The right to offend belongs to all

By Ben Griffiths and Tim McEvoy

A clash of civilizations is occurring. Ever since the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed 12 offensive caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, the great ideological chasm between a secular Europe and the largely fundamentalist Middle East has re-opened.

Danish authorities refused Muslim demands to punish the newspaper, citing freedom of the press, and an Islamic boycott of all Danish goods followed. Various European newspapers re-published the drawings in a show of solidarity. Death threats, rioting and violent arson attacks on European embassies followed from across the Islamic world.

It is less the breaking of the taboo in portraying Mohammed that has caused offence, but the nature of these drawings themselves. The various cartoons portray the revered prophet as a line-up suspect, an East Asian-Danish school child, and a terrorist with a turban in the shape of a bomb. The editorial claimed some Muslims wanted Islam to enjoy a special protection in secular society and that an accompanied threat of violence had caused a “slippery slope” of self-censorship by writers and artists. Considering the response to the article, you could say Jyllands-Posten had a point.

The reaction has revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of secularism. Too often it is portrayed by fundamentalists of all beliefs as a godless philosophy that stands in direct opposition to religion. This would be confusing secularism with atheism. The beauty of secularism is that it is less a philosophy and more an overarching system where all spiritual views are addressed. They compete fairly for legitimacy in the marketplace of ideas, free from endorsement of any one by the state. If Islam, or any other religion for that matter, is intellectually viable it should be able to withstand any form of criticism. If it can’t, then it is even more vital that the criticism is heard.

Just as essential as the right to criticise, is the right to criticise via any means. Take, for example, one of the cartoons that depicted Mohammad turning back suicide bombers at the gates of paradise because heaven had “run out of virgins.” It is offensive, yes, but it is within the offence that the power of the cartoon lays.

It is important, in all this, to realize that the riots and the violence are the reactions of the extreme. Many Muslims have condemned the violence as an affront to Islam. They claim the cartoons were insensitive, but defended the right to free speech – an admirable stance and a fair evaluation. But perhaps instead of criticizing the decisions to publish, moderate Muslims should have focused on disputing the content of the drawings themselves, thus embracing the free speech fundamentalists have shunned. They could have shown that terrorism contradicts many of the principles of Islamic just war and that the descriptions of paradise should be taken as metaphors for the indescribable joys of the afterlife.

To do so would have shown up the ignorance of the artists and placed the Muslim reaction on the moral and intellectual high ground. The greater Islamic world needs to realize that its current state is a much greater problem for itself than it is for the West. Muslims in the West have shown that a more liberal interpretation of Islam is compatible with modern secular democracy. It is in their own interest for Muslims to fully embrace the notion, including the right to criticize, the right to ridicule and the right to offend.

Ben Griffiths and Tim McEvoy are exchange students from the United Kingdom. Their column appears on a rotating schedule. They can be reached at [email protected]