NEWS

Distinguishing freedom from license

he publication of cartoons of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad by the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten last October and the recent reprints in many European daily newspapers have provoked a violent series of reactions. The most direct reaction was the immediate protest by many Arab governments, the attacks on European embassies in the Middle East and the escalation of a crisis whose consequences remain to be seen. The Libyan and Saudi Arabian governments withdrew their ambassadors from Copenhagen, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were attacked by demonstrators in Syria, Kabul and Lebanon, and so were the EU offices in Gaza. Danish products were withdrawn from superstores in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia and Yemen, and the Danish dairy company Arla estimates that it is losing 1.5 million euros per day. These were the immediate and direct repercussions. The second, indirect reaction was the opening of the debate about the limits on freedom of speech and whether the Danish editor should have published the controversial cartoons or not. Some argue that there should be no limits imposed on freedom of speech. Europe supports (and exports) fundamental human rights and freedoms, among which is the right of expression. Nobody – not even a government – has the right to impose any kind of restriction on the freedom of expression. Of course Europe is a region where freedom of expression and speech are and should be respected, practiced and defended. However, there is an additional – possibly more sober approach – to this issue. The Middle East has been a region that Western powers have been trying to exploit in one way or another since the end of the 19th century. At its heart one finds the Palestinian people, who have been struggling for their right to an independent state for 60 years, fighting against what has turned out to be a militarily superior Israel and a superpower. Since 9/11, this superpower has proclaimed a war against terrorism, viewed by many as a veiled war against Islam. Amid all this, a divided Europe is attempting to form a consistent stance, varying between supporting US policy, maintaining a balanced approach between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and implementing the so-called Barcelona Process, which is a soft and civilized promotion of Europe’s interests in the region. On top of the deeply rooted dissatisfaction and anger felt by many European and Arab Muslims come the events of later years: the pictures from the Abu Ghraib prisoner tortures, the debate about the Muslim dress code in French schools, the overzealous security controls and checks suffered by profiled Muslims and Arabs in airports across Europe. When thousands of Muslims – living in or passing through Europe – are repeatedly treated with suspicion and discrimination both by state authorities and the media, it seems too optimistic to expect that the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad will be viewed as light-hearted forms of satire. Unfortunately, the West’s relations with the Muslim world are not at their best. This is partly due to the international reality after the Iraq war, and partly due to Europe’s difficulty in handling its economic and migration issues. And, for better or worse, Islam forbids any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. So, to the question «Where do we set the limits to the freedom of speech?» the answer may well be «One’s freedom ends where another’s begins.» And as far as the Danish editor is concerned, this does not have to be viewed as censorship or even self-restriction. It could just be seen as a modicum of common sense and the realization that we are all part of a global but widely diversified community. After all, as Bernard Shaw said, «Liberty means responsibility.» (1) Elli Siapkidou is research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).