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The Need for Context

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Posted by 151/Des Freedman

The most important thing to bear in mind concerning the Jyllands-Posten cartoons is context. Both the original publication of the cartoons and the campaign in conservative newspapers to re-print them took place in the context of increasing attacks on Muslims and on ‘Islamic culture ’ that have followed 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Arguments and statements that marginalise this context in favour of an absolute right to free speech risk playing into the hands of those who are interested neither in press freedom nor social justice.

Jyllands-Posten is not an innocent party in this controversy but an active participant in fomenting a political culture in Denmark that is systematically anti-immigrant and has led to the electoral success of the Danish People ’s Party (for whom a halt to immigration is a key demand).

People who are genuinely interested in freedom of speech would do better to confront those governments who have stepped up their attacks on press freedom as part of anti-terror laws rather than focusing on an incident that was deliberately designed to provoke Muslims in the current political climate. These were not playful cartoons but racist images that play on images of Muslims as terrorists that are already far too prevalent in the media.

We should further ask whether there is an absolute and irrevocable right to freedom of speech? Was it really a boost to free speech that the leader of the British National Party Nick Griffin was (thus far) acquitted on charges of inciting racial hatred? Are we really saying that there is an equivalent situation concerning, for example, the civil rights situation of Christians and Muslims in this country?

The argument about a principled support for freedom of speech in any circumstances ignores the question of power. Muslims and non-Muslims are not afforded the same power in many European states just as many of the voices championing free speech in the press are vastly better resourced and connected than some of the poorest and most detached people in these countries. As Onora O ’Neill wrote in The Guardian on February 13: \"Conferring the same freedom of expression on more powerful organisations, including media organisations, is now less easily justified. Once we take account of the power of the media, we are not likely to think that they should enjoy unconditional freedom of expression. We do not think corporations should have unrestricted rights to invent their balance sheets, or governments to... deceive their electorates. Yet contemporary liberal readings of the right to free speech often assume that we can safely accord the same freedom of expression to the powerless and the powerful\".

It seems to me the issue being raised is precisely not about freedom of expression but about the extension of Islamophobia across Europe in the context of a sustained political attack on Muslim communities. To simply talk about rights to free speech WITHOUT acknowledging the context is dangerously abstract.

The decision in British newspapers not to publish the cartoons does not show restraint and ‘common sense ’ but nervousness in the face of likely opposition. I am aware there is a tradition of racist Islamophobic cartoons and articles in the British press but do we really want new cartoons to be published in order for the press to be seen as consistent? There is a distinction between the right to publish (which should not be subject to government diktat) and the tactical decision to publish.

At a time when we in the CPBF should be trying to broaden our links with others in the movement and publicise our own Government\'s clampdown on free speech, we should make it clear that we condemn those who have taken the decision to publish the cartoons in the name of ‘free speech ’ and declare our opposition to those who attempt to stir up racial hatred on minority groups who are already facing vilification and discrimination.

DATELINE: 24 January, 2010