RIP: Free Speech about Islam
by Adam Turner
Islamists seem to use at least three different methods: 1) the initiation of legal proceedings, known as "lawfare" -- i.e., frivolous or malicious lawsuits which often do not even hope to succeed in court and are reluctant to reach discovery to avoid disclosing information, but which therefore seem intended, on charges of hate speech or defamation, to harass and financially crush the defendant; 2) threats of violence, or violence itself; or 3) pressure applied based on political correctness, as with attempts to smear reputations by alleging "racism," "Islamophobia," or other epithets. Sometimes the Islamists use only one of these methods -- sometimes two, or all three. Regardless, the assault is often successful.
The Danish cartoon controversy, for example, began in September of 2005, after an author in Denmark stated that he could not find an artist willing, under his own name, to illustrate a book about the Islamic Prophet Mohammed's life. In Islam, it is considered blasphemous to draw a picture of the prophet. In response, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran twelve cartoons by various artists depicting Mohammed, with the editor explaining that the project was an attempt defend the Danish right to exercise free speech and to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship. The most controversial of these cartoons -- the "bomb in the turban" picture of Mohammed -- was drawn by Kurt Westergaard. These cartoons were soon reprinted in magazines/newspapers in more than 50 other countries. However, the only major U.S. magazines/newspapers to reprint any of the cartoons were the conservative Weekly Standard, the atheist Free Inquiry, and the Denver Rocky Mountain News. Many organizations cited their unwillingness to publish them out of concern for the sensitivities of Muslim readers. A fear of violence may also have been a significant concern.
Soon after the cartoons were published, Islamist, Islamic, or politically correct pressure groups swung into action. In October of 2005, some ambassadors from Muslim countries sent a letter requesting a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stating that they wished to discuss the "on-going smearing campaign in Danish public circles and media against Islam and Muslims." They also hinted that the Danish government should legally prosecute the paper's editors.
At the same time, a nearly identical letter arrived in Copenhagen from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC -- now known as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), an intergovernmental organization of fifty-seven Muslim states, also protesting the publication of the cartoons. As noted here, "[t]he diplomatic protests aimed to use international disapproval to sanction the newspaper -- and the Danes -- for Islamophobia," an invented term patterned after the term "homophobia." Coinciding with the arrival of the letters, three thousand Danish Muslims demonstrated in Copenhagen and demanded an apology from the newspaper for insulting Muslims.
The Danish prime minister, however, refused to bend to the politically correct pressure and declined to meet with the ambassadors. As he explained, "[t]his is a matter of principle. I won't meet with them because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so. As prime minister, I have no power whatsoever to limit the press --nor do I want such a power." He did concede, however, that offended parties could attempt to seek legal relief from Danish courts.
Sure enough, later that same month, several Danish Muslim organizations filed a complaint with the Danish police claiming that the Jyllands-Posten had committed an offense under the law. They cited sections 140 and 266b of the Danish Criminal Code. Section 140 is the blasphemy law, which prohibits disturbing public order by publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in Denmark. Section 266b criminalizes insults, threats, or degradation of natural persons, by publicly and with malice attacking their race, color of skin, national or ethnical roots, faith, or sexual orientation. But in early 2006, the Danish regional public prosecutor discontinued the investigation, as he ruled that the cartoons concerned a subject of public interest and thus were protected. This judgment was later confirmed by the highest Danish authority, the director of public prosecutions. Although his ruling protected the speech rights of the Danish cartoonists in this case, the director still insisted on correcting Jyllands-Posten's expansive view of the right to free expression in the Danish code:
Of course, a legal dead end was not the end of the pressure. In December of 2005, two Danish imams began a tour of the Middle East to publicize the Jyllands-Posten drawings. In their "dossier," the imams stuffed some other inflammatory information, including three additional -- and more insulting -- pictures, untruthful allegations of discrimination against Muslims in the West, and an interview discussing Islam with Dutch then-member of parliament and former Muslim-turned-critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali had once been honored for her advocacy for free speech by the Danish governing party.) This first imam tour, and a second tour by the same individuals, as well as instigation by various Arab governments, led to widespread protesting across the Muslim world throughout 2006. In the Muslim world, protestors took to the streets, destroying buildings, burning the Danish flag, and sometimes setting fire to Danish embassies. Eventually, more than 200 people were killed and hundreds more injured in violence surrounding the publication -- and republication -- of the cartoons.
Most disturbingly, starting in 2005, and continuing until today, Muslim radicals began to physically threaten Jyllands-Posten's employees, the cartoon artists, and Danes in general for the drawing and the publishing of the Mohammed cartoons. Most prominent among the Islamist targets was cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who was immediately forced into hiding under police protection. Since 2005, there have been countless threats, plots, and/or attacks against Danish targets stemming from these cartoons. Here are just some of the more prominent ones:
It has been seven years since one Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, printed cartoon depictions of Mohammed. Seven years. Yet to this day, the opponents of this cartoon speech have continued their efforts to punish the paper, and the Danish people, for their desire to preserve free speech in Denmark. These speech thugs have hit the Danes with legal threats, with politically correct shaming, and with murderous violence. While the legal process may have been abandoned (for now?), the violence, and the attempted shaming, have never stopped. But, to their great credit, the owners and employees of Jyllands-Posten remain unbowed against the threats to their speech rights.
Unfortunately, this unrelenting assault on free speech regarding Islam-related topics has had its effect on others -- both in and out of Denmark -- who, unlike Jyllands-Posten, are not so brave. The Danish paper Politiken, which originally stood with Jyllands-Posten, later caved in the face of Islamist (either legal or physical threat) pressure and apologized for its republication of the Mohammed cartoons. Yale's press capitulated too, refusing to publish the Mohammed cartoons in a book about the Mohammed cartoons. The Washington Post chose to rerun an old Non Sequitur cartoon rather than use the new submission that used a "Where's Waldo?" gag, replacing Waldo with Mohammed, to satirize the media's hesitancy to offend radical Islam. Comedy Central censored their hit show South Park after threats over simply showing Mohammed, in four episodes, in 2006 and then in 2010. (In contrast, Mohammed was depicted in a South Park episode aired prior to the Cartoons Controversy.)
There are a few who get what this struggle is all about and fight to keep their free speech regarding Islam alive. Ezra Levant is one such individual. And then there is the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was bombed for its courage. But these are the exceptions. The vast majority do what is most rational -- cave in to the pressure, and censor their Islam-related speech.
Adam Turner serves as staff counsel to the Legal Project at the Middle East Forum. He is a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he focused on national security law.
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