The following article appeared in The Mail and Guardian in 2006. I have included it as I quote from it in my "hate speech" blog.
"This is not about freedom of speech"
Na'eem Jeenah, Charles Amjad-Ali and Salim Vally: COMMENT
10 February 2006 06:00
That the real issue surrounding the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad
is hate speech and incitement to violence, rather than freedom of
expression, is clear when the intent behind their publication is understood.
The cartoons were meant to be inflammatory, showing disrespect and lack of
moral maturity. The problem is not whether the Prophet should be pictured.
It is that they portray him as an al-Qaeda image of violence; they portray
Islam a violent religion. Aesthetically valueless, they were intended to
incite right-wing racists to violence against “the terrorist within”.
The notion of “the enemy within” was used in Nazi Germany to demonise Jews
and it became part of the propaganda arsenal that supported the Holocaust.
And cartoons too were a weapon used to demonise Jews, just as the radio was
used in Rwanda to demonise Tutsis and to assist in that genocide.
An instructive exercise would be a comparison between the hate-filled Danish
cartoons and the brilliant social commentary and caricatures, even of
religious practice -- such as the Catholic fatwa against condom use -- by
South Africa’s Zapiro.
We are not advocating that criticism of religion is taboo or religious
topics are sacrosanct; religions themselves develop and advance through
criticism. And, often, internal criticism is harsher than that by outsiders.
The 12 cartoons were published by Jyllands-Posten following its invitation
to 40 cartoonists to parody Muhammad in order, as is clear from the
invitation, to provoke Muslims.
They become truly dangerous in the context within which they were published:
in a Europe that manifests increasing levels of Islamophobia and xenophobia,
especially against Muslims, and where Muslims are demonised and scapegoated
for increasing social misery. Further, they were published in Denmark, which
has been named by the European Union Commission on Human Rights as the most
racist country in Europe. It has witnessed a large number of attacks against
Muslims, some resulting in the killings of Muslim immigrants. And, they were
published by a newspaper with historical ties to German and Italian fascism
and which called for a fascist dictatorship in Denmark. Jyllands-Posten is
also anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Within such a context, these cartoons
are clearly hate speech. Their publication is an ontological attack against
the foundations of Islam.
How might Christians respond if Jesus was drawn wearing a crown of nuclear
bombs instead of thorns? Or as a Roman soldier shoving his spear into the
sides of Palestinians hanging on crosses? Or what would the Jewish reaction
be to a cartoon of a Jew in the 1930s dreaming up a scheme to help relocate
European Jews to Palestine and imagining the Holocaust as the way to do it.
Or of Moses as the pilot of an Apache helicopter firing on Palestinian
When the debate erupted, we were quickly reminded that the West is a secular
society with ideals of tolerance and open debate, even if such debate
offends. But freedom of expression cannot be a carte blanche right to be
used by racists and xenophobes to perpetrate violence. We can’t piss in
Trafalgar Square or openly drink beer in the streets of New York or walk the
malls of Johannesburg naked. If we can be punished for impinging on public
space, should we not also be subject to limitations for hate speech against
religious or cultural groups? We agree with Robert Fisk that this is not an
issue of secularism vs Islam or of a clash of civilisations but is, rather,
the childishness of civilisations.
The double standard goes beyond that. Since Holocaust denial is a criminal
offence in many European countries, should Islamophobia and the assault on
Muslim religious symbols not also be regulated? Jyllands-Posten refused to
publish caricatures of Jesus in 2003 because they would “offend” its
readers. Why then is its invitation to caricature Muhammad protected by free
In the current debate, the greater immaturity is not by the Muslim
protestors but by those Westerners who refuse to see the bigotry, prejudice
and Islamophobia and, in doing nothing, encourage hatred and violence.
Within the context of a Europe with escalating Islamophobia and racism, the
responsibility is on us all -- Muslims and non-Muslims, atheists,
secularists and believers -- to speak out.
Or we might have to live with the legacy of our silence as we, today, have
to live with the legacy of genocides against Jews in Europe and Tutsis in
An additional issue raised by the current furore is of the dominance of
liberal democratic notions of rights. Rights are only, according to such
notions, individual. There is no space to consider the violation of the
dignity of a community or the right, as a community, not to have one’s
religious or cultural symbols denigrated, or the right of an entire people
not to have its history under colonialism whitewashed. The notion of
collective or communal rights is one that requires serious consideration in
a young democracy like South Africa.
Disempowered Muslim communities in Europe and other parts of the world have
expressed their right to free expression in the only manner they have
available -- by taking to the streets in legitimate articulations of outrage
and celebrations of democracy.
But some responses have been shortsighted, even immoral, as if to say: “If
you insist on calling us terrorists, we will behave like terrorists.” The
burning of embassies, the loss of life in Afghanistan for the sake of some
stupid, albeit offensive, drawings and the placards that threaten bombs have
not been in keeping with Islamic or Western democratic norms of protest and
expression. Muslims’ right to dignity should be protected in their protests
too. And their legitimate revulsion for attacks against religious symbols
should also be expressed when we witness incidents such as the Taliban’s
destruction of the Bamayan Buddhist statues.
Legitimate protest should not be allowed to be hijacked by dictatorial
regimes whose primary agenda for jumping on the popular bandwagon is to
deflect attention from their repression and denial of rights. Nor by the
United States’s neo-cons who pontificate about the Danish cartoons when it
was their theology of civilisational clashes, the new American century, Pax
Americana and us-and-them polarisation that created the global conditions
for such denigration to take place.
In South Africa, threats to the Mail & Guardian editor, phone calls to her
mother and threats against property have been part of this phenomenon. There
is a distinction between gratuitous reproduction of the cartoons as hate
speech and the use of one cartoon by the M&G for didactic and illustrative
purposes. Living in a rights-based society requires people to acknowledge
and respect the rights of others as much as they require similar recognition
for their rights.
Na’eem Jeenah is president of the Muslim Youth Movement, Professor Charles
Amjad-Ali is a Christian theologian and Salim Vally is the former
chairperson of the Freedom of Expression Institute