Another cartoon crisis and what it says about freedom and Islam

I have a confession to make.  I do not like Geert Wilders.  The platinum blond Dutch politician is, in my humble opinion, a self-focussed, attention-seeking, grandstanding man.  In other words, I think he is a jerk.  He is not the only jerk out there of course and it is important to stress that there is no law against being a jerk. If there were, our prisons would be overflowing.

Why do I not like Mr. Wilders?  Simply stated, he does things to put the spotlight on him under cover of addressing burning social issues such as freedom of thought and freedom of expression, both of which I support fully.  Mr. Wilders’ pet peeve is needling Muslims.  He of course was the one who called Islam fascist and who wanted all the Muslims in the Netherlands to leave.  Most recently he organised a ‘Muhammad cartoon contest’, although he cancelled it ‘in the interests of safety’.

Why the shift?  Well, because a bunch of extremists in Pakistan threatened violence against Dutch citizens if the contest had gone through, that’s why.  One leader actually said he would launch a nuclear attack against the Netherlands if he were in power and the drawing competition had been allowed to take place.  Nukes for scribbling.  A tad over the top?

The threat of violence is not to be dismissed lightly.  After all, the Danish publication Jyllands Posten got into a lot of heat for a similar incident back in 2005: 250 were killed in riots linked to the cartoons and at least one terrorist attack was carried out in Denmark to ‘punish’ Danes for their disrespect.  In 2015 12 staff at the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo were killed by Islamist terrorists for similar drawings.  So yes, this is serious stuff.

Let me be clear on this: killing someone over a few anti-Islamic doodles is not kosher (how is that for a mixed metaphor?).  In a free society we are free to offend.  Or free to be a jerk.  There are limits, however, in some countries when it comes to inciting hate or violence.  Here however, it is hard to argue that by insulting a religion artists are inciting others to attack adherents to that religion.  Paradoxically, they incite those insulted to carry out acts of violence against them, which is not what is normally meant under hate speech laws, for those nations that have them.

As I see it, there are terrible situations in which Muslims are truly suffering around the world.  Take the 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh whose homes have been destroyed by Buddhist extremists in Myanmar.  Or those killed by Hindu extremists in India for owning a cow or committing ‘love jihad’ (ie dating a Hindu woman).  Or Muslim immigrants targeted by RW extremists in Germany and other European countries.  In these scenarios people are dying.

The problem with getting angry over a cartoon is that it takes away from much more important stuff that needs attention, like the examples of true violence just cited.  At times, however, the ire and hatred raised by Muslim leaders extends to the ridiculous.  Religious hardliners in India had argued that an actress that ‘winked’ and ‘giggled’ in a song had committed blasphemy (the song was apparently about the wife of the Prophet Muhammad although I do not know that for a fact).  In many religions the penalty for blasphemy is death: death for a giggle?  Really?

What these firebrands do not realise is that by focusing on such trivial matters they undermine what needs to be addressed now.  They lose any credibility and merely invite mockery. How does that help Muslims who are truly suffering?

I suppose I may myself be attacked for writing this.  When I tweeted about the Indian actress I got this response on Twitter:

  • No. Actually it is not a free world. We have laws. We have rules. We have customs. We have fatwas. We have norms. Just because they don’t comport with yours doesn’t give you license to be snarky or belittle. Or mock.

The writer was of course entitled to his/her opinion (it is hard to determine gender online).  And I am equally entitled to ignore that opinion.  I don’t think I was disrespectful, but then again I suppose that is in the eye of the reader.  Was I a jerk for pointing out this story?  Am I a jerk for writing this blog?  Maybe.  If so it would not the be the first time I was so labelled.

It is a fundamental axiom of liberalism that we have the freedom to speak, write, think and even criticise.  At the same time we might want to try not to be jerks. We can debate and agree to disagree but do we really need to descend to the level of insults?  No, but if some do, that does not warrant a death threat or a terrorist attack.  Under any circumstance.  I.e. never.

In the end we’d all be better off if we took Rodney King’s words to heart”: “Why can’t we all just get along?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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