The following should be read alongside the blog entry on Obama’s speech in Cairo, where Professor Bhagwati criticizes Obama for not appealing to the tolerant tradition within Islam itself, especially in Andalusian Spain, noting that intolerance was in fact introduced by the Catholics instead.
It is well-known that leading Swedish newspapers such as Dagens Nyheter reprinted in 2007 the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks’ cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a “roundabout” dog, familiar to tourists as a street display in Sweden, in defiance of the outcry and death threats by members of zealous Muslim groups (not to be confused with moderate Muslims, of course). Their actions were a heartwarming affirmation of the principle of freedom of expression that is among the highest values that the West embraces and many in the East consider to be part of universal human rights today.
So was the refusal of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt to condemn the cartoonist. Equally admirable was Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Denmark, when mocking cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad were published in Jyllands Posten in September 2005, who refused to yield to demands, accompanied by threats of economic retribution against their companies and incendiary mayhem against their citizens and embassies, from the Muslim streets and from non-secular Islamic governments for censure and censorship against their newspapers.
In each case, however, the principled defense of the right of free expression was largely left to these small Scandinavian countries, with little support from the leading newspapers in the English-speaking world, which ran stories on the episodes but did not reprint the cartoons. Nor did the Western governments rush to declare their solidarity with these governments by actual actions that would cushion them against the threatened economic retribution. As these episodes increase, it is time to develop an agenda of such solidarity and support.
The failure of the English-language newspapers, including in the United States the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and in England the Financial Times, which are passionate defenders of the right to publish, to reprint the cartoons has been defended as a desire not to offend the Muslim readers. But newspapers surely offend some religious group or the other all the time. Besides, I know of no instance where a major newspaper has folded preemptively against other militant groups threatening it with retribution unless it did a mea culpa and worse.
Indeed, one might add that the American Civil Liberties Union in the United States, the pride of American liberalism, has successfully defended the right of neo-Nazis to march when legitimately-offended Jewish groups have tried to ban such marches, even though the charge of anti-semitism is a dreaded form of retribution.
But even if these newspapers were to reprint the Danish and Swedish cartoons, there is the problem that many Muslims will not make the distinction between our being anti-Muslim and pro-freedom-of-expression. So, the solution has to be to print, alongside these cartoons, also some of the most offensive cartoons against Catholics and against Hindus, for instance, which are readily available. That would drive home the point that the important issue is, not hostility to Islam, but affirmation of the Freedom of Expression, on which we will not compromise; that, mockery, jest and ridicule against any and every religion are part of the fabric of our life that we will defend without compromise.
So, while the World Association of Newspapers did issue a statement in 2007 condemning death threats against the cartoonist Vilks and supporting the right to publish of the Swedish newspaper Nerikes Allehanda that originally printed the offensive cartoons, we need a different type of action.
I suggest that the media in all the democratic countries unite and declare a day in September when the General Assembly meets, as the Freedom of Expression day, and publish in unison a common set of cartoons against different religions with a ringing statement that no newspaper or magazine will ever be allowed to be singled out for retribution for its adherence to the important value of freedom of expression.
But we also need to stand in solidarity, with concrete actions, by the spirited and principled leaders such as Prime Ministers Reinfeldt and Rasmussen who refuse to bend before the threats to their countries. Thus, BBC News reported on 9th September 2006 that Muslim boycotts of Danish goods had reduced Danish exports by 15.5% between February and June 2006.
But should the United States and Britain, among others, let these nations twist in the wind, even profiting as their own exporters move in to fill the vacuum left by the shrunken exports of the targeted nations? An affirmation of solidarity which says instead that other secular and democratic nations will financially make up for the economic losses imposed by such retribution would go a long way towards showing to these groups that all of us share the same fundamental values regarding freedom of expression and will stand together in solidarity.
Equally, these other leaders such as President Obama and Prime Minister Brown, indeed many others, should follow in the footsteps of these remarkable Scandinavian leaders and endorse Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s eloquent words; “We are… eager to stand up for freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the constitution and comes naturally to us, and which ensures that we do not make political decisions about what gets published in the newspapers. I want to make sure we keep things that way.”