Saturday, 10 May 2008

At what price free speech?

And what a week it was. Not 48 hours after Rushdie's appearance, Stanford's Students for an Open Society raise the stakes by welcoming Flemming Rose. Rose is cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and responsible for commissioning the controversial Muhammad cartoons, published on 30 September 2005. The ensuing controversy (including loss of life) is well documented.

A soft-spoken, even monotonous, Rose spoke for the good part of one hour, his pain and frustration palpable. He defended his decision to commission the drawings by offering a long list of incidents of self-censorship in Europe "caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam." Examples included the inability of a Danish children's book writer to find someone to illustrate a new book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. Another involved the request of European translators of a book critical of Islam not to have their names appear alongside that of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding. 

The idea of commissioning the drawings, he wrote in an Op-ed for the Washington Post (19 Feb 2006), and as he explained to us that evening, "wasn't to provoke gratuitously - and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter." 

So Rose, and his Jyllands-Posten, decided to adopt the journalistic principle of "Show, don't tell" and invited various illustrators to picture Muhammad "as you see him." In publishing the 12 cartoons, Rose wrote: "The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule."

Unsurprisingly, Rose's presentation generated mixed reactions - and rather a lot too. The issues of right to free speech and self-censorship are complex and I have no particular expertise in this field. However, I do wonder to what extent we have "duties" as well as "rights" - in Rose's case a duty to protect those more vulnerable? 

To mind comes a short essay by Jonathan Sacks. In it he reflects on the nature of "rights" and "duty" based cultures. Rights-based cultures, he argues, reduce us to a state of dependency, where we make claims on others, assuming they have the power to meet our inalienable demands. Its origins are honorable, aimed at protecting ordinary individuals from the power of the state. A duty-based culture, on the other hand, asks us to give and to be sensitive to the needs of others - with the possibility of creating a healthier and happier society based on giving rather than demanding. 

So which has the higher priority? When, if ever, does duty trump right? Does our right to free speech entail the duty of others to respect whatever we choose to print? 

It's something I've often wondered about in writing The Last Amateurs. The book is brutally honest in many respects - not least where it concerns myself (and not always flattering). There have been occasions, however, where I felt that my duty to protect the athletes, coaches and club was more important than my right to free speech. Sometimes this meant removing sections that would have seriously compromised individuals. Where this self-censorship risked damaging the narrative (i.e. by narrowing the window on life inside the Cambridge University Boat Club), I compensated by writing myself into the story, for instance to highlight the sexually charged, masculine nature of the high performance sports. The alternative - an expose without limits - would not have added much in terms of substance, but would almost definitely have caused hurt or offense. (I am well aware of individuals that are still less than excited about the publication of this book, not least for its candour.)

Given the long series of questions, I didn't have a chance to ask Rose one of mine. I would have liked to have asked him if, given what he knows now, he would have done it again. 

1 comment:

FHA said...


Thanks for blogging about this issue.

I believe that any attempt to discuss the cartoon controversy and its aftermath without putting it in context of the actions of Denmark's PM Rasmussen risks using the shield of "free speech" as a battering ram to bludgeon society's weaker members. In short, Rasmussen played politics with fundamental rights that supposedly circumscribe what makes western societies "civilised". Following this entry I've attached two articles from the FT which set out some critical facts that I refer to.

Usually, not fitting the norm is something I see as a good thing. In Rasmussen's case, however, he appears to have been hampered by his own peculiarities for someone in his position - provincial roots and lack of exposure to the world which ill-prepares him for dealing with diversity and difference. Apparently, he's a country bumpkin who's afraid of dealing with social issues involving minorities face-to-face, preferring to distance himself with the long, cold arm of the law.

Any discussion of free speech should be footnoted by how Rasmussen was instrumental in engineering his own problems, and possibly how he failed in his duties to the weaker members in his society. Quite possibly because he fully intended to fail those weaker members.

Let's not forget the facts. The cartoons were published in September 2005. Ambassadors from Muslim countries sought a meeting with Rasmussen in October 2005 to express concerns that these images were blasphemous. My guess is that given the social and economic marginalisation of most Muslims in Denmark, the immigrants' interests were probably being represented by these ambassadors. Rasmussen refused to meet with the ambassadors and told them to take it up in the courts. At the end of October, Danish Muslim groups filed a claim in court which was thrown out by the prosecutor. In December, Danish Muslim groups went to the Muslim world to "shame" Denmark in the court of public opinion, with the unfortunate consequences which followed.

