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Reflections of Intolerance
[Analysis] Editors and Imams both make use of bully pulpits in cartoon row
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2006-02-06 02:20 (KST)   
"...the soul of this man is his clothes. Trust him not in matter of heavy consequence."

-William Shakespeare

Shakespeare could have written those words for both the misguided editors and religious zealots around the world who have fanned the flames of hatred over the recent cartoon row. Both are fundamentalists, mirror reflections of each other.

A Winter of Discontents

In an interview with the BBC on Feb. 3, Flemming Rose, editor from the conservative Jyllands-Posten, stated that the publishing of the cartoons was a response to a "climate of fear" that emerged in Denmark after the murder in 2004 of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist.

Rose went to say that he published the cartoons to defend free speech. However, why he felt it necessary to insult an entire religion by doing so was not made clear.

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In the same interview, Imam Ahmed Abu Laban stated that "any violence causes great damage to our cause" and did more harm than good. He also said he agreed with free speech, but was unable to explain how preventing the publication of the images could be reconciled with this basic Danish value.

Ill Deeds, Evil Words

The "climate of fear" that Rose referred to has not been solely confined to non-Muslims. Changes to
Denmark's immigration laws targeting Muslims, a resurgence in support for extremist right wing groups, the recent fiasco involving a Danish radio host calling for the murder of Muslims and the controversy surrounding right wing Danish People's Party politician Louise Frevert have left Denmark's approximately 180,000 Muslims, or 3 percent of its 5.4 million population, fearing for their own safety.

Clearly, Denmark has been caught in the grip of fear, but not one exclusively focused on any specific group. That is the sad context from which this storm arose -- a society governed by fear is destined to wreak more of the same. It's the duty of its leaders -- religious and secular -- to rise above ignorance and prejudice.

Plagues From Both Houses

Both sides of this controversy have displayed disingenuous motives. While Rose may try to hide behind the shield of free speech, his decision to publish the caricatures was designed to provoke. He was using his influence to bully a minority within a society that claims to value tolerance as well as freedom of expression.

Editors and journalists weigh decisions everyday to publish items or not. CNN, for example, has chosen "to not show the cartoons out of respect for Islam." Most credible media organizations attempt to exercise a modicum of good sense and are mindful of their influence on communities.

This is where Jyllands-Posten failed. In fact, Denmark's direct involvement in the Iraq war has added to
criticism that the paper's decision was a profoundly reckless one.

Political historian Alexandre Adler, author of
Rendezvous With Islam, said, "We're at war, and sometimes war demands censorship. In this context, anything that might strengthen the hate of the West is irresponsible."

Meanwhile, critics accuse Abu Laban of trying to protect his own culture's values at the expense of Danish freedoms. Citizens in a free society are susceptible to insult or offense. Danish law provides limits to free speech, as the recent case involving the revocation of Radio Holger's broadcasting license last summer made clear. The caricatures of Mohammed, however, were judged not to have contravened any Danish law. Critics argue, therefore, that Abu Laban and his supporters have no choice but to accept the secular nature of Denmark's society.

More Things in Heaven and Earth

But unjust laws or rulings have existed throughout history. Free speech also includes the right to reply and Abu Laban is perfectly justified in appealing to other countries in a peaceful pursuit of justice. The escalating boycott of Danish products throughout the Muslim world is hitting the Danes where it hurts most -- profits.

After months of trying to obtain an apology from Jyllands-Posten, only after the cartoons became an international issue did they finally formally
apologize. Why it took the paper, as well as many others in Denmark and beyond, so long to realize their error will hopefully give rise to understanding and prevent such reckless provocations from recurring again in the future.

Unfortunately, this seems unlikely to happen. The boycott has spilled over to include violence, intimidation and vandalism, as witnessed in Beirut and Damascus over the weekend. The movement has been hijacked by extremists who are bent on responding in a fanatical and disproportionate way. Not only is this reinforcing the stereotype that Islam is a violent religion and that the cartoons were indeed correct, it is already leading to a backlash that is certain to fuel more conflict.

Assuming Virtue

It is now the responsibility of Muslim leaders, including Abu Ladan, to appeal to an end to all violence. He already indicated that he was ready to move on once Jyllands-Posten apologized. That message needs to be conveyed to the greater Muslim world.

At the same time, editors and journalists, not only in the Western press but all over the world, must refrain from pandering to stereotypes or using their influence to inflame irrational fears.

Haroon Siddiqui, a columnist for the Toronto Star, recently wrote:
"The Danes have neither defended freedom of speech well nor upheld another sacred secular principle, mutual respect between peoples of all faiths.

"In balancing these two competing rights in this troubled world at this time, thinking people and responsible public institutions should err on the side of advancing mutual understanding, not fanning more conflicts."
One can only hope that all will indeed, end well.

The row over newspaper cartoons has intensified as European journalists refuse to give in to the wrath of Arab world. What is your take on this?  (2006-02-06 ~ 2006-02-20)
Freedom of the press should never be compromised
Religious sensitivities should be duly respected
The author chose not to add any links to the cartoons themselves because he felt they lack artistic merit.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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