The row about the outrageous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) published first in Denmark and then in Norway has taken a new turn with the semblance of an apology from the editor of the offending newspaper. Danish Muslims say that they accept the apology — but it is unlikely to take the sting out of the situation or ease the hurt and resentment that millions of Muslims feel. Carsten Juste’s apology is disingenuous. He says that the cartoons were not intended to offend. The depictions of the Prophet as a terrorist were clearly intended to offend. How could they do otherwise? Juste makes it clear he thinks there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the cartoons; he is apologizing purely because Muslims took offense. “That’s what we’re apologizing for.’’ A very backhanded apology.
Juste then insists that what he did was perfectly legal. There are many things which are legal, but that does not make them right. Worse, he says he still does not regret publishing the cartoons. Does he not regret doing something that has done immense damage to Danish-Muslim relations? That has resulted in a boycott of Danish goods across the Muslim World? That has probably put Danish troops in Iraq at unique risk from Al-Qaeda? Juste’s bosses should dismiss him for his lack of judgment and the damage it has done to Denmark, politically and economically and all out of spite. That would go some way to calming the situation. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has to act as well. His categorical refusal to apologize on the issue because it would be against the laws on freedom of speech is just as disingenuous. It would be perfectly within the bounds of political propriety for him to say how appalled he was and that Juste should go. That would come well within the bounds of his freedom of speech.
In any event, if it does go against the law, the answer is simple: Change the law. Follow the British example: Outlaw religious hatred. Once Prime Minister Tony Blair gets a new religious hatred bill through Parliament, it will be a criminal offense in the UK to publish cartoons like the Danish ones. No one can say that the UK is any less committed to freedom of speech than Denmark. But Blair understands there are limits to freedom of speech, just as there are to freedom of action; people do not have the right to stir up riots and racial hatred, encourage mass hysteria or heap abuse on religion any more than they do to rob, rape, cheat or kill.
Were Prime Minister Rasmussen to follow Blair’s lead and introduce a similar law in Denmark, Muslim anger would vanish, not least because the UK bill, although protecting all religions from attack, is in fact designed specifically with Islam in mind. Rasmussen has to think about Denmark’s political and economic interests. But he needs to realize what Tony Blair has realized — that Muslims are now an integral part of his country and that to attack their faith is to attack them. Freedom of speech has to be balanced by the freedom not to have one’s faith abused and ridiculed.
Published February 01, 2006, Arab News