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.