Cartoons and Controversy; Free Expression or Muslim Exceptionalism in Europe?

By Rheault, Magali; Mogahed, Dalia | Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Cartoons and Controversy; Free Expression or Muslim Exceptionalism in Europe?


Rheault, Magali, Mogahed, Dalia, Harvard International Review


Europe thinks it has found a cogent way to spur the debate over the integration of its Muslim communities. Under the banner of free speech, Europeans have turned to satire and other forms of print and visual criticism to test Muslims' willingness to accept Western values. But the re-printing of the Danish cartoons earlier this year, as well as the release of Fitna, a short film by a Dutch lawmaker about Islam as an inspiration to terror are inappropriate tests. In an already wary Europe, after the Madrid and London bombings, such methods only fuel mass perceptions that Islam and violence are interchangeable. They also oversimplify the integration debate by framing it in terms of a strict freedom of expression issue.

Those who support such portrayals of Islam argue that Europe is only defending its democratic values against Islamic fundamentalism and Muslims who live in the West must understand that freedom of expression protects the right of the media to publish offensive material. Defenders of such "free speech" assert that they are not singling out Muslims, but in fact are integrating them into the tradition of satire. As such, Muslims are being treated like any other group. But findings from several Gallup polls reveal that Europeans' acceptance of the cartoons correlates with their unfavorable opinions of Muslims and not with their general acceptance of offensive speech.

Limits on Free Speech?

Gallup asked residents of France, Germany and the United Kingdom if, under the protection of freedom of speech, certain expressions should be depicted and published in newspapers. Across all three countries, few (10 percent or less) among the general public believe that child pornography and racial slurs should be allowed under free speech. Mocking the Holocaust elicits slightly higher levels of acceptance, especially among the French and the British, where 18 percent and 15 percent, respectively, say that cartoons that make fun of the Holocaust should be allowed under protection of free speech. As a point of comparison, just 10 percent of Germans say such cartoons would fall under free speech, if printed in newspapers. However, when asked about the printing of a picture of the Prophet Muhammad, Europeans are far more likely to believe that such a depiction is protected by free speech as about 4 in 10 British and French respondents and almost 6 in 10 Germans share this view.

Muslims are also often portrayed as demanding special privileges and accommodations for their religion such as requesting that public swimming pools in France have women-only hours. But compared with the European public, Muslims living in Berlin, London and Paris do not single out any of the four expressions tested in the poll. Very few urban Muslims (6 percent or less) believe that child pornography and racial slurs should be protected under free speech. Furthermore, few (10 percent or less) consider the printing of cartoons to poke fun at the Holocaust to fall into the freedom of speech arena. Regarding the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in newspapers, respondents' attitudes are similar as just 10 percent of those living in Paris as well as London and 14 percent of those living in Berlin say the caricature should be allowed.

These findings suggest that Europeans and urban Muslims differ greatly on how they perceive the depiction of the Prophet in newspapers. On the surface, the European public appears to view the cartoon as an issue of satire that falls under the protection of free speech.

Freedom of Expression or Muslim Exceptionalism?

In Europe, anti-Muslim prejudice covers a broad spectrum, ranging from the childish (Italian politicians walking a pig on the building site of a mosque) to the hateful (the recent desecration of 148 Muslim graves in a French military cemetery). As the general public, especially in Germany, is more likely to think the printing of a cartoon depicting the Prophet should be allowed under free speech, Gallup also analyzed public attitudes vis-a-vis various certain groups to ascertain if Europeans exhibit some exceptionalism toward Muslims.

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