Defending “The Life of Brian”

6 February 2006

Defending “The Life of Brian”

By Gwynne Dyer

“Without this there would be no Life of Brian,” said Roger Koeppel, editor-in-chief of the German newspaper Die Welt, claiming that his decision to republish the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused such offence to many Muslims was a free speech issue. “It’s at the very core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire.” That is true, but it is not the only truth.

Europeans did not overthrow the power of Christian religious authorities to kill people who disputed their version of the truth just to hand it to Islamic religious authorities several centuries later. There is no contradiction, however, between asserting the right of free speech and condemning those who use it to inflict gratuitous pain on others. Particularly when it is the powerful abusing the vulnerable.

Jyllands-Posten, which originally published the series of twelve cartoons about the Muhammad over four months ago, has the largest circulation of any Danish newspaper. Denmark’s Muslim community, only 170,000 strong, is one of the most marginalised and beleaguered in Europe, and the governing coalition includes a large party that is explicitly anti-immigrant and implicitly anti-Muslim. The paper’s culture editor, Flemming Rose, claims that the decision to commission twelve cartoonists to lampoon Muhammad was just an attempt to start a debate in Denmark on self-censorship in the media, but he got a lot more than that for his money.

The cartoons were neither clever nor funny, and two of them were blatantly offensive. One depicted Muhammad himself as a terrorist, his turban transformed into a fizzing bomb; the other showed him speaking to a ragged queue of suicide bombers at heaven’s gate saying “Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.” They deliberately implied that Islam is a terrorist religion, and Denmark’s Muslims quite reasonably demanded an apology. It was still a storm in a very small teacup — but then the usual suspects got to work.

The newspaper refused to apologise, and Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, sucked up to the anti-immigrant vote by refusing even to meet ambassadors from Muslim countries who wanted to protest about the cartoons. So a group of imams from the Danish Muslim organisation Islamisk Trossamfund toured Saudi Arabia and Egypt in November and December with copies of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and included some others that were even more offensive and showed Muhammad as a pig and a child molester.

It took a lot of time and effort to build this into a real confrontation, but the Norwegian Christian monthly Magazinet helpfully republished the cartoons in January, Saudi Arabia and Libya withdrew their ambassadors from Copenhagen, and indignation built steadily in Muslim chat-rooms and blogs on the internet. By the end of January Danish flags were being burnt and Danish goods boycotted in the Arab world, and both the Danish prime minister and the editor of Jyllands-Posten went into reverse, publicly apologising for the offence that had been caused. But it was too late.

Various right-wing newspapers in Europe including Die Welt and France-Soir saw the Danish apologies as a failure to defend free speech, and republished the offending cartoons on their front pages. This gave radical Islamist fringe groups in European countries a pretext to stage angry demonstrations — the slogans at the London demo called for more terrorist bombs like those of last July and urged the faithful to “Butcher those who mock Islam” — and the confrontation finally achieved lift-off.

Late last week mobs attacked the European Union’s offices in the Gaza Strip and the building housing the Danish embassy in Jakarta. Incensed by text messages saying that Danish right-wingers were planning to burn copies of the Quran (though they didn’t, in the end), angry Muslims burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria and the Danish consulate in Lebanon during the weekend. The idiots, the ideologues and the fanatics on both sides have the bit between their teeth now, and it will take some time for the fury to burn out. But it is important to remember that most people have NOT lost their heads.

Inayat Banglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said of the demonstrators who had urged more bomb attacks in Britain: “It is time the police acted, but in a way so as not to make them martyrs of the prophet’s cause, which is what they want, but as criminals. Ordinary Muslims are fed up with them.” The 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference warned that “Over-reactions surpassing the limits of peaceful democratic acts…are dangerous and detrimental to the efforts to defend the legitimate case of the Muslim world.”

Similarly on the Western side — you can’t really say Christian any more, except for the United States and maybe Poland — the great majority of newspapers did not publish the cartoons. In Britain, in Poland, in Russia, in Canada and (with one exception) in the United States, none did. It is not self-censorship to refuse to publish these abusive images that link Muslims with terrorism, it is simply common courtesy.

It does not mean that no Western cartoonist may ever use Muhammad again (though they will doubtless be more cautious about the context in future). The ban on images of Muhammad is a Muslim tradition, not a Western one. But we live in a joined-up world where everybody can see everybody else all the time, and being polite to the neighbours is a social obligation. Jyllands-Posten and its emulators were very stupid and very rude.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5.  (“Europeans…vulnerable”; and “The newspaper …molester”)