers, and the Algerian government two papers. Several Yemeni and Algerian journalists have been arrested, and one Malaysian editor has resigned.

There is a real issue of freedom of expression here. In Britain there has been a “soft” ban on the cartoons, i.e. one generated by behind-the-scenes pressure by the Government on the media, and compliance by the media. The bizarre situation of the media carrying vast coverage of the cartoons row, day after day — and sometimes publishing detailed verbal descriptions of the cartoons — but never actually showing them, indicates that a “soft” precedent has been set, which is what the Islamist campaigners wanted. The issue is: do we applaud that, or challenge it?

On the following pages we print a shortened version of our website article explaining how the editorial staff of Solidarity see the issue, together with comments from AWL people who were unhappy about printing the cartoons, and statements from Iraqi socialists, other leftists and secularists. Readers can also visit our website — www.workersliberty.org — for much debate on this issue.

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