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when freedoms clash: the danish cartoons controversy

(first published in Awaaz, 2006)

May, 2006

One of the basic freedoms recognised under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that of freedom of opinion and expression.

The reasoning behind this is that everyone has a right to say what they think and receive or impart information as they see fit. Censorship, including self-censorship due to intimidation or other factors, is widely criticised because it impinges on what has been declared as a universal right.

However, the Declaration also states the right to freedom of religion, and for a person to practice their chosen religion. Where religious oppression occurs it is considered to be a violation of the individual’s rights and is likely to be condemned.

The publication of twelve cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and the subsequent reaction to the cartoons, illustrates the clash that sometimes occurs between these two freedoms.

These events raise an important question: to what extent does freedom of expression constitute a valid defence for the publication of these cartoons?

And while there is no definite answer, those affected by the issue have formed their own views about it. These views are only a few amongst the many, but they reflect the storm that has been brewing in people’s minds ever since the cartoons first came to the public’s notice.

According to artist Alfred Muchilwa, Jyllands-Posten is using freedom of expression as “a shield for religious intolerance”.

“I think the cartoon competition was a calculated provocation tactic, designed to paint Muslims as terrorists and Islam as a violent religion,” he says.

“The creators of these images took a fundamental part of Islam and assigned a violent connotation to it. In doing so they were trying to place the prophet in the same category as Hitler in the public consciousness.”

Muchilwa states that the role of the cartoonist in society is to reflect on what they see happening and address the current issues that affect a nation.

“The cartoonist takes his pen and makes a drawing. Then he holds up the drawing to the public like a warped mirror that reveals some truth about what is happening in the society at the moment.”

This ‘warped mirror’ philosophy may be an explanation for the exaggerations that are a trademark of most caricatures, where cartoonists take real events and reflect them back to society in a larger-than-life manner.

In this case though, the cartoonists did so without paying attention to the possible consequences.

He points out that when a cartoonist takes up an issue, they should ideally focus their attention on ridiculing only those who are responsible for it, not an entire community. As such, a good cartoonist should avoid typecasting when creating his images, as this would risk marginalizing certain demographics.

“I have seen GADO draw many cartoons making fun of terrorists, very many. Yet I have never seen any Muslims chasing after him. He walks the streets of Nairobi freely. I have also seen GADO draw dozens of cartoons making fun of George Bush and Tony Blair. Yet I have never seen any Americans of British picking a fight with him,” Muchilwa says, giving an example of what a seasoned cartoonist should be like.

He also explains that self-regulation is sometimes needed when dealing with issues such as this one. As much as he believes in freedom of expression, he thinks that some degree of constraint is needed in order to ascertain whether one has overstepped the boundaries.

This view of a constrained freedom of expression is shared by journalist Fatima Jaffer. She says that freedom of expression has lost its true value and that there is a need for restraint if all social groups are to be considered and treated fairly.

“Freedom of expression is a catch-phrase that has become the common excuse for getting away with anything.  Originally a noble idea, it’s now become everybody’s scapegoat,” she says.

Speaking as a Muslim journalist caught between both sides of the argument, Jaffer has a unique position in this affair. Her view is that the conflict between those who advocate freedom of expression or freedom of religion is a result of believing that they are absolute. She believes that it is more common to see one, usually freedom of religion, being sacrificed in order to achieve the other.

“It’s almost as if the two cannot co-exist.  Not at present anyway.  Respect of religion demands certain constraints, whereas journalism has become an ‘in-your-face’ kind of job, where the more dirt you can dig up, the better copy you make.”

Jaffer explains that her stance is based on the concept of integrity, and that there is more to making a claim than simply pointing fingers and accusing someone. There is a need for evidence, for proof, before any claims are to be taken seriously. She admits that her view may be considered coloured, especially in light of her own religious beliefs, but she adds that integrity is equally important to journalism, even if it is sadly ignored at times.

She likens the publication of the cartoons to childish name-calling, and says while the cartoons themselves may have been considered amusing on their own, the context of the issue – particularly since it concerns a religious figure – is what makes them insulting and forces questions about the freedom of expression and to what extent it is allowed to prevail.

            At the same time, though, she believes that the reactions of Muslims worldwide could have been better. The violent reaction caused the situation to explode, seemingly out of nowhere, and Jaffer states that while the Muslims were justified in their outrage, the method of protest caused its own set of problems.

