Those troublesome Danes

The headline of the letter to the editor in the Boston Globe—Danish papers stir up trouble“— neatly reflected a certain “progressive” world view about the conflict between Western secular values and Islamic extremism.

The letter-writer, Boston University associate professor of religion Michael Zank, objected to 17 Danish newspapers reprinting a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad “wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse.” The newspapers, including the country’s three national newspapers, republished Kurt Westergaard’s satirical caricature as a gesture of solidarity after Danish police arrested several Islamic extremists on charges of plotting to murder Westergaard.

Professor Zank found “disingenuous” the newspapers’ claim that they acted in support of freedom of speech. Zank questioned whether “this include[s] the freedom to stir up fear by publishing a drawing that has already proved incendiary?” (The original publication of a series of Danish cartoons of Muhammad including the Westergaard drawing, led to riots in the Muslim world in early 2006. One interpretation of Islamic law holds that any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous).

Zank suggested adhering to a different value, “that of treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated oneself,” and then closed his letter by writing:

Inciting hatred against Muslims plays into the hand of radicals on both sides, and it embarrasses the moderates. We don’t need any more of this, especially not in the guise of supporting free speech.

Zank’s views reflect those of many in academic and religious circles, in Europe and in the United States, who have embraced a credo of multicultural tolerance. What is wrong with those Danes, they ask; why do they go out of their way to insult the faith of others? Why embolden the forces of intolerance “on both sides” by reprinting Westergaard’s cartoon? Why must they “stir up trouble”?

But the troublesome Danes have it right: a violent attack on one individual’s freedom of expression (however distasteful to some or “incendiary” that expression may be) represents a threat to all expression. The Danish newspaper publishers and editors who reprinted Westergaard’s caricature are publicly saying that they will not be intimidated or, fearing retaliation, be cowed into self-censorship. They also understand that, as Flemming Rose of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper observed in 2006,if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission.” Such an arrangement, Rose added, is “incompatible with a secular democracy.”

Suggesting that the Danish papers were “stirring up trouble” or “inciting hatred against Muslims” is a classic case of blaming the victim. Danish journalists were not seeking to offend or provoke, but responding to a clear assault on the principle of freedom of speech in their own country. Some of the Danish newspapers had not published the first series of Muhammad cartoons in 2005, regarding them as offensive. Yet they reprinted Westergaard’s cartoon, recognizing that the attempt to silence him—permanently—was also aimed at suppressing any future “anti-Muslim” speech.

The Danish newspaper publishers and editors consciously chose the harder path—it would have been far easier, and safer, to denounce the plot against Westergaard in editorials and columns and not republish his controversial drawing. Printing the Muhammad cartoon makes all of the participating newspapers potential targets for retaliation. (It should be noted that only two large city American newspapers, the New York Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2006.)

Danish courage in the face of threats and terror shouldn’t come as a surprise; the Danes, after all, rescued most of the country’s Jews during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Denmark. They are quietly stubborn. So it is unlikely that they will be swayed by any angry response from Islamist radicals. For that, advocates of freedom of expression should be thankful.


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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