On Free Speech: Religion, Politics and Twelve Cartoons

More than a decade ago, in early 2006, I was a guest for a couple of months of Ilisimatusarfik, the University of Greenland. The university is based in the capital city, Nuuk, on the milder west Greenland coast. For most of the time, I sat by a large window in a small house, writing and thinking, watching the ravens playing in the wind (I got to know them so well that I gave them names), the fishing boats running up and down the fjord, and the amazing black hills on the other side of that fjord, their ravines and gullies outlined in snow.

But I was also invited to speak at the Theological Society’s bi-monthly lecture. The topic: at that time, Denmark and much of the world were still buzzing over the infamous ‘Muhammad Cartoons’ that had appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. I was asked to offer an outsider’s view. The immediate event and its aftermath may have slipped out of view since then, but the issues raised are still pertinent today. In what follows, I have revised the lecture a decade on. It requires engaging with debates at the time, but my purpose is to draw out some of the myths associated with the liberal idea of ‘free speech’.

Let me begin by outlining what happened. The twelve cartoons were drawn at the invitation of the newspaper and they depicted Muhammad in various caricatures and insulting situations, the most inflammatory of which was the turban of the prophet in the shape of a bomb. Soon the controversy grew, some or all of the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers in more than fifty other countries (including those in the Middle East), leading to peaceful and occasionally violent protests in many parts of the world from Denmark to Malaysia. Danish goods were boycotted, diplomatic protests lodged, official condemnations made, court cases begun, apologies made, ambassadors removed from Denmark, advice given to Danes not to travel in Muslim-majority countries, embassies stormed and set on fire in Syria and Lebanon, death threats made against the cartoonists – while the Danish Prime Minister said that he was in no position to curtail the freedom of the press.

Critics claimed that the cartoons were culturally insulting, Islamophobic, blasphemous, and intended to humiliate a marginalized Danish minority. Supporters of the cartoons claimed they illustrated an important issue and the publication exercised the right of free speech. They also claimed that there were similar cartoons about other religions, arguing that Islam and its followers have not been targeted in a discriminatory way.

So much for the immediate controversy. More importantly, we can identify certain positions that have been taken: conspiracy theory; ‘free’ speech; hypocrisy; and an Orientalist position.


We never seem to tire of conspiracy theories. We like to think that there is some deeper, hidden plan in the world. The conspiracy theories that arose as part of the cartoon controversy were of the same type. They were put forward by Muslims, Christians, Jews and purely secular commentators. A few examples:

First, Iran’s supreme religious leader at the time, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in his first reaction to the controversy on 6 February, 2006, that a ‘Zionist conspiracy’ was to blame for the row over the cartoons: ‘The reason for the Zionist action is because of the loss they suffered by Hamas winning’.  Khamenai was referring to Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian legislative election in January 2006, several months after the publication of the cartoons.

Second, the Zionist paper, The Jerusalem Post, came up with a reverse conspiracy theory. Daniel Pipes argued that the pattern of events revealed the agenda of Muslim supremacism: ‘The deeper issue here, however, is not Muslim hypocrisy but Islamic supremacism’.  It boiled down to deliberate intimidation by a bunch of Muslim thugs over some innocent cartoons. The disproportionate Muslim response was, suggested the Post, a form of ‘arm flexing’ by violent Muslim factions.

Third, there are Christian and secular theories of a global jihad. Paul Sheehan, an Australian commentator at the time, hypothesised that the controversy was but one small episode in a ‘new global war’ that goes back to the age-old battle between Christians and Muslims. It is nothing other than god versus god. Sheehan writes: ‘The recent wave of violence in the Islamic world over cartoons published in Denmark was not a spontaneous eruption. It was a carefully orchestrated global intifada, sparked by the threat of the UN Security Council’s decision to impose sanctions on Iran for pursuing a nuclear weapons program’.  He found the ‘intifada’ under way in Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands … and, of course, Australia.

Fourth is a conspiracy theory found among Muslims, Jews, Christians and those with no religious commitment: the cartoons set out, under the excuse of ‘freedom of speech’, to foster racism and Islamophobia. Thus the newspaper deliberately set out to offend Muslims and drive them from Denmark and Europe. For example, the General Secretariat of the Organisation of Islamic Conferences stated that ‘It is evident that the intention of Jyllands-Posten was motivated to incite hatred and violence against Muslims’.