“In an ideal situation, the protest should have been specifically targeted towards the Danish authorities, press and the artists themselves.  For example, the boycott against Danish products was a good non-violent measure, which would have had faster results if it had been carried out as a unified action.

“There may have been plenty of Danes who did not agree with the cartoons – to destroy their embassies achieved nothing, except to irk them.”

Another view put forward is that the cartoons, while insulting, were not as extreme as they have been made out to be. One proponent of this view is Kees Broere, a journalist with the Dutch paper de Volksrant, which chose to publish the cartoons in the interest of informing the reader of what was going on.

He says that in light of Danish journalistic tradition, the cartoons were not particularly remarkable and that their publication falls well within the boundaries of freedom of expression.

For him, freedom of expression encompasses the right to debate the validity of such issues, and as such the Muslim outrage would also count as a part of this freedom.

“Muslims have every right to call the cartoons insulting, and can seek legal redress in a country like Denmark. It is that, I'd say, that forms part of that country's freedom of expression. But of course, the publishing of cartoons are just as much part of that,” he says.

The same applies to the public interest, which is sometimes used as a factor in arguing the importance of freedom of expression. The term ‘public interest’ itself is a tricky one – as Broere explains, there are a number of conflicting matters that can all be categorised as being in the public interest. This is because different groups will obviously have different interests and different values, and it can be difficult to constantly cater to all sectors of society. Hence the publisher has a rather difficult job in deciding what and what not to publish, and sometimes may make a decision that favours one side over the other because of the ‘greater’ good.

He believes that there is a far more important issue at hand, though, than freedom of expression. He says that the cartoons are only an indication of the power struggle going on between the Western and Islamic countries. He fears that the situation will grow worse as both sides continue to try and gain the upper hand, and that the violence seen here is only an indication of what may happen.

Broere offers his own solution, and says that the conflict between the various freedoms granted to an individual may be dealt with in a more positive manner, without the violence that threatens to overwhelm such situations.

“Let different types of freedom clash. Let us keep on finding out what matters in our lives. And let us at the same time be guided by one principle: to shun both mental and physical violence. You can stand up and be counted, but never by using coercion.”

The differences between freedom of expression and religious freedom are relative, though, as these freedoms constitute different meaning for various people.

For historian Fabio Barbieri, there is no difference between the two freedoms and he is emphatic about the relationship between them.

“The assault on freedom of expression inevitably goes with an assault on religious freedom.  The same tyrannical impulse that will not allow others to say things that ‘offend’ you, will not allow others to worship in ways that ‘offend’ you,” he says.

His take on the issue is that freedom of expression is probably the single most important freedom granted to the individual and that he would defend it at any cost.

“I would go to war for it with no qualms.  And I mean war as in carrying a heavy rifle and ten kilos of equipment, having sergeants swearing at me and enemies shooting at me, and, if it comes to that, killing or being killed.”

He says that the Muslim demands to censor the cartoons are unjustified as they are based on religious taboos which should not apply to those who do not follow Islam. As a Catholic, he feels that he, and other non-Muslims, should not be subject to the rules that govern Muslims.

He believes that religious laws should be restricted to the followers of those beliefs, and hence the uproar over the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the violent manner of protest, was completely unnecessary.

“This is a matter of Muslims talking to non-Muslims.  You act and speak as though we were bound by obligations which, if they exist at all, bind you but not us.  We are not Muslims.  Your prophet is not our prophet.  We are under no obligation to respect him, or indeed your religion. 

“Public violence only proves that a certain group is violent.  It certainly does not prove that they have any right to be angry about anything.”

The vast majority of Muslims believe, though, that they have a right to be angry. To them, the cartoons represent the ignorance of the West and portray an insensitivity to matters of religion. Particularly aggrieved are those who believe that freedom of expression is being used in an unjust manner.

Syed Al-Mourtada, a Muslim cleric, thinks that freedom of expression is being made exclusive to certain powers. He cites incidences where negative comment may be directed towards the integrity or the safety of the Western world, and the repercussions one would face for such statements. In doing so, he highlights the contrast in how people are treated, depending on what side they take between the Western and the Islamic world.

