Is There Nothing Sacred?

By Bashy Quraishy*
Feb 02, 2006

I have lived in Denmark for over 35 years. During most of this time, I have enjoyed all the great traditions of this lovely country that I used to call my second home. I have always appreciated values which have made Denmark famous all over the globe ó democracy, humanism, solidarity with the underprivileged, human rights, respectful dialogue, and non-violent protests. On top of all this, one quality which I have most benefited from, without fear or harassment, is the freedom of expression.

During most of the 25 years of my political work, the process of criticizing the powerful and the mighty, then being criticized in return, went on until 2003 when Ekstra Bladet carried out a deliberate character assassination campaign against me, through front page lies and manipulation of words. It was that horrible experience that made me realize the power of the media and how the noble concept of freedom of expression was being monopolized by some arrogant and unprincipled journalists who had no scruples in destroying an individual's lifetime work.

I could see that an irresponsible section of the media succeeded in creating a poisonous atmosphere in public debates. The Danish People's Party's Islamophobic attitudes and statements, as well as the society's acceptance of racist utterances, were dutifully transmitted under the banner of the freedom of expression. It created conflicts and hatred against most ethnic groups, especially Muslim communities. The more one explained, the more xenophobic response one felt and saw.

I was so disheartened with the situation that I moved many years of struggle for the rights of ethnic minorities in Denmark to elsewhere in the EU. Since that time, I have traveled all over the European continent, giving lectures, speaking at conferences, organizing NGOs, and interacting with EU institutions. This work has come to fruition. International media, EU politicians, educational institutions, European organizations, and the ordinary public now know what is happening in Denmark.

I and many others like myself have had to inform the outside world in order to put pressure on the authorities in Denmark and to return it to the path of civilized behavior. It is heartwarming to note that the harsh tone of minority debates is now being questioned by intellectuals, authors, priests, doctors, former ambassadors, and some responsible section of the media in Danish society. Unfortunately, the prime minister still refuses to come out clean and to correct the mistakes he has committed. He continues to insist that the debate tone is fine and he has no complaints about it.

When audiences abroad ask me why Denmark has become such an unfriendly place to live, I never blame Christianity or Jesus, nor do I put down Denmark or the Danish people. I just use my freedom of speech to inform and criticize Denmark's treatment of ethnic minorities. It is interesting that Mr. Bertel Haarder, who until recently was the minister of integration and who never gets tired of lecturing ethnic minorities about respecting the freedom of speech, demanded an apology from me for speaking my mind about Denmark to the foreign media. Maybe he believes that a person with a Muslim background should be grateful to the country instead of just being critical.

Questions thus arise: Have not the good-natured Danish politicians witnessed the rising tide of Islamophobia in the West, especially in Denmark? And how has the media misused the concept of the freedom of expression to insult and degrade not only the Muslim communities, but to a larger degree, the religion of Islam, the Qur'an, and even the Prophet Muhammad.

I wonder how a self-respecting politician can miss such a drastic development?

Could it be that Danish politicians, most of the media, and the people in the street have no qualm about calling Muslims nazis, terrorists, fascists, and many other insulting names? Even the Parliament's podium is being used for such attacks. Anyone with a modicum of common sense can notice that slowly but steadily, all discussions about ethnic minorities, their position in the society, their socio-economic problems, and their integration have been termed as Islamic issues. The whole racist discourse has moved from being ethnic or racial to cultural assimilation and religious compatibility. This gives free rein to everyone to say and write whatever he or she pleases under the guise of the freedom of expression.

Another Fundamental Question

This development raises another fundamental question. Is nothing except the freedom of expression sacred? The answer can be found in the sad and dangerous situation created by the largest daily newspaper, Jyllands Posten. It went one step further when it instigated the commissioning of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad to test the limits of the freedom of expression. The result was that 12 well-known artists drew very insulting sketches of the Prophet, which the newspaper published on September 30, 2005.