As always with conspiracy theories, the old saying still applies: what looks like a conspiracy is actually just stupidity.

Free Speech

Most of the debate, however, circled around freedom of speech. The Prime Minister of Denmark at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen – a vocal supporter of and apparent believer in liberalism –used this line consistently in response to all manner of pressures to interfere. Despite many calls to censure and even punish Jyllands-Posten and its editors, he said that freedom of speech is crucial to Danish self-understanding and for that reason he could not tell the newspaper what it may or may not print. This position, which some support, may be described as freedom of speech at all costs.

Freedom of Speech at all Costs

Let me give some background on the liberal idea of freedom of speech in Denmark. Freedom of speech, along with liberal (or bourgeois) democracy, was part of the new constitution of 1849. Parliamentarism followed in 1901 together with other liberties such as freedom of religion. These liberal notions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been defended vigorously ever since.

Section 77 of the Constitutional Act of Denmark (1953) reads: ‘Any person shall be at liberty to publish his ideas in print, in writing, and in speech, subject to his being held responsible in a court of law. Censorship and other preventive measures shall never again be introduced’. Freedom of expression in Denmark is also protected by, among others, the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Danish approach to freedom of expression seems to be quite radical. Thus, it is a place where neo-Nazi propaganda has been printed, much to the chagrin of the German government. It once hosted a Chechen congress, which the Russians saw as ‘solidarity with terrorists’. And Denmark consistently ranks first in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders.

Many of the republications of the cartoons took place in ‘Western’ nation-states from the Netherlands to New Zealand in order to take a stand for freedom of speech at all costs. Indeed, the claim to freedom of speech has in many respects taken centre stage as a pillar of bourgeois democracy, something to be upheld against all attacks. According to this line, once you compromise this type of freedom of speech, once you make restrictions, then before you know it you get secret police, oppression and totalitarianism.

Freedom with Responsibility

However, many in the debate propounded a modified freedom of speech position which might be called freedom with responsibility. Thus, the section I quoted earlier from the Constitutional Act of Denmark (1953) reads: ‘Any person shall be at liberty to publish his ideas in print, in writing, and in speech, subject to his being held responsible in a court of law’.

If we can trust opinion polls, then most people in Denmark at the time – of all religious persuasions and none – held to this position, Danish Muslims included. Thus, most Danes polled believed at the time that the Prime Minister should not have apologized or told the press what to do, but they also believed that Jyllands-Posten should have acted responsibly and not published the cartoons. Further, they thought that the Prime Minister should have met with the ambassadors of ten Muslim-majority countries when they requested a meeting with him to discuss the cartoons on 19 October 2005. In other words, those polled in Denmark would hold to a position like this – freedom with responsibility.

A significant number of influential people, both within Denmark and internationally, took a similar position. For example, on 20 December 2005 twenty-two former Danish ambassadors sent an open letter to the Prime Minister criticising his decision not to open a dialogue with the international representatives.  The former Danish minister of foreign affairs, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, criticised the drawings as immature and attacked Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten, as irresponsible.

As a final example, the Brussels-based Arab journalist Khaled Diab argued that Muslims should not insist that their values apply to peoples of other faiths. A liberal freedom of expression means that people should be able to express their opinions, but respect and sensitivity should lead the media to assess what effect the material they publish will have on their readers and society at large.  In many parts of the world, newspapers, governments and churches made similar statements about responsibility.

In the end, both variations on the defence of liberal free speech begin with a central feature of liberal ideology, the private individual. The individual and his or her ‘rights’ are the foundation, and one right is the freedom of speech. With this basis, you can assert either that the individual has an absolute right to freedom of speech, or that that the individual must be mature and responsible with it.


The third position on the cartoons controversy may be called hypocrisy – which is to say that it is simply hypocritical to claim that publishing the cartoons is an exercise of freedom of speech.

Double Standards

Almost as soon as the cartoons were published in the name of free speech, Muslim critics pointed to the double standards and hypocrisy of such a claim. Most of these criticisms were directed at the freedom of speech at all costs position. They argued that it seems fine to publish cartoons that ridicule Islam, but not Christianity and especially Judaism.

