Saturday, February 27, 2010

Danish Newspaper Apologises For Printing of Cartoons

Adding a fresh twist to the Sensitivity versus Freedom of Speech debate, the Danish newspaper Politiken, which published the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad with bomb-shaped turban and the like, apologised for any offences it may have caused. In fact, the apology comes after it has reprinted one of the cartoons, originally published in 2006 by another newspaper, after an attempt was made on the life of Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist.

The newspaper which originally printed the cartoons, Jyllands-Posten, criticized Politiken's apology, calling it a 'pathetic prostrating in front of a Saudi Lawyer' which deserves 'the first prize in stupidity'. Kurt Westergaard called it 'a setback for the freedom of speech' and the Danish Union of Journalists called the move 'kneeling before the opponents of the freedom of speech'. Such criticism comes despite the fact that Jyllands-Posten itself apologised for printing the cartoons back in 2006, and the opponents of the freedom of speech being referred to here are none but a few lawyers.

This opens up, yet again, the debate of cultural sensitivity versus the freedom of speech, and the role of newspapers in general. Being a blogger, I obviously thrive on the freedom of speech, and would not like any infringement on my rights to say things. However, even in this blog, which is only scarcely read, I am conscious enough about the sensibilities of my readers and my responsibility as a publisher, even to such a limited audience. I shall not, for example, write about how to commit suicide, even if I come across some material, because I believe the responsibility towards the wider society transcends the mere individual freedom of speech.

Now, unquestioning acceptance of such responsibility may thwart attempts of all change, and undermine the quest of justice and fairness I hold so dear, because social norms will always demand preservation of status quo and will not allow anyone to rock the boat. But, assumption of responsibility is not about conformance; it is essentially about judgement that every individual should exercise. In fact, I would argue that development of such judgement is an essential professional responsibility of any publisher. Bloggers are a far more diffused, diverse community, yet they must show some responsibility towards their audience; and a newspaper, which is a professionalized trade, needs a far higher level of judgement than the bloggers.


From this point of view, I do think while publishing of the cartoons may have been perfectly within the tenets of freedom of speech, publishing them may have been culturally insensitive and therefore, of poor judgement. And, even if the first such effort can be passed on as a mistake due to lack of cultural understanding, reprinting them, after they have seen to be causing so much offence, was anyway an act of sensationalizing the issue. Thus, I do think an apology was in order, and I do not see why Politiken apology is drawing so much criticism.


Except of course the fact that the Europeans drifted further apart from Middle Eastern sensitivities in the last four years. I do think they have, and the current recession, the failure in the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the apparent ascendancy of Asian powers, have made Europe look inward. One can clearly see the rise of racial intolerance on the streets, and the civil society is reluctantly accepting the ideas of conservatism and searching for elusive 'British', 'French', 'Italian' ways of life. Europe as a liberal melting pot is giving way to the idea of Europe as an aging, standstill society, which must preach to the world toleration but will not tolerate variations itself.


The whole cartoon debate, ironically, comes just after Libya's Colonel Quaddafi declared a holy war on Switzerland. The primary reason why he was furious is because the Swiss has banned minarets being built, in order to preserve their national identity. The Swiss are, of course, following the French who have first banned headscarves, and now imposed a fine on anyone wearing a burkha in public. In the European conception of reality, the states banning things are on the side of freedom of speech though; they are just preserving their cultural sensitivities. However, the rules are different for non-europeans, who must comply to euro-centric values, and tolerate just anything Europeans throw at them.


It seemed that many people in Europe wonders why Muslims feel so offended with these cartoons, without appreciating the fact that this is exactly the type of religious stereotyping, which fuelled anti-semitism at the beginning of last century, with disastrous consequences. The cartoons of Jews as blood-suckers, made with the same sense of freedom of speech, were taken as harmless jokes, without appreciating the offence it would have caused. European society, since then, became even more isolated from the world as it hid itself within its own Euro-centric conception of the world, while everyone else started discovering their identities afresh and started seeing history and culture with new eyes. This is not a clash of civilization as people conceive it to be; it is just the failure of European liberals a more diverse world, where many different conceptions of freedom and justice are possible. And, in this case, it is the European liberals who appear humourless and fail to appreciate the irony of the connection between French banning of headscarves and Saudi anger at the cartoons.

And, before we end, a note on the Clash of Civilizations, which is perceived to be the reason behind so much fuss. I must admit that I do not believe in the clash of civilizations theory, which is so popular in Europe. I do not think the British Muslims I know are any less British than the British Catholics, or for that matter, British Hindus. I thought the separation of the Church and the state has happened a long time back in Europe, and do not see any reason why that needs to be brought back. Besides, my friends in Dubai, Egypt and elsewhere in Middle East and South Asia, are just as tolerant, educated and decent as anyone in Europe. As Amartya Sen observed, I do not see their religious identity dominating the other facets of their identity, and much less becoming a civilization identity. In fact, the media's tendency to see the world in terms of competing civilizations is a reality that they are trying to create, rather than reflect on. And, this curious linking up of culturally insensitive cartoons with the idea of freedom of speech shows that attempt once again.

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