Fortunately, contrary to some people's expectations, the Muslim communities in Denmark peacefully protested against this uncalled-for provocation. When I saw these caricatures, I felt hurt, angry, and at a loss to understand Jyllands Posten's intentions. Many ambassadors from Muslim countries also felt this way and requested a meeting with Prime Minster Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Their goal was not to discuss the issue of the freedom of expression with him, but rather to explain to him how they felt about the issue. The response of the Danish authorities and the media was an arrogant defense of the newspaper and its right to insult whomever it pleases. Muslim communities were politely told to shut up and to accept the treatment they were given.

International media has also taken notice of the Danish Islamophobic atmosphere. Besides the huge outcry in the Arab and other Muslim countries, members of the media all over the world are criticizing Denmark. The latest to join this endless line of criticism are the International Herald Tribune (31 Dec 2005), The Economist (7 Jan 2005), New York Times (8 Jan 2006), and the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet (17 Jan 2006).

The Danish government's response has been its same old mantra: "The surrounding world does not understand us. We are democratic and want to protect our freedom of speech."

I wish to say to those who have a desire to use, or who have used in their comments, uncivilized language about the Qur'an, the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, or other religions, "Please use your logic and don't be ignorant. By abusing Islam, you are not serving the purpose of a dialogue between different communities in Denmark or the Western world."

There is a big difference between criticism of Muslims, Islamic practices, and even the religion of Islam, and publishing insulting cartoons of the Prophet which portray him as a terrorist and an oppressor of women. Because the Prophet is not around to give his reaction (although I am sure he would have forgiven Jyllands Posten), the duty falls upon his followers to react. It is very logical. They have a right to react in a peaceful manner, which they did. Some 1.4 billion Muslims love and respect their Prophet Muhammad as much, and if not more, than Denmark values the freedom of expression.

While talking about the freedom of expression, it must be remembered that it has never been unlimited or unrestricted, nor was it intended to give a license to the media to insult, degrade, and make fun of others. It is governed by the law and should be practiced with responsibility. The freedom of expression was created basically to protect the average person in the street who might wish to raise his or her voice against the power elite. Article 29 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that too.

In any democratic society, it is the duty of the state to safeguard the rights of its minorities, be they ethnic or religious minorities. Here Denmark is failing. Of course, Jyllands Posten can print whatever it likes, but accordingly, Muslims should be able to drag the publication to the courts. But for those of you who do not know the Danish Courts, it is next to impossible to win a case of such nature.

The Danish system values the freedom of speech over the religious or ethnic rights of Muslims. On the other hand, if a cartoonist made fun of the Dalai Lama or the Holocaust, praised Hitler, or attacked the gay community, he or she would be dealt with by the Danish authorities and the legal system in a quick manner. And I would be very happy when such persons are dealt with and punished. By focusing on and attacking only Islam, the Danish media has proven its enmity towards Muslims, which is historically based.

There are other examples in Denmark, such as when an artist drew a dirty painting of a naked Jesus and it was taken away immediately, and rightly so. Denmark has laws against blasphemy that protect the honor of the regent and private citizens. Law 266b forbids insulting racial and degrading public remarks and propaganda against a group of persons on the basis of their religion.

In Denmark, the media also exercises self-censorship. For example, even if Jyllands Posten had the information, it would never write about a minister being a victim of depression or about a minister who wears ladies' clothes and has a male lover, or an ex-minister who used to regularly beat up his wife. Now, when Jyllands Posten does show restraint in such private issues, what purpose did it serve by intentionally provoking the Muslim communities? By the way, the very same Jyllands Posten that claims to champion the freedom of expression for artists, has for years refused my articles. Some of my articles were written in response to attacks on my person. I had to threaten the paper with a "right to reply" lawsuit before I succeeded in getting only one response published in the paper. I also know many other individuals whose articles were rejected because they had criticized a particular publication.

So much for the freedom of expression.

I propose that we all step back and ask ourselves, did this cartoon series help the integration of minorities, did it make radicals more mature, did it give the ignorant Danes more knowledge of Islam, or did it bring people together? If the answer is yes, then I welcome these cartoons. If the answer is no, then we should ask ourselves whose political agenda did this provocation serve.

* Bashy Quraishy is the President of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), Belgium, and a member of the EU Commissionís High Level Group on Integration,Belgium.


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