For example, from Kuwait Muhammad al-Shaibani wrote: ‘In [the West] it is considered freedom of speech if they insult Islam and Muslims. But such freedom becomes racism and a breach of human rights and anti-Semitism if Arabs and Muslims criticize their religion and religious laws’.  Even more to the point, Muslim commentators have pointed out that in ten European countries, including Germany and Austria, there are laws that make denying the Holocaust a crime. These are also countries that champion liberal ideas of freedom of speech. If, goes the argument, offensive images of Jews and Judaism are largely prohibited in the media in Europe, especially after the Holocaust, then why are offensive images of Islam allowed? In other words, there are double standards, one rule for Christians and Jews, another for Muslims.

The immediate response to this criticism from Jyllands-Posten and many other places was that Christian figures, symbols and leaders are represented in cartoons. But it seems to me that these criticisms have a point, especially regarding anti-Semitism. If there are laws restricting what can be said about one religious group, then freedom of speech has its limits. This liberal idea is predicated on limitations and exclusion.

Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism

Some have pointed out that the rising tide of Islamophobia, where it is acceptable to publish and proclaim material that denigrates Muslims, where one can say and do things against Muslims purely because of their religious beliefs and ethnic background, is comparable to the rise of anti-Semitism in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe.

Asghar Bukhari of the British Muslim organization MPACUK made this point in a debate on a BBC News programme with Roger Koeppel, editor of Die Welt, the German newspaper that republished the cartoons. Bukhari suggested that a German paper should be very aware of the effect of publishing the cartoons. In light of the long history of anti-Semitic propaganda and demonization of Jews in German media prior to the Holocaust, when caricatures of Jews as rich financiers or evil Bolsheviks were commonplace, Bukhari warned against a similar pattern with regard to Islam.

At the time, similar comments were being made in Australia by leading politicians. For example, during the time of the cartoons controversy, the former Prime Minister, John Howard, said that a section of the Muslim community was ‘utterly antagonistic to our kind of society’. Peter Costello, the then Treasure and failed aspirant to the throne, tried to go one better, saying that if he did not want to take his shoes off before entering a mosque, he would not do so. By analogy, if Muslims object to certain Australian ‘values’ (whatever they might be), he told them ‘don’t come to Australia’.  Comments like these, and the claims that they are perfectly ‘normal’, have many marks of rising anti-Semitism in 19th and 20th century Europe. Focus on a particular ethnic and religious immigrant group directs people’s energies there, connects them to various social ills, makes them a scapegoat, and, before you know it, they get blamed for everything. It is an extremely cheap political move.

Rewriting the Story of the ‘West’

At this point, I would like to introduce three theoretical perspectives, two of them milder and within a liberal framework, the third stronger. The first comes from Edward Said’s well-known study, Orientalism. Despite its flaws (but is not every classic flawed in some way?), some of the points he makes cannot be ignored.

In this light, the question becomes: why should the cartoons have caused such a response? Is it because of Muslim intolerance? Oversensitivity? Provocation by some naïve and parochial journalists? After all, they are twelve cartoons of quite poor quality in a little-known newspaper in a small country.

Said’s main point is that the ‘West’ – by which he means the North Atlantic world and its imperial spread – has developed a certain image of the Orient, the East, the Arab world, call it what you will. That image is one of backwardness and corruption, chaos and disorder, a place with an ancient history but where nothing changes, societies where brutality, violence and danger are everyday realities, but also a highly exotic and sensual part of the world. So the East was both seductive and dangerous. The Orient became defined as a place isolated from the mainstream of human progress in the sciences, arts, and commerce. Hence, we now have an image of the East that focuses on ‘its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habit of inaccuracy, its backwardness’.  How did this image arise?

A major factor, argues Said, is what used to be called Oriental Studies, which set out to study the languages, cultures and histories of places in the world colonised by European imperialism. In the words of Lord Curzon, a British Viceroy of India in the nineteenth century, this study of the Orient was crucial for maintaining the Empire: ‘our familiarity, not merely with the languages of the people of the East but with their customs, their feelings, their traditions, their history, and religion’ provided ‘the sole basis upon which we are likely to be able to maintain in the future the position we have won’.

