quarta-feira, maio 24, 2006

S, PAULO MEETING Free speech vs religious intolerance

A presentation to the Organization of News Ombudsmen’s annual conference,
Sao Paulo, Brazil.
May 9, 2006.

Jacob Mollerup, Listeners and Viewers Editor,
Danish Broadcasting Corporation.


The former Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, was once asked about his opinion on the impact of the French Revolution some 200 years ago. “It’s too soon to say”, was his answer.
When it comes to the cartoon-controversy, I am sure that it’s too soon to give a full analysis. It’s not over yet. New books, reports and articles are being published every week - and discussions are still heated.

It was local Muslim anger in Denmark that spread to many parts of the world, hundreds of thousands demonstrated, Danish embassies were burned down, demonstrators were killed and Danish export goods were hit by a big boycott. Seen from small Denmark the events looks like the country’s worst foreign crisis since the end of World War II.

This case is not just a question of how to strike a reasonable balance between the freedom of expres-sion and the respect for religious feelings. It goes further - because of the multitude of dimensions and the global nature of the whole dispute. We have seen an issue from a small country becoming a worldwide controversy with a complex context, many agendas, many active participants and very different audiences.

I will not take you through all events and all arguments - the material is tremendous and still grow-ing. But here is what I will do:

I will highlight a few facts about how the story developed - seen from Denmark and the West - and seen from different places in the Arab world.
Then I will try to describe the patterns of reaction - and to describe why this case has developed into an almost symbolic, global controversy.
I will suggest some of the consequences - and finally I will deal with the role of the ombudsmen in all this.

The Danish story - how did it all start ....

Last summer in Denmark some journalists and authors were occupied with a question about the public debate: “Were there a fear of speaking up - and critizising Islam, sharia etc. - because of fear of radical Muslims??”
Some looked for examples - and found a few. One of them was about an illustrator who wanted to be anonymous.

He had illustrated a childrens book about the Prophet Mohammad - but was afraid to have his name published. Maybe it was just a marketing-stunt, but the story became a public issue. The biggest Danish newspaper - Jyllands-Posten - wrote about it, and at a newsroom-meeting an idea came up: Should’t we test the decree of selfcensorship among Danish illustrators and cartoonists. Do they dare to show, how they see the Prophet Mohammad??”

Flemming Rose - the cultural editor - was eager to run the project, and he ended up with 12 different cartoons. They where all printed on a page inside the newspaper on the last day in September last year. But Flemming Rose underlined the provocative purpose of the project in a commentary on the same page. He wrote that:

“The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration for their own religious feelings. That is incompatible with secular democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to accept insults, mockery and ridicule.”

An editorial the same day ran with the headline: “The Threat from the Dark side”. Here the newspa-per furthermore launched an attack on the Muslims who were representing Islam in Danish public life.

The reaction was NOT strong and visible from day one. “It was just another day in Denmark” as a Muslim explained to me later on. Islamophobia is widespread in Denmark and many Muslims saw it as just one more example of distrust and disrespect.

But many were hurt or deeply offended - and during the coming week Muslims discussed how best to protest. What really angered people were not only the cartoons - some of them were pretty harm-less - but the whole attitude in Jyllands-Postens initiative. And as the discussions went on, it became obvious for the Danish imams, that this might be a good opportunity to speak up and say: Enough is enough.

There are a number of Muslim organizations in Denmark - organizing different parts of the 200.000 Muslims living in Denmark. The following week a couple of them appealed to the embassies of sev-eral Muslim countries for help. And strong criticism was launched at the Friday prayer in the small Mosques around Denmark. The mosques only attract less than 10 percent of the Muslims living in Denmark, but the imams have a strong voice in media-debates - sometimes maybe too strong com-pared with the number of people they actually represent.

Anyway: Next step was a demonstration - a very peaceful one - in central Copenhagen - with 3-4000 protesters.