As a US trained lawyer, I am a staunch believer in free speech. Free speech does not, however, protect obscenity. What is obscene is a question of fact for judges and juries. Obviously, opinions as to what is obscene vary considerably. But to refuse meetings and deny that any person could conceivably see those cartoons as obscene, is a way for the majority to tell the minority that they don't exist, and that their voices will not be heard.

Rasmussen could have defused the whole affair by having a simple meeting, and even if only in private, offering sympathy for hurt feelings while maintaining that free speech protected publication of the cartoons - instead, he succeeded in making a marginalised minority feel invisible. To say that the cartoon controversy is only about free speech paves over the nuance, and perhaps most instructive elements of this sad affair.

Leaders should deal with sensitive social issues by daring to recognise the aggrieved feelings of minorities, even if such feelings might not stand up in court. A simple statement right from the outset that no offense was intended, that the publishers were unaware of Islam's proscriptions against depictions of Muhammad, but that as a legal right the cartoons were protected by free speech, would probably have gone a long way. Instead, I have difficulty seeing Rasmussen as little more than a schoolyard bully, and have little sympathy for Flemming Rose. Were Rose in America at the time Mapplethorpe exhibition was shut down in Cincinnati due to Christians being offended by a crucifix encased in in a urine filled display, I suspect he wouldn't have spoken about "Christians" as cavalierly as has about Muslims.

Quite simply, I think Rasmussen and Rose pick on Muslims in Denmark because they can. The message projected to the world is that Denmark's not interested in becoming a pluralistic society like the U.K., U.S. or Canada. Which is fine for them, they can do what they want, it's their country (though you won't catch me there). What I object to is how they have sullied the altar of "free speech" with their xenophobic politics.


A most un-Danish Dane By Päivi Munter Published: February 10 2006 19:19 |
Last updated: February 11 2006 23:13 Denmark, the small north European nation traditionally known as a haven of liberalism, is struggling to find
a 21st century strategy to deal with substantial immigration from Muslim countries. The response of the Scandinavian people has been to elect an
"un-Danish" leader to protect their Danishness.

In sharp contrast to the laid-back and sociable image the Scandinavians have of themselves, Anders Fogh Rasmussen is a loner and a tough prime minister. Despite this - or perhaps for this reason - he is thought by most of his compatriots to be the right man to defend the cohesiveness of a
small and homogeneous nation faced with a large minority that defies the culture of its adopted homeland.

At the end of the toughest week in the 53-year-old Mr Rasmussen's political career - in which he pleaded to the entire Muslim world for an end to
violence over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed - few cracks have appeared in the prime minister's support at home. Faced with the most serious international crisis to hit Denmark since the German occupation - in which the Danes successfully protected the country's Jewish minority - they stand behind the leader they respect, if not love.

Approval ratings for Mr Rasmussen, who was elected in 2001, have remained above 50 per cent, well ahead of any opposition politician. They have
barely fallen since January, when the conflict over the cartoons, first published in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, erupted into a global stand-off between the west and the Muslim world.

Mr Rasmussen came to power on a platform that defied the traditional left-right boundaries in a country largely ruled according to social democratic principles. His centre-right coalition built its programme on two cornerstones: a tax freeze and strict restrictions on immigration. These, combined with a pledge to maintain Denmark's cradle-to-grave welfare state, constituted a radical new approach in Danish politics that secured
the centre ground for Mr Rasmussen's party.

While the tax freeze has proved popular in high-tax Denmark, it is Mr Rasmussen's tough immigration policy he is best known for. Soon after his election, Mr Rasmussen set about severely curtailing the number of foreign migrants. The government passed laws making it difficult for residents to
bring in spouses from outside the European Union - until then a commonly used avenue of immigration among ethnic minorities, the biggest of which are Turks, Iraqis and Lebanese.

Now a resident seeking to bring in a foreign spouse must be over 24 years of age, financially secure and have a lease on an apartment, while the couple must have a demonstrable "connection" to Denmark. These requirements make Danish immigration laws among the strictest in the European Union, a sharp departure from the country's liberal tradition.

While achieving the government's goal of dramatically reducing immigration, the law has caused considerable ill-feeling among Danish immigrants, who argue that the restrictions reflect a growing intolerance towards ethnic minorities and their culture and religion.

The immigration law has damaged Denmark's international standing, as residents married to foreigners - some of them ethnic Danes who find the rigid permit system humiliating - have been forced to emigrate or remain abroad. But the majority of Danes are staunch supporters of the policy, reflected in Mr Rasmussen's high approval ratings a year into his second term.