Further, Orientalism was crucial for Europe’s image of itself: ‘It has less to do with the Orient than it does with “our” world’.  Thus, the ‘East’ becomes the opposite of Europe. If the North Atlantic is innovative, dynamic and expanding, then the East is old, static and unchanging. In other words, the Orient became Europe’s alter ego, its opposite onto which all of Europe’s negative feelings about itself could be dumped. This gave Europe – a late comer on the scene and desperate to claim its importance – a sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority and therefore the ‘spectator, the judge and jury of every facet of Oriental behaviour’. Thus, in 1810, the French author Chateaubriand called upon Europe to teach the Orient the meaning of liberty which he, and everyone after him, believed the Orientals knew nothing about. It was Europe’s task to redeem a fallen Orient. It is no coincidence that current foreign policy statements – advocating ‘freedom and democracy’ – from the United States and other Western European countries sound remarkably similar.

This image of the ‘East’, especially Arabs and Islamic culture, is false, argues Said. It is based on the false idea that there is something that can be called ‘Islamic society’, the ‘Arab world’, the ‘Oriental mind’. Even further, it is assumed that Islam has possessed this unity since it began, and all of it boils down to the Qur’an. It ignores the debates, politics, differences and histories of very different groups in nation-states such as Indonesia, or Malaysia, or Egypt, and so on.

What Said has done is rewrite part of one of the big stories or grand narratives, namely the history of the ‘West’. Thus, the ‘West’ has not arisen out of its own hard work and good fortune, but on the shoulders of the ‘Orient’. In its desperate effort to distinguish itself from a ‘Muslim East’, the ‘Christian West’ protests too much, for it could not have become what it is without the ‘Muslim East’. After all, was it not the expulsion of the Moors from Spain (signalled by the fateful year of 1492 when the last Muslim outpost of Grenada was captured) that marks the beginning of the Christian West? It could only claim such a status by trying to expel what was deep within it.

It seems to me that the cartoons controversy is a signal of a much larger rewriting of that story. The controversy has obviously been a point where so many pent-up feelings could be expressed on all sides. But it is also a sign that Muslims of very different types are rewriting their own history, especially its colonial history, and ‘Western’ commentators do not like what they are seeing.

There Is No Such Thing as Free Speech

The second theoretical point comes from Stanley Fish’s book, There is No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too.  Fish’s argument is helpful to some extent. To begin with, Fish argues that free speech as it is usually understood does not exist. There is always some restraint on free speech.

For example, a cartoon ridiculing or insulting the Queen of Denmark would never get published, for that is an offence, nor would an article that advocated assassinating the Prime Minister. In Australia, Denmark and other nation-states there are widespread laws against encouraging and organizing what we now call ‘terrorism’ and the secret police have increasingly wide-ranging powers to arrest people, hold them without trial, listen to phone calls, interrogate people in secret, and so on. In many countries, there are laws against hate-speech, or inciting violence and intolerance against other groups. We censor what books and films are appropriate for different age groups. Even though there is very poor quality pornography on some European cable television channels, most people would not think it appropriate viewing for children. In other words, every society, every person, exercises some form of censorship.

We censor ourselves, we censor others, others censor us. The important question is then not a debate over free speech, but what types of censorship are helpful. Would you rather have the rich and powerful media moguls (the corporate media) along with big business dictating what you can and cannot do? Or would you rather have laws that focus on common people, on workers and farmers? Fish has a point: we always speak and act with some form of restraint, some form of censorship, and without it we would not survive.

There is, however, another point here that goes beyond Fish. Let us go back to the cartoons controversy: what is the great opposite of free speech? Totalitarianism. We often find the argument that if freedom of speech is compromised, then we end up with totalitarianism, whether it is under a dictator like Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein, or under the ‘democracy’ of Donald Trump? So we end up with the opposition between freedom of speech and dictatorship. But that is rather unrealistic. Is there not a lot of middle ground between the two? If absolute free speech is hard to come by, then so are absolute dictatorships. Most countries that advocate some form of the liberal notion of freedom of speech are actually in this middle ground.

Third, the whole debate over free speech assumes that we begin with the private individual and his or her rights. But what if we do not? Or at least, what if we realise that this idea has its own history? The notion of a private individual comes out of the whole movement of the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the rise of capitalism. It is the great discovery of philosophers like Kant, Rousseau, Hume and Descartes. But what if we begin not with the individual and how she or he fits into society, but with a social collective first and then to the individual as a social being? Then we would begin our debates with the discussion of responsible restraint, or responsible censorship.