Nearly two weeks after Jyllands-Postens publication of the cartoons - something very unusual took place: Ten ambassadors to Denmark - representing 10 Muslims countries with almost a billion in-habitants - wrote a letter to the Danish Prime Minister, Mr. Anders Fogh Rasmussen - asking him for an urgent meeting.

The topic was what they described as the “...ongoing smear-campaign in Danish public circles and media against Islam and Muslims”.
The letter mentioned four examples: Hate-speech against Muslims aired by a private radio-station, very derogatory remarks about Muslims from an important politician from the Danish Peoples Party and statements from Minister of Culture, Brian Mikkelsen, about the need to oppose Muslims.
And then there was the latest insult: The cartoons!

Please let me offer a bit of background information here.
In modern Denmark there is a widespread anti-muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment. It has developed during the last decade and is of big importance to the political situation:

A couple of major Danish media have played a key role in nurturing such perceptions. In 1997 the biggest Danish tabloid - Ekstra Bladet - launched a campaign called “The strangers”.

It was based on a hostile attitude towards big groups of immigrants and refugees. The campaign broke many taboos - and paved the way for more of the same in many other Danish media - includ-ing television.

The former socialdemocratic government lost power in 2001 mainly because of their problems with formulating an immigration policy, which could convince the majority of voters. And the new rightwing government - under Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen - implemented the most re-strictive and tough immigrant-laws in Europe.

The Danish PM knows that his majority in Parliament depends on The Danish Peoples Party - a party not far from Front Nationale in France and Jörg Haiders Freedom Party in Austria.

“A fresh wind over the country” is the new motto of The Danish Peoples Party.

The Danish model for the welfare state is under pressure for a lot of reasons. Immigrants from third world countries actually have a relatively high unemployment rate - so many with a traditional Dan-ish background sees them primarily as a burden and as a problem.

In this situation the Danish PM is playing tough on Muslims for domestic political purposes. His key to power is a party which to some extent has Islamophobia and xenophobia as its political cor-nerstones.

Denmark has - for better and for worse - been dominated by the center and the center-left for a gen-eration - but mostly based on a strong political consensus in important matters. The right side in Danish politics has not been in power alone since the 1950’s. Now they have been so since 2001 - this is a dramatic shift in Danish politics.

With this background I believe it’s easier to understand, why the PM answered the 10 Muslim am-bassadors as he did. The PM turned down their plea for a meeting. And his answer was based on one key argument: I can’t discuss this with you - this is only a matter of freedom of speech - and that freedom is not to be questioned. Period. Furthermore he did not comment at all on three of the four examples mentioned by the ambassadors.

This was not a very polite answer. To deny the ambassadors a meeting and refusing a dialogue was not very diplomatic. And the PM implied that the ambassadors wanted him to censor Jyllands-Posten. Actually they never asked for that. But the PM got away with this piece of spin.

His reply was applauded by the Danish People’s Party. But in the Muslim world, the protests were slowly gaining momentum. Not in the street - but in political and religious circles. Again and again it appeared to be such an easy case to explain.

Just a few key-dates to show how things now developed:
• The publication in Jyllands-Posten was on September 30th
• The Muslim ambassadors letter of protest came shortly after
• A peaceful demonstration in Copenhagen followed
• In November the 57 countries in The Organization of the Islamic Conference complained to the UN
• In December Danish imams started touring the Middle East to get support
• Also in December came a strong protest from an important conference in Mecca

During December and the beginning of January the case continues to develop in political and relig-ious circles. On December 19th another very unusual appeal was published. 22 former Danish am-bassadors - representing Denmark's old elite on foreign policy - strongly criticized how the Prime Minister had handled the situation. They also concluded that the public debate was far too tough on Muslims - it was bullying of a minority, they claimed.

In his New Year’s speech 10 days later the PM spoke about dialogue and mutual understanding in general terms - but he did not acknowledge the criticism.