Danes began to see immigration as a threat to social harmony in the 1990s. A rapidly growing Muslim population that was nearing 200,000 stood out in a traditionally homogeneous country that lived off agriculture until the 1960s. Danes worried that a large part of the new minority was slow in
adopting the Danish language and was living living on state benefits on the margins of society.

The growing fears about alien influences on Danish society found resonance in Mr Rasmussen, the son of a struggling farmer from Jutland, Denmark's
agricultural heartland, which remains socially much more conformist than liberal Copenhagen.

Nostalgia for the era before mass immigration appears to drive one of the government's latest initiatives, too. A cultural canon, aimed at improving Danes' knowledge of their heritage, will determine the artistic works all school children must study.

Critics of Mr Rasmussen say the parochialism of his humble beginnings in the countryside has never quite left him. He may have earned plaudits for
an efficient handling of Denmark's presidency of the EU four years ago, but Danish intellectuals like to joke about Mr Rasmussen's lack of sophistication and exposure to the wider world.

Peter Mose, author of the Handbook for Prime Ministers, says Mr Rasmussen's limitations in foreign policy may have contributed to the cartoon crisis, which has been brewing since September. While the publication of the drawings initially drew little attention, they spawned a controversy after
Mr Rasmussen declined to meet a group of ambassadors from Muslim countries who were seeking to raise their concerns over the pictures, regarded as blasphemous by Muslims.

Many observers say Mr Rasmussen should have responded to the concerns early in order to pre-empt a crisis at a time when Denmark's participation in the Iraq war had already strained relations with its Muslim community. Instead,
he resolutely defended Danes' right to freedom of expression.

"He is really good in the European context, but outside the EU he is more restricted. This is a problem when Denmark is pursuing an activist foreign policy, of which the war in Iraq is the best indication," Mr Mose says.

So far, however, this criticism is muted. Danes think the man they consider a straight shooter is the safest pair of hands to steer their small nation
in a globalised world - even if he is seen by some as an oddball.

Anne Sofie Kragh, author of a biography of Mr Rasmussen, says the prime minister is "one of the most peculiar people I have met". According to the
book, he had few friends as a child, but held a single-minded ambition to be a politician before the age of 10. He did not kiss a woman, it is
claimed, until he was in his 20s.

"In Denmark, we like things to be relaxed, cosy and nice, whereas he seeks order and perfection. He's far too ambitious to be a typical Dane, which is
why he is seen as a strong leader," Ms Kragh says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

Timeline: How the cartoon crisis unfolded Compiled by Isolin Jorgensen
Published: February 6 2006 11:52 | Last updated: March 21 2006 11:00 As
protest spreads in the Muslim world over the publication of cartoons
depicting the Prophet Mohammed, the FT gives a step-by-step chronology of
events as they unfold.

Sep 17 2005: Politiken, a Danish newspaper, runs an article under the headline "Deep fear of criticism of Islam", detailing the difficulty encountered by the writer Kåre Bluitgen, who had difficulties finding an
illustrator for his children's book on the life of Mohammed.

Sep 30: Jyllands-Posten, one of Denmark's best-selling daily newspapers, publishes 12 cartoons of the prophet to illustrate the problem.

Oct 12: Ambassadors from 10 mainly Muslim nations and the Palestinian representative in Denmark call the cartoons deeply offensive and demand a meeting with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, urging him "to take all those responsible to task".

Oct 21: Mr Rasmussen says offended parties should use the courts to air their grievances and refuses to meet the ambassadors.

Oct 28: A coalition of Danish Muslim groups files a criminal complaint against Jyllands-Posten newspaper. A regional prosecutor investigates the
complaint, but decides not to press charges.

Dec: The Danish Muslim coalition visits the Middle East. seeking support from religious and political leaders.

Jan 1 2006: Mr Rasmussen condemns any actions that "attempt to demonise groups of people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background,'' but
reiterates Denmark's commitment to freedom of speech.

Jan 4: Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, joins the protests.

Jan 10: Magazinet, a Norwegian Christian newspaper, reprints the cartoons.

Jan 25: Saudi Arabia's religious leaders demand an apology and call for the Jyllands-Posten newspaper to be punished.

Jan 26: Saudi ambassador is recalled from Copenhagen. Danish companies in Riyadh report a boycott of Danish goods and supermarkets remove products from the shelves.

Jan 27: Protests begin to spread across the Middle East

Jan 30: Jyllands-Posten publishes a statement on its website, saying it regretted offending Muslims and offered an apology, but said it had a right
under Danish law to print the cartoons.