Exclusions of Liberalism

The third theoretical observation builds on the previous two and draws upon Domenico Losurdo’s insightful study, Liberalism: A Counter-History.  Losurdo’s main argument is that liberalism – the source of slogans like ‘freedom of speech’ – is built on a systemic exclusion. The claim to ‘freedom for all’ depends on a crucial restriction of what counts as ‘all’. If you do not fit the definition of ‘all’, then you do not count.

In a little more detail, Losurdo points out that liberal freedom is not merely limited in extent (which would then simply entail an extension of such freedom) but that it is structurally geared to exclude significant groups from ‘freedom’. In fact, it requires such exclusions in order to constitute ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. For example, we find John Stuart Mill, who observes in On Liberty, that ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians’, for liberty is only for ‘human beings in the maturity of their faculties’.  As for the rest, they are little superior to the animals. Or John Locke, who observed that slavery in the context of freedom is perfectly justified. In drafting the constitution of Carolina, Locke wrote: ‘Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever’.  In other words, liberalism and repression are two sides of the same coin; ‘freedom’ is inseparable from exclusion and dispossession, for the former relies on the latter to function.

Losurdo explores this contradiction throughout the troubled history of liberalism, analysing the necessary role of beggars, vagrants, workhouses, white servants, kidnapping of poor children for the army and for colonial labour, and even the tendency towards eugenics in the development of the liberalism of England and the United States. He traces the oppression inherent in liberalism’s focus on the individual and the growth of master-race democracy in Europe as it engaged in colonial expansion. But let me use his example of today’s beacon of ‘liberty’: liberalism developed in the white community of the United States in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’, he did so as a slave owner. So also was George Washington, as were the other members of the team given responsibility for the declaration, as was John Madison who wrote the constitution, as were the presidents of the United States for 32 of its first 36 years. Indeed, for them a liberal and tolerant society was one that excluded the fanaticism of the slavery abolitionists.

How could they do make such bold claims while being apparent hypocrites? ‘All men are created equal’ relied on a crucial restriction of the sense of ‘all’, which did not include slaves, women and ‘inferior’ folk. One cannot understand ‘American liberty’ without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other. However, the understanding of freedom is subtle and the line always shifts; as some groups may over time be included (slaves, workers, women), others are excluded. For instance, during the so-called Progressive Era, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous ‘democratic’ reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret ballot, primaries, referenda, and so on. Yet they all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to assimilate Indigenous people and deprive them of their residual lands. So also with the treatment of ‘rogues’ or ‘pariahs’ outside the United States: once declared a ‘rogue’ state, the world’s ‘oldest democracy’ and ‘model for the world’ can crush these ‘barbarians’ in the name of ‘freedom’ Of course, the actual ‘rogue’ in these situations is the United States itself.

The very possibility of the liberal idea of ‘freedom’ is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority. For Losurdo, this is nothing less than ‘the community of the free and its dictatorship over peoples unworthy of liberty’.

What are the implications for the Danish cartoons debate of a decade ago, if not similar controversies since then? It concerns more than a form of Orientalism or responsible censorship, however important these issues might be. Instead, it becomes another instance where ‘freedom’ is restricted in its very definition. Thus, the ‘freedom’ in question is only for the privileged within the horizon of liberal democracy. Others – the world’s majority – outside that horizon must conform to its demands. If they do not, then they can be ridiculed, condemned and rejected as yet more barbarians at the gates.


4 thoughts on “On Free Speech: Religion, Politics and Twelve Cartoons

  1. That must have been an interesting trip, Roland. My take on it at the time was more or less what you wrote here.
    “But it seems to me that these criticisms have a point, especially regarding anti-Semitism. If there are laws restricting what can be said about one religious group, then freedom of speech has its limits. This liberal idea is predicated on limitations and exclusion.”
    I think I said at the time that it was ‘one rule for one, and one or the others.’
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. I say there’s no such thing as democracy either, at least in the way it is commonly understood in the West – in the sense of bourgeois democracy. It’s a myth and a hoax.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.