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Freedom of Speech and Religious Tolerance

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In the last few weeks, there has been quite a debate in Denmark and in various Muslim communities around the world. The debate goes to whether freedom of speech outweighs the need for tolerance toward religious communities, or at least that’s the debate among some journalists and scholars in Denmark; the debate amongst the politicians and the religious groups is very different one.

The story is quite simple to begin with. One of the big four Danish newspapers, Jyllands Posten, posted an article with drawings of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The article was, according the newspaper’s representatives, an attempt to kick start a debate on freedom of speech in modern democracies. The result was a mixed one, since most people at first didn’t pay much attention to the drawings, but soon there was an outcry from some Muslim communities in Denmark, arguing that, as the Koran states, to picture the holy prophet is forbidden, and that the newspapers’ article was an insult toward all Muslims. They demanded that the article be retracted.

For obvious reasons, the newspaper refused to retract anything that was written in the name of free speech, with the result that the religious groups went to the government in hope of persuading them to act on the insult and to denounce the article. Again, for obvious reasons, the government did not comply with the demands. After this, the conflict moved out of Denmark and into many Muslim countries, where diplomats are seeking meetings with the Danish government to discuss the matter on a political level. The latest events have meant that athletes and artists are being advised to be cautious when traveling to Muslim countries, and that the Arab League has denounced the article and demanded to talk to the Danish government on the issue.

The situation has clearly gotten out of hand. Some radical clerics have made it their life’s work to fill people around the world with hate toward an intolerant nation which does not respect the values of Islam. Clearly, this is blowing things out of proportion, since most Danes have no interest whatsoever in doing so. Meanwhile, the case has become a domestic political hot topic, and the Danish government and the opposition are battling over how to manage the situation.

But let’s get back to the original question, that of free speech and tolerance toward religious groups. Which matters more in a modern democracy which is free of religious ties? *

The reason this question is so hard to give a clear-cut answer to is that we are truly democratic people. One the one hand, we treasure our right to express ourselves in any way we choose, and that we have the right say what we want. On the other hand, we have a profound respect toward people and a desire to respect and tolerate people that are not of the same religion, ethnicity or political beliefs as we are. This conflict between freedom of speech and tolerance towards minorities is central to the modern western democracy and the clash with “foreign” cultures and religions across Europe.

The debate that Jyllands Posten tried to kick-start got buried in an avalanche of political and religious nonsense. The debate is not embraced by many people and the problem persists because some people do not understand that freedom of speech is sacred, and that criticism does not necessarily mean disrespect. To picture Muhammad in drawings is illegal for Muslims to do, but in a democratic society, this can’t be illegal and can’t be outlawed. To answer things the way I see them, I would say that anyone who believes that to picture Muhammad is in violation of the Koran, you’re absolutely right. If you think that it is, or should be, illegal to do so in a democracy, you are absolutely wrong. Just like I hope you won’t burn crosses and Danish and American flags at rallies, I won’t display images of Muhammad. I have no desire to do so, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t because I don’t want offend anyone on that account. But I want the right to do so.


* The Danish state is not separated from the church the same way the United States government is. Despite the fact that there is freedom of religion, it is stated in the constitution that the official religion is Lutheran-Protestant Christianity, and that the royal family must be members of the national church.

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About Anders Williams

  • pogblog

    I’m all for being politically correct – which is just a formal phrase for being polite & thoughtful. But sometimes it’s hard to sort out the degree of sensitivity required in a public forum.

    At first thought tho, it seems that the advantage of a reasonably sensitive free speech as the highest value is that we do get to air the places where we have different fragilities. I am happy to know now that picturing Mohammad is rude or worse.

    As we get more global, sensitivities are going to clash, & perhaps instead of high (or the presently often fanatic) dudgeon, we could develop an obsidian humor, and just say, “Hey, my fellow planeteer, that sucks. Please desist –” instead of lashing out as if mortally offended?