Jan 31: Mr Rasmussen calls for calm in the dispute, but the Danish Muslims group say the Jyllands-Posten apology is "ambiguous" and demands a clearer one.

Feb 1 - 2: Media in France, Germany, Britain, Spain, the US, Iceland, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Hungary, reprint the

Feb 2: France Soir, a Paris daily tabloid, sacks its managing editor for publishing the drawings, but defends its right to print them. In Jordan,
the weekly newspaper Shihan' publishes them with an editorial by former Jordanian senator Jihad Momani but later withdraws issues from circulation.

Feb 3: Danish prime minister meets ambassadors and diplomats from more than 70 countries. Mona Omar Attia, Egypt's ambassador says the Danish
government's response is inadequate.

Feb 4: A South African court prohibits newspapers from publishing the cartoons. Protesters in Damascus attack the Danish and Norwegian embassies. Mr Momani and Mr Hisham Khalid, editor of al-Mehwar, another Jordanian
weekly that published the cartoons, are arrested and charged with insulting religion

Feb 5: Protestors storm the Danish Embassy in Beirut. One person is left dead and several are injured. Iran recalls its ambassador to Denmark.
Denmark says it is withdrawing diplomatic staff from Syria and recommending Danes leave the country. Norway confirms it is taking the same action with diplomatic staff in Syria.

Feb 6: Lebanon apologises to Denmark. EU leaders call for calm. Protests erupt in Afghanistan where one person died. Danish and Austrian embassies
attacked in Tehran.

Feb 7: Peter Mandelson, EU trade chief, warns Iran against suspension of trade with Denmark. Norwegian NATO peacekeepers attacked in Afghanistan as demonstrations escalate. Austria, holders of the EU presidency, demand Muslim states improve security measures for European citizens and premises after Norwegian embassy is attacked in Tehran.

Feb 8: The US accused Syria and Iran of inciting violence among Muslims over caricatures. Three more people were killed in fresh protests in
Afghanistan and French President Jacques Chirac condemned "overt provocations" as Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly, reprinted the images.

Feb 9: The international row spilled over into the creation of a new UN Human Rights Council. Hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims turned a
religious ceremony in Lebanon into an anti-western cartoon protest.

Feb 10: Danish embassies are targeted in both Kenya - where police fire live rounds and teargas at hundreds of protesting Muslims - and in
Bangladesh, where Indian police clash with about 10,000 people.

Feb 11 Denmark recalls ambassadors and embassy staff from Syria, Indonesia and Iran over security concerns.

Feb 12: Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, said violence sparked by the cartoons could get out of control and urged governments, especially
Iran and Syria, to "act responsibly" and refrain from encouraging demonstrations.

Feb 13 Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, said that Iran, Syria and other governments that failed to protect foreign embassies from mobs should pay
for the damage.

Feb 14 Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Commission chief, backed Denmark, saying that freedom of speech cannot be compromised. But in fresh violence, two
people were killed in the Pakistani city of Lahore, despite a province-wide ban on demonstrations. German embassy attacked in Tehran.

Feb 15 Three more people died in violence as outlets of the Norwegian phone company Telenor, a US KFC fast food restaurant and banks were ransacked and set alight in Pakistan.

Feb 16 Protests continue in Pakistan, where up to 50,000 rallied in Karachi.

Feb 17 A Pakistani cleric offers rewards of over $1m for anyone who kills the Danish cartoonists. In India police clash with several thousand Muslim
protestors, using tear gas to disperse crowds. In Islamabad violent protests cause Denmark to announce that it is closing its embassy due to
security concerns.

Feb 18 Nigerian Muslims attack Christians and burned churches, killing at least 15 people in the deadliest confrontation yet in the whirlwind of
Muslim anger.

Feb 19 Denmark recalls its ambassador from Pakistan.

Feb 20 Hundreds arrested after Pakistan cartoons rally

Mar 9 Amr Khaled, Egyptian Muslim preacher and television superstar, organised a conference in Denmark in a first high-profile religious effort
to turn the page on the controversy.

Mar 15 British police arrests five over protests on Feb 3. for waving placards with slogans such as "Massacre those who insult Islam" and "Europe
you will pay, your 9/11 will come."

Mar 17 A network of Danish Muslim organisations will bring Denmark before an international human rights court for not pressing charges against the
newspaper that first published the images.

Mar 21 Laila Freivalds, Swedish foreign minister, resigns following a dispute over the closure of a website with images of the Prophet Mohammed.
Swedish law states that such pressure violates constitutional guarantees of free speech.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008