Is freedom of expression sacred, even when it causes offence?
Yes, according to a dozen European newspapers who have come out in support of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten by publishing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, and in the process reviving an age-old debate.
Images of the prophet are forbidden under Islam, making the irreverent portrayals in question doubly offensive to Muslims. The 12 original caricatures were first published on September 30 last year.
When a biographer of the prophet complained no one would illustrate his book, the newspaper had challenged cartoonists to draw pictures of Mohammed in a self-declared battle for freedom of speech. The issue has come to the boil in recent weeks. On Tuesday the offices of the Danish newspaper were evacuated because of a bomb threat.
Violence has often overshadowed the debate. The Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered in November 2004 following the release of his film “Submission”, in which he denounced violence against women in Muslim societies.
His killer, Mohamed Bouyeri, said during his trial that he had acted according to his religious beliefs. He left a message on Van Gogh’s body threatening to kill Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian-born member of the Dutch parliament who wrote the film script. Since then she’s lived under police protection, but has continued a campaign for freedom of expression.
British writer Salman Rushdie has paid a similar price for defending free speech. He lived for almost a decade under the shadow of a fatwa calling for his death.
“I have had ten years of my life deformed by this,” he said in 1998, after the fatwa was lifted by Iran, which issued the order in response to his book “The Satanic Verses”.
“I have had friends of mine threatened, I’ve had my family’s life messed around, I’ve had people that I care about shot and killed, you know. I could ask for an apology. I’m not doing so. I think all that is nonsense.”
Some hardline Muslim leaders are now arguing that the offending cartoons behind the current controversy would never have made it to print if that fatwa had been carried out.