    A very subtle subject, aw, — thanks for reminding us to think & feel yet more about it.

  • zingzing

    maybe it wasn’t the best idea to attack a religion’s beliefs… maybe take it down a level, you know, only offend a few million rather than 1 billion. just an idea. it was pretty damn ballsy though. hope if doesn’t totally backfire on them.

  • Christopher Rose

    Whilst we’re on the subject of sensitivity towards other people’s views, what’s the appropriate code of conduct for good, ethical and moral people who no more take religion seriously than they do astrology but are apparently supposed to treat laughable theories based on unsubstantiated rumours of the existence of seemingly omnipotent aliens thousands of years ago with respect?

    This is a more profound and serious question than it might at first appear…

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    “The debate that Jyllands Posten tried to kick-start got buried in an avalanche of political and religious nonsense.”

    If that is what you believe, Mr. Anders, you have NO understanding at all of the Wahhabi-influenced Moslems your government is trying to deal with. So far as they are concerned, you have nothing to offer them but your women, you conversion and/or your life.

    These are not my views. I’m just a Jew who writes from Jerusalem. They are the views of one of the most respected Sufi scholars of Islam, Sheikh Professor Abdulhadi Palazzi.

    What goes on in the minds of those who remonstrate with your government to show more ‘respect’ for Mohammed is something that the average Lutheran Protestant – or the average Jew, for that matter – has no concept of. These people are deadly serious in their beliefs. Serious enough that they will take your life if need be.

  • pogblog

    CRose — Actually as to astrology, Jung called astrology the collected wisdom of the ancients, and, just as Greek myths are exquisitely perceptive about the blueprints of human experience, template astrology (not the You’ll meet a tall dark handsome stranger tomorrow) is astonishingly useful in revealing patterns of human behavior, in showing how you grok your experience in a different way from me. It’s a very subtle mikrokaleidoscope. Anything that increases my appreciation for individual differences or anything that prys or jolts or cajoles me (or you) out of our conviction that our mode of perception is stone-tablet is stupendous.

    Ye gods, I too do get so sick of being bludgeoned by the religion-stricken. At least coffee-drinkers and cigarette smokers or heroin shooters don’t shove their addictive junk in my face. Religion is like sex — I’m not interested in yours.

  • Richard Brodie

    We have gotten along just fine here in the United States for our entire history, with various religions claiming that other religions are evil. I happen to have been raised as a Latter Day Saint. Other Christian religions do not hesitate to publish material calumniating my prophet, Joseph Smith, in the vilest imaginable terms. But no Mormon has ever gone whining to the government to ask for official condemnations, retractions, etc. And that is because of the special love and reverence we have for the freedoms embodied in the Constitution, whose framers we believe were inspired by God.

    I’m afraid that until and unless the Muslims are successful at attaining majority status in America, so that they can vote our Constitution out, and their Shariah law in, they’re going to have no choice but to respect the freedom, guaranteed by the First Amendment, which is sacred to all of our citizens, to be able to say ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING YOU WANT TO about any political or religious ideology, or about any political or religious group, or about any political or religious leader.

  • Waleed

    I am a Saudi muslim who started boycotting Danish products few days ago because of this issue. I think this makes my post interesting to hear, right? :)

