We may now be moving into a Swedish cartoon crisis reminiscent of the Danish cartoon crisis of two years ago. If free countries respond to this new threat in the same supine fashion that most did then, then a free press, and free debate in the Muslim world, will be further undercut.
Swedish artist Lars Vilks was invited by an art school to participate in an exhibit with the theme, of all things, of dogs. Vilks, something of a provocateur (his website has a cartoon of a Jew’s head on a pig’s body), submitted cartoons including one with Mohammed’s head on a dog’s body (it’s connected to the contemporary Swedish craze for “roundabout dogs,” but that’s another story). Before the exhibit opened, his drawings were removed by the organizers, citing possible security threats. Another gallery followed suit, claiming similar worries.
This provoked much discussion in the Swedish media. Although several other newspapers had already published the cartoons, it was only when Nerikes Allehanda, a regional paper in Orebro, published one of them on August 18 that the fur began to fly. Like the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Mohammed published in September 2005, the cartoon was used to accompany and illustrate an article discussing self-censorship, threats, and freedom of religion.
Sweden’s own Muslims have merely demonstrated peacefully outside the paper’s office, but, like the Jyllands-Posten affair, foreign intervention has now raised the stakes. With the Danish cartoons it took four months before several Muslim governments, at the behest of an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Mecca, launched protests, boycotts, and threats, resulting in dozens of murders, especially of Christians. This time they took only nine days.
Iranian officials declined to contact the paper itself and instead protested to the Swedish government, hoping to export their own state censorship. On August 27 the Iranian foreign ministry summoned Gunilla von Bahr, the Swedish chargé d’affaires, to receive a protest. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad added his usual venom by asserting that “Zionists” were behind the cartoons, adding that they were “an organized minority who have infiltrated the world.” Pakistan has now joined the fray and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs likewise summoned Lennart Holst, the Swedish chargé, and told him that the government of Pakistan “expected greater sensitivity on the part of the Swedish government.”
The reasons for these actions can be found in Pakistan’s further statements. The foreign ministry announced that it would consult with the OIC “to determine the future course of action against the repetition of such provocative publications,” and through the United Nations would “find ways of addressing the recurring defamation of Islam and its sacred personalities.”
The OIC has, of course, long demanded that countries around the world adopt the same repression of the press that most of its members practice. In 2006, citing the Danish cartoons, it tried to have the mandate of the U.N.’s new Human Rights Council include combating “actions against religions, prophets and beliefs” and to declare that “defamation of religions and prophets is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression.”
Reactionary regimes are now avidly pursuing their next opportunity within the U.N. to attack freedom of the press and of religion. In a follow up to the notorious 2001 U.N. conference “against racism” in Durban, the preparatory committee of the 2009 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, on which Iran and Pakistan sit (it is chaired by Libya) has said that it wants to make “religious defamation” part of the agenda.
If this agenda is not explicitly and actively resisted we will see not only further censorship and self-censorship in the West, but increased repression in the Muslim world. On the very day that the Swedish cartoons were published, Majidulla Khan Farhad, an Indian Muslim leader, said that Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen had defamed Islam and offered a reward for her death. A week earlier, Nasreen, who had to flee Bangladesh for her life, had a case launched against her by the police in Hyderabad, India, on the grounds that she had “hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims.”
Egypt has been unusually active in the last few weeks in quashing all dissidence and dissidents in the name of Islam. State Security has intensified its interrogation of Quranist Muslims, whose view of Islam is open to democracy and religious freedom, on the grounds that they have insulted Islam. On August 8, it also picked up Adel Fawzy Faltas and Peter Ezzat, who work for the Canada-based Middle East Christian Association. They were arrested on the grounds that, in seeking to defend the human rights of Egyptian Christians, and human rights in general, they too had “insulted Islam.”
Much of Lars Vilks’s work strikes me as repugnant. But a free society is one in which repugnant things are said and done and drawn. The issues at stake here go far beyond the freedom of cartoonists to parody, or of the press to offend religious sentiment. It is whether feminists, human-rights workers, religious minorities, and dissenting Muslims who differ from the versions of Islam offered by reactionary states and violent thugs can be allowed to speak and to live. If they cannot, then freedom-loving Muslims will lose the war of ideas within Islam because their voices will be stilled.
Iran sees the Swedish cartoons as an opportunity to spread its domestic terror. We should see it as an opportunity to defend and expand freedom. Rigorous planning for the next U.N. World Conference Against Racism is one good place to start.