Academic journal article Harvard International Review

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

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

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

Article excerpt

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.

Overall, Europeans perceive Muslims more negatively than any other group. Additionally, the French and especially the Germans are more likely to hold negative rather than positive opinions of Muslims. However, Muslims living in the three European capitals express more positive than negative opinions of most groups.

Which of the following expressions do you believe should be allowed
under protection of free speech? Newspapers printing ...

Percentage who say "yes, it should be allowed" 80%

French Public       Muslims    Germans   Muslims   British  Muslims
                    in Paris   Public   in Berlin   Public   London

The picture of        40%        59%        14%       36%      10%
Prophet Muhammad

Child pornography                                     6%

Racial slurs           8%        8%                   10%      6%

Cartoons making fun   15%        10%         6%       15%
of the Holocaust

* The picture of Prophet Muhammad
* Child pornography
* Racial slurs
* Cartoons making fun of the Holocaust

Note: Table made from bar graph.


While the British public is slightly more likely to view Muslims positively rather than negatively, this group also elicits the highest levels of negative opinions in the United Kingdom. Across the Channel, Muslims also stand out as the group that draws the most negative opinions. The French public expresses more negative than positive opinions of Muslims, but it is in Germany that negative opinions of Muslims are the most striking. Twenty-seven percent of Germans hold negative views of Muslims versus 7 percent who view them positively.


Based, perhaps, on anecdotal evidence, some observers point to Muslims' intolerance of other groups. But poll results show that urban Muslims express, for the most part, more positive than negative opinions of other groups. For example, 40 percent of Muslims in London, 43 percent of those living in Paris, and 25 percent of those in Berlin say they view Catholics positively compared with 4 percent, 3 percent and 10 percent, respectively, who view them negatively. In fact, atheists are the only group that elicits more negative than positive opinions among Muslims, a finding observed in Berlin only. It is possible that urban Muslims express such positive views toward other religious groups precisely because of the importance they place on their own faith. Christians and Jews are considered by mainstream Muslims to be fellow monotheists in the Abrahamic tradition, a group referred to in the Quran as ahl al kitab or "people of the scripture."

On the surface, the Danish cartoon controversy appears to be an issue of free speech. But as the poll findings show, the cartoons also put the spotlight on issues of identity, faith, and respect (or lack thereof). In this context, the use of religious satire to test Muslims' willingness to integrate into European society frames the debate in stark and oversimplified terms. Satire pits religious observance against national loyalty. In a way, the general public is asking Muslims to relinquish their core identity in order to prove they can integrate into a largely secular, liberal European society. But such a choice is unnecessary as urban Muslims' religious identity doesn't preclude them from also identifying strongly with their countries of residence.


While freedom of expression represents the culmination of years of struggle in Europe to remove governmental or religious control over the right of individuals to express themselves in the public square, this right is not absolute. Hate speech and anti-Semitism, for example, do not fall under the protection of free speech as many European countries have legislation prohibiting such expressions in the media. Furthermore, the degree to which European populations polled view the Danish cartoons as acceptable does not correlate with their general acceptance of offensive speech. Instead, it correlates with their degree of unfavorable opinions toward Muslims. As a result, the cartoon controversy points to a form of Muslim exceptionalism in Europe, where Muslims are being ridiculed because of who they are.

Markers of Identity

For Muslims, however, the depiction of the most venerated figure in Islam as a terrorist is insulting and akin to a racial slur. To shed light on this perception gap, Gallup looked at how Europeans and urban Muslims define their identity. Overall, the European public identifies most strongly with their country or local area, while urban Muslims identify strongly not only with their religion and ethnic background but also with their country of residence.

For the French and the British, country is the strongest identity marker as almost half of respondents say they identify with their country either extremely or very strongly. For Germans, their local area is strongest as 42 percent of respondents say they identify with their city or village either extremely or very strongly. Interestingly, out of the four identity markers tested in the poll, none elicits a majority of responses from the French, German or British public. Furthermore, Europeans (especially the French) are least likely to define themselves in terms of their ethnicity or faith: About 3 in 10 British and Germans and just 13 percent of the French say they strongly identify with their ethnic background. Religion elicits similar levels of responses as 30 percent of the British, 28 percent of the Germans, and 19 percent of the French say they strongly identify with their faith.

Urban Muslims present a more complex perspective on identity. Muslims living in Paris and Berlin are as likely as the general public to identify strongly with their respective countries of residence and Muslims in London (57 percent) are more likely than the British public (48 percent) to identify strongly with the United Kingdom. But unlike for the general public, ethnicity and faith are core components of urban Muslims' identity. About 6 in 10 Muslims who live in London and Berlin and about 4 in 10 of those in Paris identify strongly with their ethnic background. Strong majorities of Muslims in London and Berlin and a plurality in Paris also say they identify with their religion either extremely or very strongly. Additionally, religion plays a far greater role in the lives of Muslims than it does in the lives of the general public: 88 percent of Muslims in London, 85 percent of those in Berlin, and 68 percent of those in Paris say religion is an important part of their daily lives. As a point of comparison, 36 percent of the British, 41 percent of the Germans and 23 percent of the French say the same.

These findings reveal that although "country" is the marker that the general public identifies with most strongly, it is shared by less than a majority in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Muslims living in Berlin, London and Paris have not only strong but also multiple markers of identity. They define themselves not only in terms of their faith and ethnic background, but also in terms of their faith and ethnic background, but also in terms of their country of residence. While traditional wisdom often challenges Muslims' loyalty to their country of residence, the poll findings suggest that religious and national identities are not mutually exclusive for urban Muslims.

Overall, such perceptions of identity help bring into sharper focus attitudes toward the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. As most individuals among the general public do not define themselves strongly in terms of religion, they do not seem to understand why the caricature would be offensive. But as faith is a core aspect of Muslims' identity, the caricature not only represents an attack on the Prophet and what he embodies, but it also disparages Muslims. Such expressions are seen as insults hurled from a position of power against a marginalized minority--acts of prejudice rather than principle.

What newspapers choose to print is a reflection of their country's evolution and understanding of civility. In the United States, Amos 'n' Andy was a socially acceptable television program until American society grew through the civil rights struggle to see it was racist and tasteless. The NAACP protested the show's negative portrayal of blacks for decades, but it wasn't until the mid-1960s that the program was finally pulled from the air, not because it was prohibited in the legal realm, but because American society evolved beyond it in the moral realm. That evolution was marked by greater inclusion of minority groups into the American mainstream as well as its collective definition of civility, leading to a more mature democracy. Europe, where cultural pluralism is relatively new, must grow in the same way.

MAGALI RHEAULT is a Senior Editor and Poll Analyst at Gallup.

DALIA MOGAHED is Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, and is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

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