    The issue is not cartoon or freedom of speech or that we Muslims cannot tolerate others opinions (though you will find Muslims who cannot tolerate others opinions).
    The issue is:
    – Deep profound insult of another religion beliefs
    – Whoever drew them know extremely well about that otherwise they would not say “testing Muslims tolerance”, or made the contest among 40 artists
    – Drawings depicted Mohammad in mockery way
    – Every muslim views it as a deep deliberate insult to his religion that crossed the red line
    – Not only that, but drawings depicted Mohammad as a terrorist, which has many many bigger implications of linking Islam to terrorism.
    – So, it is part of a hate campaign against Muslims that will do nothing more than increasing the gap between Muslims and western cultures.
    – We know that other groups got red-lines to certain issues that you will be criminilized if you tackled them in public. So, there is nothing as absolute freedom of speech.
    – Few years ago, some extreme muslims in Denmark distributed agreesive leaflets against Jews. The same day Prime minister condemned the incident, met with the Jews community and took actions.
    – In contrary, he ignored objections of 12 ambassadors of Muslim countries for 3 months as a “freedom of speech”.
    – The strange thing that Under the Danish Penal Code: Section 266b:
    Any person who publicly or with the intention of dissemination to a wide circle of people makes a statement or imparts other information threatening, insulting or degrading a group of persons on account of their race, color, national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation, shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
    – According to my humble knowledge, these drawings should be considered as crimes or at least taken very seriously. 1000 million muslim will agree on the opinion that these drawings meant profound insults.
    – Later on, when people started to dig deeper they found different quotes from the Queen of Denmark against Islam, the most famous was “We have to show our opposition to Islam” last April.
    – You won’t find muslims buy a lot the idea of “freedom or speech” for two reasons: first, we know that for certain topics, there are no tolerance in the west. Full stop.
    Second, freedom of speech is part of a bigger value that is “human rights”. These two words are not tangible at all to us when we hear it from the western world. We learned that any law or justification can be imposed dependin how strong you are, not how correct they are.
    – Yes, I agree that some Muslims have very low tolerance of freedom of speech and can’t accept others opinions, but this is not the issue here.
    – It does not take to be strict or relegious Muslim to be disgusted from these insults. You will find someone who drinks, have affairs, don’t pray and yet will be so stunned from these cartoons.
    – News came that 57% of Danish support the publishing of cartoons.
    – If it is “Freedom of Speech” and a matter of principle there, then simply it is “freedom of choice” here.

    – Just to conclude, of course, I am against threats, violence or any such actions against the newspaper. However, fanatic football fans all over the world do these things over football games. So, you would expect them from some people from the Muslim world, or any group of people when feel deeply insulted.
    – What I and many others hope, that nothing of that happen and the case will find its way to the court and judges.
    – With the new “global village” it is an absolute MUST to have “hate crime” laws in every country. As a Muslim I would express my feelings: “it hurts me deeply to see so many articles, media coverage, holywood movies, subliminal messages in holywood movies, everyday giving misleading opinions and false information about my beliefs and culture” these only helps to let the west hate Muslims who will retaliate, or the vice versa.

  • Christopher Rose

    I think any degree of tolerance of religion is an act of extreme kindness.

    Beyond all the competing dogmas battling for my “soul” (and will somebody please try to define this massively abused word) there is the gaping black hole at the centre of the whole subject: the complete and utter absence of any evidence whatsoever for the existence of “gods”.

    Until someone can provide that – or arrange a personal appearance by the super-natural one(s) – I for one will continue to regard all faithists as somewhere between slightly dotty, cruelly misled or dangerously confused. Whichever it is, it’s one of the greatest abuses of people’s natural reverence for the very palpable “miracle” of our presence here, our very existence.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    A pleasure to write to someone who is a neighbor but who will not allow me in his home, or his home country because I’m a Jew.

    Ahlan wus Ahlan,

    If I boycotted every group of people who insulted me and my people, and the figures of Moses, etc. the only thing I’d be importing from the outside world would be breadfruit from Micronesia – if it was ruled kosher.

    Breadfruit and falafel – some diet, eh?

    I suspect that the newspaper Jyllands Posten started this to make a point – that they are not under Sharia law.

    You are forbidden from depicting Mohammed. That is the law you and every other Moslem is expected to follow, particularly in countries under Sharia law. But I am not bound by that law. Neither are the Danes.

    Respect? It goes both ways, Waleed. You said it yourself.

    “Yes, I agree that some Muslims have very low tolerance of freedom of speech and can’t accept others opinions, but this is not the issue here.”

    This is the issue here. Full stop.