At the same time the Prime Minister received strong backing from the Danish population and most of the major media supported the Prime Ministers position: This was only a question about defend-ing the freedom of speech! Several opinion polls at the same time seemed to show, that a majority accepted his style and his handling. And the leader of the Danish Peoples Party - Pia Kjærsgaard - issued a new strong warning against Muslims and their imams. Her statement talked about “..the enemy from within”. “We must close ranks in order to defend The Nation and in order to defend our values and take good care of Denmark”.

In the first days of the new year the public procecutor decided not to institute criminal proceedings against Jyllands-Posten for violation of the Danish criminal code. The code does protect religious feelings against mockery, but the procecutor concluded that the case was not strong enough to be tried in court. This decision alarmed several Danish legal experts, but it did not spur much debate. Not even the critical fact that the PM at an early stage declared the cartoons to be legal. Montes-quieu would have been angry.

At this time the general feeling in Denmark was: OK, this must be it. Of course many were still un-happy with the case. But most people thought there was no need to deal anymore with these car-toons. We have made our point to the Muslims - this is a free country. Now - let’s get on and deal with something more relevant.

But in the middle of January the situation suddenly changed completely.
We must look to the Middle East to find out why.

The Arab story

During November and December the religious and diplomatic protests against the cartoons was re-ported by leading Arab media - but it was not top of the news.
But especially the Egyptian government and important religious leaders showed an increasing inter-est in the case.

Several experts - among them Tariq Ramadan - have suggested, that weak Arab-governments have used the case to show their attachment to Islam. At least it is a matter of record that the strongest Arab reactions did come from authoritarian regimes under Islamist pressure.
What really triggered the events has not been revealed - but as discussions went on, it appeared that the cartoon-story was so easy to communicate. It was a compelling example of western disrespect.

We can follow the protest gaining momentum in December and January but what precisely caused the explosion from early February is not clear. There was the strong protest in December from The big Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and a few weeks later from The Arab League. But two important things happened in January. Some of the heavyweighters in the religious circles really raised their voices. And some of the most influential television-hosts put the case on top of their agenda.

Great Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh - the most important religious figure in Mecca - went out to de-nounce what he called “the ugly crime committed by Jyllands-Posten”. On the same day in the mid-dle of January the case for the first time became a top story on the satellite channel Al Jazeera. The well known Egyptian television-preacher and hardliner - Yusuf al-Qaradawi - joined forces with leading Muslim scholars in a strong attack on the cartoons. Al-Qaradawi also strongly advocated a boycott of Danish goods.

His campaign proved to be very efficient. Other television stations took up the story. It entered page A1 in leading newspapers all over the Arab world. And the anger spread to the streets.

Al Jazeera and a couple of other tv-stations played a key-role in the process. Often they have rea-sonable standards for reporting but in a case like this, their coverage is often strongly biased. I guess you in some ways could compare it with Fox news, when they go into campaign-mode.

Many untrue stories added to the fire. In some television-programmes it was f.ex. claimed that cop-ies of the Quran were put on fire in the street of Copenhagen. And it was sometimes assumed that the Danish government was in full control of all newspapers. Things got out of proportion - and the anger was growing day by day.

So far it culminated in February with mass-demonstrations in dozens of Muslim countries, with Danish embassies on fire - and a boycott of Danish goods especially in the Arab world.

Some of the demonstrations in The Middle East appeared to be encouraged and in some cases even organized and planned by the regimes.

And as a reaction a total of 142 newspapers - especially in continental Europe - printed some of the cartoons - many in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten and as a statement in favour of freedom of ex-pression.

Then came all the diplomatic efforts to curb the crisis that you may well remember: The effort to make soft declarations, the Danish PM trying to offer his regrets on Arab television. Initiatives to ar-range meetings - to stop the misinformation and so on.
Also more moderate Muslims entered the debates more forceful in The West and in The Arab World.

One of the important persons in this process was the young and very popular Egyptian talkshow-host and preacher - Amr Khaled - a new icon for Arab youth. And an icon dedicated to dialogue.

