Religion and Freedom of Expression – an Essential Cultural Difference between the West and the Muslim World? Reflections on the Danish Cartoon Crisis

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Religion and Freedom of Expression – an Essential Cultural

Difference between the West and the Muslim World?

Reflections on the Danish Cartoon Crisis

Prof. Dr. Kai Hafez

University of Erfurt, Germany
Speech held at the Conference

Dialogue versus Confrontation: The Relation of Muslims and Non-Muslims in the Area of Conflict between Freedom of Expression and Respect for Religious Sensibilities, organized by the German Goethe Institute and the Area Studies Centre of Europe, University of Karachi

12./13. December, Karachi, Pakistan
The most common interpretation of the debate on the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in early 2006 held that an essential cultural difference between the West and the Muslim world exists with regard to religion and freedom of expression. The West, many observers say, as a result of various modernisation processes, has lost its sensitivity concerning the issues of blasphemy and religious insult. At the same time, the Muslim world is perceived as being hyper-sensitive in that field.
In my view, this story is a bit too simple to be true. It sounds like an echo of the Orientalist view of the world that the West is the master of the material world while the East is the guardian of the immaterial and of religious values - an Orientalist cliché that has unfortunately also been adapted by many Middle-Easterners. I personally believe that the conflict on the Danish caricatures must me explained in a different way. It is certainly true that the West and the Muslim world differ, but differences are not as clear-cut as many people think. Furthermore, the main conflict was not one of different cultures that clash, and instead the cartoon crisis echoed many unresolved international political conflicts. It was a symptom of the growing resentment towards the West and a sign for the instrumentalization of religious symbolism as a means of mobilisation against the West.
Blasphemy in the West
It is true that in most parts of Europe ridiculing even of central elements of the Christian believes does take place. Just remember the film “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the 1970s, or think of the wide-spread critique of religion by the political left and the student movements of the 1960s and 70s. There is certainly no consensus any more in the West that blasphemy should be forbidden or punished, because such acts are often not considered insults but a critical approach towards religion. Religion seems to have lost its former privilege to be protected by the state and society.
But mind, for several reasons this is just part of the story. First, it is absolutely not the rule of the day that Christian or other core religious symbols are publicly ridiculed in the West. Such assumptions are a wrong perception of the contemporary state of western culture. Blasphemy in the West is still the exception, not the rule. Second, there are remnants of a legal framework protecting religion in many European countries. In Great Britain laws against blasphemy do exist to day, and during the last twenty or thirty years a number of publications have been censored. In the UK, freedom of expression has its limits.1
In Germany, a law against blasphemy exists in the penal code with severe punishments for religious insult. That clause was reformed in the sense that it is no longer blasphemy as such, but the distortion of the public order that is forbidden. Germans until today have legal means to prevent that blasphemy becomes a social norm. More than this, when the cartoon film “Pope Town” was broadcast on MTV in 2006 – a series that makes fun of the Pope – Edmund Stoiber, an influential conservative politician, proposed to introduce more rigid legal sanctions against religious insult.
Even seemingly secular institutions like the German Press Council (Deutscher Presserat) have occasionally intervened on behalf of the protection of religion. When the left-mainstream newspaper Die Tageszeitung published a satire a few years ago on Jesus Christ, the German Press Council asked the newspaper for an excuse, because that article was deemed to hurt religious feelings.

To sum up, despite all the liberalism in the West, the ridiculing of central elements of religion is certainly not consensual behaviour in the West. It evokes strong resentment in the conservative parts of society, it is usually even respected by agnostics, and many western states have laws against blasphemy that can be re-activated at any time.

Blasphemy in the Muslim World
Everybody seems to know that Islam is strictly against images of the Prophet Muhammad or even God. Especially in the non-Arab Muslim world Mohammed, due to the relative distance from the holy texts which are written in Arabic, has developed aspects of sacredness in popular Islam. From the famous “triangle of taboos: sex, politics, religion”, religion is certainly the strongest taboo. The traditional Islamic law (Sharia) knows many penalties for Sabb (blasphemy). I think it is save to say that hardly anybody in the Muslim world dares to ridicule Muhammad or the Quran in public. People who still do usually suffer from a chain reaction of social stigmatization.
However, is the absence of public blasphemy evidence enough for a full cultural consensus on the protection of religious symbols and values? A number of mass media in the Muslim world, in Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Jemen, Indonesia and Malaysia, re-published the Danish cartoons of the profit Mohammed in the name of freedom of speech. While those publications were mostly banned, I am asking myself: How can I define a Muslim consensus against blasphemy if I see a considerable number of people throughout the Muslim world deviating from that consensus?
Even today a difference exists between the obvious lack of open and public support for individual dissidence in the Muslim world on the one hand, and a full-scale consensus on the social importance of the phenomenon of blasphemy on the other hand. That difference is marked by wide-spread passivity and ignorance against blasphemy. While people in the Muslim world feel unable to speak up, many of them have started to turn away from conflicts like blasphemy in their daily lives.
The affair of Salman Rushdie at the end of the 1980s is an example of that reaction. His book “The Satanic Verses” questioned the sacredness of the Quran and insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Years ago I prepared an media analysis of the Middle East with the result that outside the realm of Iran and Rushdie’s home area India and Pakistan most mass media in the Muslim countries were rather modest in their reactions.2 While Rushdie was widely criticized for his book, the Rushdie-Affair was at the same time treated as an Iranian matter, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence against Rushdie was widely considered an over-reaction.
Could it be that while the public sphere in the Muslim world is more or less sacrosanct, many people have started to desert into some kind of internal exile? How can we know what people in the Muslim world really think before their intimidation by the state, by clerics and by Islamists organisations is brought to an end by legal reforms that abolish severe punishments against blasphemy? How can we know what people think as long as they live under authoritarian and often repressive circumstances that do not allow even a minimum of freedom of speech in religious matters? Independent research on that issue seems almost impossible.

The Danish cartoon crisis was not so much proof for a deep-seated cultural conflict between the West and the Muslim world, but it escalated due to many other factors. The Danish cartoons were an out-group insult, and such offences tend to re-enforce group cohesion and cover internal differences. Moreover, “cultural warriors” instrumentalized wide-spread anger against the West as a result of neo-colonial policies in Iraq and elsewhere. Cultural conflict is not simply there – it must be constructed. Global media heated the conflict by enlarging small demonstrations and creating the impression that the whole Muslim world was on the march. However, in many Muslim countries it was only a few hundred demonstrators against the Danish cartoons.
My personal conclusion is, that if we solve political conflicts the chances that cultural universals of religious respect that exists in the West as well as in the Muslim world will prevail.
I thank you for your attention.

1 Richard Webster, A Brief History of Blasphemy. Liberalism, Censorship and ‘The Satanic Verses, Southwold, Suffolk : Orwell Press, 1990.

2 Kai Hafez, Transcultural Communication and the Antinomy between Freedom and Religion: A Comparison of Media Responses to the Rushdie Affair in Germany and the Middle East, in: Joel Thierstein/Yahya R. Kamalipour (ed.), Religion, Law, and Freedom. A Global Perspective, Foreword by Cees J. Hamelink, Westport, CN: Praeger, 2000, S. 177-192.

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