    If you want a global village with no hatred spread, your people will have to stop spreading hatred against mine. I am also part of that global village, and I won’t lie down and die just so that you won’t have to respect me.

    When I – or the editor of the Jyllands Posten – can sit and have tea in your home, there will be no caricatures or other depictions of the prophet.

    The point will have been made and there will be peace.

  • Richard Brodie


    Not only is the depiction of Mohammed forbidden in Islam, but you know very well that it is also forbidden to have ANY representation of a human being or animal in art (because supposedly only Allah can create these things, and for man to try and “create” them pictorially is an insult not merely to Mohammed, but to Allah himself!) It is also forbidden to have women heard speaking in public, and is considered especially offensive to hear them singing!

    So. If your [Deleted] Arab League wants to denounce this depiction of Mohammed, why aren’t they also calling for Denmark, and every other country in the world ufortunate enough to have a Muslim presence, to shut down all of their Museums and Opera Houses – as well as seeking to have all Michaelangelo’s statuary, Rembrandts’s paintings, and Verdi’s operatic scores destroyed?

    Come on. Let’s have a little honest consistency here! Show us the full and true face of your “religion”.

  • waleed

    I am discussing here an insult and hate crimes against another group beliefs, irregardless whether you agree on these beliefs or not. And what I am referring is to a penal code that already exists in the Danish law.

    < >
    Nobody can prevent you from entering my country for being a Jew or any other religion. If you are an Israeli, then our countries don’t have diplomatic relagions. By the way, didn’t Israel kicked out 70% of Palestinians out of their lands in 1948? Killed many others? Don’t allow them to move in their own borders freely? Ignored every UN resolution regarding these things? Building settlements and homes in their lands, before after and during every peace talk? Anyhow, the list is too long to be posted here.

    We do respect your religion and we have no hate towards it.

    Talking about insult, we are not talking about any insult here, we are talking about the profound deep ones beyond red lines. Jews have thier own red lines in every media that no one can ross.

    Talking about normal insults, ehhem, there are 1000s of sites, papers, movies, cartoons, public statements all you can name it that insult our people and religion everyday, most of them misleading or lies.

    Most of people read about Islamic countries from writers who never been there and about Islam from anti-islam writers.

    Just to give you a simple example, I worked with a lot of western expats in gulf states. All of them told me how different the Middle East looks very different from the image that was depicted from the media from away.

    Talking about tolerance with freedom of speech, again, there are certain topics in the west that people cannot tackle. And, there are topics here in our countries regarding the west, we cannot talk about them. Examples, few TV shows and songs in the Arab world were forced to be stopped cozz of American pressure. Al Jazeera was the first Arabic channel to dare to speak about things that US don’t like to hear. Al Jazeera channel office in Afghanistan was hit twice in two different years by American missile (by mistake). Al Jazeera channel in Iraq was hit by American missile (by mistake), one reporter died. Then the big scandal of Busch memo to Blair to bomb Al Jazeera headquarter in Qatar. By the way, Qatar was the country in the Middle East that allowed US forces to fly from to bomb Iraq.


    < < but you know very well that it is also forbidden to have ANY representation of a human being or animal in art …. It is also forbidden to have women heard speaking in public, and is considered especially offensive to hear them singing!>>
    If you visit every corner of the arab and muslim world you will find singers, women singers and art representations!!!!!

    < >
    you will be surprised that many western people who converted into Islam or at least have very strong ties with them used to say the same. When the had the chance to know real muslims or read from credible sources, they totally changed their opinions.

    < >
    Yes, you were right, if you were talking about the image depicted in western and in particular the american media, then you didn’t see the real face of it.

    The first word of my religion, the first word of Quran start with “read” and “pen”. My religion teach me to read and get educated and look for facts and get convinced about islam through more education and science. There are many scientific evidence in the Quran that caused many professors to convert to Islam when they studied the Quran. Main reason of their conversion was the logical and rational evidence, logic and encouragement of science they found in this religion. Many of them came to teach in Arab universities when they have the time, chance and sources to know the true face of Islam.