In March it seemed as if the fire was put out - but I guess you should not rule out the possibility for new ignitions.

An analysis - hopefully ...

In the meanwhile - let us try to take a closer look at the events.
You could argue, that preparations for this controversy actually have been going on for many years - on both sides.
Many Muslims - and indeed lots of Arabs - have for generations seen the West as the main reason for their own misfortune and economic crisis. And many westerners today see the Muslims as the biggest danger to Western security and lifestyle.

If we sum up:
-- we have profound mutual distrust
-- we have a symbolic case that is very easy to communicate
-- we have core values at stake on both sides
One side says: Don’t mess with our freedom of speech and our way of doing things.
And the other says: Don’t mess with our Prophet - Peace be upon him - he is the most holy of all figures
Under these circumstances deeper emotions are easily flamed - each side have groups who sees an interest in a row and knows how to provoke it. And modern communication provides strong tools: Satellite-tv, internet, blogs, sms etc. The word can easily be spread: In these matters there is no longer such a thing as a local offence or a local intimidation. A Danish rightwing politician one day described Muslims as cancer cells. Later you could see a banner at a demonstration in Paris: “Europe is the cancer, Islam is the answer.”

It may have fuelled the controversy that little Denmark provides the case. It’s costless for Muslim countries and Denmark is a good case, because of its radical shift in politics.

Anyway: When taking all these factors together, I guess it’s quite understandable that the contro-versy got so widespread. But what strikes me most are the many parallels between the two main camps or main opponents.

A very substantial part of the debate - so far - has not been a debate for real:
There have been so many proclamations of self-righteousness - and no real attempt to understand the opponent. This controversy is full of self-opinionated people. They keep standing shouting in their own corner. The result is a remarkable absence of dialogue - and two sides that sees no other solution than confrontation. To some extent it looks like two kind of absolutism in clashing.
There are some surprising similarities:

Firstly: Both parts thinks the worst about the other: Many Muslims give the West the blame for eve-rything - and a lot of westerner’s claims, that Muslims want to implement conservative-style Sharia everywhere.
Secondly: Both parts tends to exaggerate their problem: Muslims who haven’t seen any cartoons claims to be deeply offended - and westerners are deeply concerned with the freedom of speech in a case, where no expression have actually been suppressed and where negative stories about Islam is all ready a toppriority for lots of western media - it’s hard to see the censorship.
Thirdly: Both parts have people eager to be the strong champions for the good cause:
Different Islamist fractions want’s to be seen as the real supporters of the Propfet Mohammad. And some western intellectuals and politicians sees a chance to become the new generation of liberal freedomfighters.

But maybe the most important divisions in this case is - on each side - the division between the calm and arguing style - and the absolutism that rules out dialogue. These might in the end be the most important lines of division. And some of the most important discussions are going on inside Islam and inside Europe, where millions of Muslims already live. If European Muslims rejects the policy of their own extremist minorities, the ground will be less fertile for Islamophobia.

There are of course elements of truth in all the enemy-pictures.
But you can’t find room for discussing the reasonable balance between freedom of expression and respect for religious feelings if everyone goes on shouting.

Of course we must firmly defend the freedom of expression. Of course we must be able to - at the same time - to show religious tolerance and to defend religious feelings against mockery. In every case we have to weigh up these two concerns. Free speech and mutual respect!
At the same time we must be able to differ between a media’s right to publish - and the following discussion about the content. For example: The Danish Prime Minister could have deeply regretted the cartoons without compromising Jyllands-Postens right to publish.
Furthermore the most important thing about the freedom of expression is the right to critizise the powerful. Not the possibility to mock the minority and to insult the weak part.

I believe all this also has been the mainstream reaction in this case in the Anglo-Saxon part of the world. But in Denmark and most of Continental Europe it has not.

Please also allow me a few remarks on Enlightenment. Some western intellectuals have argued, that this whole case is about the values of The Enlightenment. That could very well be true. But only if we get the concept right.

