The Mohammed Malaise

 Last September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published several cartoons depicting Islam's founder Mohammed, much to the chagrin of devout Muslims who felt ridiculed and disrespected.

Since then, the ripple effects of this incident have led to nothing less than a clash between civilizations: Newspapers all over Europe showed their solidarity with Denmark by reprinting the offending cartoons. In democratic societies, they say, people have a right to free speech, and no one should be allowed to infringe on that. A principled line in the sand that has been answered with outrage and violence against European institutions throughout the Islamic world.

Less courageously, major U.S. newspapers have yet to reprint the Mohammed cartoons, but judging from the media buzz, everyone seems to be on Europe's side. After all, defending free speech, our First Amendment right, is a no-brainer, isn't it?

We at What We Now Know certainly don't endorse the over-the-top mentality of fanatic Muslims, nor do we think violence is a solution for... well, for anything, really. However, there is another side to the story, a side widely ignored by the mainstream media--and therefore worthy of our attention.

Fact is that Europe is generally much less "free speech" than most Americans may think.

Indeed, as Deutsche Welle, Germany's international radio broadcaster, recently pointed out, many EU countries have anti-blasphemy laws that can cost you a fine or even land you in jail if you openly insult religious figures.

Among the religious transgressions penalized in German courts were: A drawing of Jesus on the cross in the form of a mouse trap; a picture of the crucified Jesus with the words "Masochism is Curable"; a musical play by the cabaret group "3 Tornadoes" making fun of the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception by portraying crucified pigs.

In 2002, a satirical cartoon book titled The Life of Jesus, which depicted Jesus as a pot-smoking hippie, caused a wave of protest in Austria and Germany. The outraged Catholic community tried to get the book banned, and the author, Austrian caricaturist Michael Haderer, was sentenced in absentia by a Greek court to six months in prison.

As late as November 2005, a group of French bishops won a lawsuit against French denim vendor Girbaud whose advertisement showed female fashion models sitting at a table in an imitation of Da Vinci's famed painting "The Last Supper." The judge described the ad as "a gratuitous. . . act of intrusion on people's innermost beliefs."

Even Denmark itself has an anti-blasphemy law providing for fines and up to 4 months in jail for anyone who "publicly offends or insults a religion that is recognized in the country."

However, when last October 11 Muslim groups tried to sue Jyllands-Posten over the Mohammed cartoons, their lawsuit was dismissed; the judges declared freedom of expression was more important than the ban on blasphemy.

Does Europe measure different religions by different standards?

Michael ***, a German media law expert, excused the discrepancy by claiming that anti-blasphemy law usually only concerns "living religious figures" such as the Pope. Since Mohammed is not a living person, *** argues, the law doesn't apply.

Well, then what about the penalties for mock depictions of Jesus, who is obviously not a living person, either?

In all fairness, it should be mentioned that more often than not, blasphemy lawsuits--almost all of them brought on by Christians--have been thrown out by the courts, but a few of the plaintiffs did succeed... and generally, any kind of discrimination is taken very seriously in Europe.

No wonder Muslims feel kind of short-changed in comparison, a feeling exacerbated by their belief that their archenemies, the Jews, are treated with kid gloves by European legislation. In most EU countries, for example, denial or minimization of the Holocaust is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison; in Germany, mere public criticism of anyone or anything Jewish can have serious consequences.

As a reaction to the Mohammed dispute, Iran's bestselling newspaper Hamshari called for a contest to find the best Holocaust cartoons, daring Jyllands-Posten to print those as well.

Last Thursday, the Danish newspaper declared in a spectacular turnaround that it would "in no circumstances" publish such drawings and apologized to the Muslim community for the offense... only one day after J-P culture editor Flemming Rose had taken a hard-line stance, saying that his paper "would run the cartoons the same day as they publish them."

Do we think their frustration gives Muslims the right to throw hand grenades at Danish embassies?

Of course not.

Do we feel freedom of speech should entail religious mockery?

Absolutely.

But if we like it or not, free speech in the European Union is largely an illusion... and with that as our premise, we think those blasphemy laws should apply to everyone equally.

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Posted 02-14-2006 9:35 PM by Doug Casey
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