    The true face of my religion demand me to respect christianity and judiasm and believe in their prophets and books. This why many people who converted to Islam were priests who were preaching for christianity and studied the quran to find its weaknesses and mistakes. They found it amazing in how they respect other prophets more than christianity and judiasm themselves.

    The true face of my religion calls of extreme equality between all people, no matter of their race, colour, gender background or anything. This why you will see many converts were black americans who found there something they were really missing.

    The true face of my religion calls for respect of women (forget about all of the propaganda about women in islam). As of today, Islam is growing fast in Europe and most of the converts are women who were impressed by this religion and its view to women compared to other religions.

    The true face of my religion does not call me to hate anybody else. This why when American forces came in 1991 for the Gulf War, 3000 soldiers converted into Islam within few months of staying.

    The true face of my religion tells me how to deal with minorities from other religions who is living with them (if I hurt any of them is like i hurt the prophet)

    There are many true faces of my religion that don’t find its voice to the media that you know.
    Anyhow, I stopped by just to post the other side view.

  • Richard Brodie

    waleed says:

    If you visit every corner of the arab and muslim world you will find singers, women singers and art representations!!!

    You seem to be almost proud of these apostates from the true teachings of the Prophet (pbuh).

    (from the USC Compendium of Muslim Texts)

    On the authority of Abu Hurairah (ra) it is reported that the Messenger of Allah (saas) said:

    And who is more unjust than those who try to create the likeness of My creation?

    The most severely punished of people on the Day of Resurrection will be those who try to make the like of Allah’s creation.

    Every picture maker is in the Fire. A soul will be placed in every picture made by him and it will punish him in the Hell-fire.

    So picturing human beings in art is the worst of all possible sins, deserving of the “most severe punishment”.

    I notice you only said “art representations”. You didn’t say “art containing representations of people”. Is that because you know very well that such art is forbidden?

    And so I repeat. If there is no sin worse than this direct offense to Allah, why do Muslims not complain about THAT, but instead get into a big uproar about a considerably less serious offense against Mohammed?

    Instead of running whining to the UN to try and get them to overturn Western Civilization’s most fundamental and cherished ideal, The Freedom of Speech, why don’t you instead seek to have all pictures of human beings forbidden from being put on public display in museums, churches, lobbies, magazines, billboards, and newspapers anywhere in the world?

  • Some Guy

    Its quite simple. How would the world the react if a Muslim country depicted Jesus as a drunk, a gambler, and simple redneck? Every christian would react the same way that Muslims are today.

  • Richard Brodie

    Its quite simple. How would the world the react if a Muslim country depicted Jesus as a drunk, a gambler, and simple redneck? Every christian would react the same way that Muslims are today.

    No. There is NO Christian who would do ANY of the following things that Muslims have been doing in response to the Mohammed cartoons:

    1. Rioting and burning embassies.

    2. Calling for death or cutting off the hands of the cartoonists.

    3. Insisting that Arab/Muslim governments change the fundamental laws that apply to THEIR citizens.

    4. Hold up placards saying “To Hell with Freedom”

    In other words they would not do any of the really violent, invasive, and extreme things that Islam has done.

    They would limit themselves strictly to peaceful methods of protest like boycotting – something which I and every other Christian/Westerner have always granted that Muslims have a perfect right to do to try and bring about VOLUNTARY (as opposed to government enforced) change.

  • Some Guy

    “They would limit themselves strictly to peaceful methods of protest like boycotting – something which I and every other Christian/Westerner have always granted that Muslims have a perfect right to do to try and bring about VOLUNTARY (as opposed to government enforced) change.”

    WHAT?!!…I know and you that will not happen. You say that know, but if something would happen like that every christian would be angry and made and will do more then “boycott.” Lets just admit that the any cartoon that protays any religious figure in such a manner. This is not about freedom of speech. Its about insulting something that one billion people believe.