Academic journal article University of New Brunswick Law Journal

Debating the Danish Cartoons: Civil Rights or Civil Power?

Academic journal article University of New Brunswick Law Journal

Debating the Danish Cartoons: Civil Rights or Civil Power?

Article excerpt

In September 2005, as part of an editorial on self-censorship and Islam, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. The controversy that has accompanied the publication and reprinting of the cartoons has been widely interpreted as yet another illustration of an ineliminable tension between multiculturalism and liberalism. Such an interpretation would have us believe that what is at issue in defending the cartoons is our commitment to civil liberties as a mainstay of liberal democracy. But is this really what is at issue? A closer examination suggests that what is actually being defended in this case is not civil liberty but civil privilege. In particular, what is at issue is the privilege to exclude and define Muslims.

The cartoons at the heart of the controversy were solicited by Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten's cultural editor, to accompany an opinion piece urging the importance of overcoming a tendency to self-censorship on the topic of Islam as a political force. In the final piece the cartoons formed a border around the editorial text, providing a literal frame for the editorial, the argument of which in turn provided an interpretive framework for the cartoons. Rose asked the cartoonists to draw Muhammed "as you see him." Some of the cartoonists took this at face value and offered portraits; others offered satirical vignettes which included the Prophet.

The initial publication of the cartoons sparked a public demonstration within Denmark and calls for the newspaper's management to apologize. An official investigation into the cartoons was launched after a complaint was filed under the provisions of Denmark's criminal code relating to hate speech, and diplomats from several countries lodged official complaints, describing the images as part of an ongoing campaign in Danish public media against Muslims. In the end the cartoons, unlike remarks that had been broadcast on a right-wing radio station earlier in the year, were found not to have violated the law. A group of imams within Denmark, unhappy with their government's response, attempted to generate international pressure on the government by touring countries outside of Europe with a dossier that included the Jyllands-Posten piece, pictures from another Danish newspaper, a series of privately sent pictures and letters, and a television program critical of Islam in which several Danish politicians had participated.

The ongoing controversy around the cartoons has been interpreted as yet another example of the tension between liberalism and multiculturalism as important values of Western democracy. Such an interpretation is in keeping with the Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose's account of what he had hoped to accomplish by incorporating the cartoons into his editorial. The intention, Rose has said, was not to insult or disrespect Islam, but to stir debate on a topic that Europeans must confront and to spur moderate Muslims to speak out about the value and importance of secular democracy. (1) For Rose, subsequent denunciations of the cartoons and calls for the newspaper to apologize serve only to demonstrate the importance of publishing the editorial in the first place: they show the importance of affirming our commitment to civil freedoms such as free speech in the face of religious extremists who would silence ideas with which they disagree.

Thus interpreted, criticisms of the editorial and decisions by other papers in Europe to reprint the cartoons are an attack on civil freedoms. As such, demonstrations against the cartoons are argued to demonstrate the limits of multiculturalism as a value in liberal democracy. The demonstrations provoked by the editorial supposedly show that ultimately Western democracies must choose between respect for individual rights, in this case the right to free speech, and respect for minority cultures, in this case adherence to Islam. This choice between multiculturalism and liberal democracy is a choice between tolerance for difference and individual freedom, between protecting individuals' rights to maintain the integrity of their cultures and protecting the conditions necessary for there to be rights at all, such as secularism and open debate. …

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