Such a hoo-har at the moment about some cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad that have been printed and re-printed in several European newspapers this week. The media is full of folk decrying this ‘blasphemous outrage’ while others demand that the freedom of the press, and free speech in general, be protected at all and any costs. But how free is the freedom of expression?
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
Under that guidance anything and everything goes; we have anarchy. And some might find that attractive. But there has been something of a habit over the last decades to insist on rights but ignore totally the incumbent obligations therein implied. To achieve any sort of balance, rights have to come with obligations. A right of free speech is balanced with an obligation to use that right with honour, to avoid wherever possible, insult.
Political cartoons and charactures are something of a British tradition, going back centuries to Hogarth. But there has always been a relevancy of message, even when depicting the King taking a crap (though my history is too poor to recall what this was now!). The cartoons of Muhammad don’t seem to have that relevancy. I’ve seen them and, although I’m not about to further the insult by printing them here, you can google for them if you wish. By drawing Muhammad wearing a bomb for a turban, the only likely message in the current political environment is that Islam is all about bombing and terrorism. I’m sure it’s not.
I got on my high horse not so long ago, angry at a Mac cartoon that came out after Pagan prisoner were allowed the tools of rite in their cells. It showed an apparent Pagan bowing down before a character so clearly drawn as the Christan devil – the scriptural epitomy of evil and disgusting perversion – that there was no ignoring the insult to Pagans and to paganism in general. I know of no Pagan who considers the deity(ies) they revere to have such ill-balanced attributes, and the cartoon could only reinforce the unfortunate stereotypes that have existed even fifty years after the repeal of the witchcraft act. I complained to the newspaper and to Mac himself, and received an apology of sorts.
I fully understand the insult Muslims feel over these cartoons. I also note with some pleasure that, thus far, no British newspaper has published what Eurpoean newspapers consider valid and relevant graphic editorial. But I also note that righteous indignation can so easily inflame and become irrational mob fury. Let sense prevail; let’s remember that free speech always has a cost.
technorati tags: islam cartoon free speech