The Age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe was a reaction to hundreds of years of wars on re-ligion - partly between rivalling fractions of Christianity. Therefore The Enlightenment was not least a question of tolerance - as John Loche and others stated so strongly.

Part of being tolerant is to respect other peoples religious feelings. One of the problems today is, that many people in The West don’t realize how much they insult Muslims on some occasions. In this case many thinks, that at propfet is a propfet. And we in The West don’t care much about our prophets. But for Muslims the Prophet Mohammad is the holy symbol for everything that is good and true. So for those who really want to insult a Muslim with strong faith - this is a very efficient way of doing it. So at little more real enlightenment could do here as well.

The same of course goes for the Muslim side of the conflict. A better insight in the principles of secular democracy should hopefully lead to the conclusion, that such a society by no means needs to be Anti¬-Muslim or Anti-Arab.

Consequences and perspectives

But let’s try to take a short look at the consequences of the controversy over the cartoons. Who are the winners and loosers so far?

The Danish political consequence has in the short term been a further swing to the right. “They” are burning our flag - we are the ones who should be insulted, is the logic behind the reaction from the majority.

In the Arab world the dispute - I am told - have given a set back for the fight for freedom of expres-sion. It has been used as an example of the negative sides of freedom of the press - and it has led to renewed anger against the west.

But the many discussions - shouting or not - have also lead to new insights. In Denmark - for exam-ple - the public today have a much stronger awareness about the huge differences among Muslims living in Denmark. New voices are being raised - at last.

And of course some discussions have moved forward. Just let me give one example. During the controversy Jyllands-Postens cultural editor - Flemming Rose - declared that his newspaper would also publish cartoons making fun with Jews and Holocaust. His editor-in-chief intervened - stopped the new provocation - and send Mr. Rose on forced vacation.
I believe that the “Jew test” makes sense. Modern history has taught us all a terrible lesson about what a campaign against a minority can lead to. Therefore I believe it is relevant to test these kinds of provocations: Would we bring the same provocation if it was about Jews. If not - then don’t do it with anyone.

Just to sum up:
At the turn of the Century Samuel Huntington talked about the clash of civilizations. Edward Said rejected that - and suggested the conflicts could be described as a clash of ignorance. Now the car-toons controversy has - by Robert Fisk - been labelled a clash of childishness.
But maybe they should also be seen as a clash of absolutism - and clash between two kinds of fun-damentalism.

Conclusions for the ombudsman.

Finally. Are there special lessons for the Ombudsman in all this?
Yes, there are.
It should be our core business to be the stronghold of the well considered and balanced viewpoint.
It’s our job to listen to people, take them seriously and try to understand them, when they complain.
So often we have seen powerful media playing a key-part in creating enemy-pictures. In making a stigmatized, one-sighted, hostile, and not inclusive picture of the enemy - being the enemy from out-side or the enemy within. The modern history book is full of terrible examples.
I guess even we can’t solve all problems - but we should aim to be a guarantee for dialogue - and for a careful review of sensitive cases.
We can’t handle these problems only with our ethical codebook - we also need a history-book - and we need to be familiar with religious attitudes.
Respect for religious feeling is indeed a complex matter.
The most difficult cases I have handled as The Listeners and Viewers Editor have been about Chris-tians feeling insulted. The one was a very offensive Jesus-satire which we actually said we regretted having broadcasted.
But my experience from these discussions - and this one I have debated at public meetings around Denmark - is that the most important thing is to show the complainants respect. That’s often what they want - not censorship.


Last week I joined a meeting where Danish editors were discussing the controversy over the car-toons. Jyllands-Postens editor-in-chief Carsten Juste were once more arguing, that he still didn’t understand, why people had been so offended and so angry. He also argued that Jyllands-Postens freedom of speech actually is under attack. I think he is wrong.
I respect his right to make editorial decisions - but I disagree with what he has done. And I person-ally regrets Denmark's new international image.
Thank you for your attention.