“If somebody insults the queen of England (they) will not be tolerated. If somebody talks or something like (Osama) Bin Laden he will taken to Guantanamo. And if anyone just doubts the History of Holocaust he will be taken to the court and even jailed in more than 10 European countries! Now can you tell me where is the freedom of expression? Is the freedom of expression the right of Westerners only?” he asks.

He clarifies that he is not against freedom of expression; he explains that the media is accorded a high status in Islam, and freedom of expression is a right given in the Qur’an.

“When you read the Holy Qur’an you came across hundreds of Ayat (verses) encouraging people to learn, think, understand, and research for the truth, but to be careful what to accept or reject. The freedom of expression allows every one to question, debate and accept or reject ideas but not to insult.”

This brings the up idea that there is a difference in interpretation between the Western and Islamic definitions of freedom of expression, which may in part be responsible for the conflict between the two societies. Again, the idea of constraint seems to be one of the distinguishing factors, with the Western society believing in a more absolute and perhaps abstract ideal.

Here is where the definition of freedom of expression begins to go blurry, with questions as to how far it truly exists in reality as opposed to the ideal that is commonly propagated.

To some, such as journalist Billy Kahora, the existence of freedom of expression is in itself doubtful.

“… hiding behind the idea of freedom of the press is ridiculous because there is never ever a free or objective press,” he says.

He sees the different freedoms as only existing within particular ideologies and hence need to be closely examined within context in order to have meaning. He feels that freedom of expression is connected with power, and although currently the Western definition of freedom is accepted as universal, other societies should not be attacked under this banner.

“Freedom of expression is a concept that exists within western ideology, and it is self-perpetuating one at that. It is not a tenet of Islam so why should it be used to defend things it says about the latter, which falls out of its operation let alone be allowed to say anything about it.”

Kahora describes the Muslim reaction as being inevitable given the amount of pressure the religion and its followers have been under.

He states that this is a case that should serve as an example for Western powers as to how different ideologies function. He says that there is a need to understand that what may be permissible within one particular point of view may not be so in others, and the current lack of understanding, or desire to do so, is what triggers off such incidents in the first place.

He also mentions the inconstancy of the public interest, and it being used as “an excuse for sloppy journalism” where anything and everything is published under the pretext that it needs to be known, even if it is a malicious opinion.

Despite all the differing views, what seems to be the common thought is that freedom of expression is directly related to power. With the media being one of the most powerful forces in the modern world, it is important to recognise the influence it has on one’s perception of freedom.

However, what is clear that it up to the individual to decide what they value more, and to try and strike a balance between these freedoms in their everyday lives.


The cartoons were originally commissioned and published in September 2005 by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten as a way of bringing attention to the difficulties of author Kåre Bluitgen in finding an illustrator for his children’s book, Koranen og profeten Muhammeds liv (The Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad).

Islam forbids the graphic representation of Allah, the Prophet or any religious figures and considers them blasphemous. Artists were unwilling to work with Bluitgen as they were afraid of violent reactions from Muslims.

The twelve cartoons eventually published included the now infamous image of the Prophet with a bomb in his turban with the Islamic creed written across it.

The publication of the cartoons, alongside an article on freedom of expression and self-censorship, went unnoticed outside of Denmark for some months. Within Denmark though, there were attempts by the Muslim community to seek legal redress in the courts. When nothing happened, the protests began.

At the same time, the cartoons began to be reprinted by newspapers in other countries, and the issue caused a controversy that soon came to the world’s attention.

To date, over fifty other countries have reprinted the cartoons. Some papers say it is a gesture to show solidarity with Denmark and to promote the ideal of freedom of expression. Others published the cartoons in order to inform the public about the issue.

Muslims worldwide demonstrated violently against the cartoons and called for a boycott of Danish goods. Death threats were issued against the cartoonists in some countries. Leaders of various Muslim countries such as Iran condemned the cartoons, and many demanded an apology from the Danish government.

While the cartoons were not reprinted in Kenya, a brief glimpse was shown on Nation TV, sparking off concern and anger from the public. The media house later published an apology regarding the incident.

A demonstration was also held to highlight the issue with hundreds of Muslims holding placards and marching through Nairobi streets. One man was killed, and a number were injured during the demonstration.

Although some of the youths taking part in the procession wanted to march to the Danish embassy, they were cautioned against this action by one of the Muslim leaders. Instead, the demonstrators presented a protest note to the Foreign Affairs Ministry and some vowed to take part in the international boycott of Danish goods by Muslims.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013