Friday, February 03, 2006

When enough is too much

From the Times – 2 February

Newspapers across Europe yesterday republished caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that have inflamed the Muslim world since they first appeared in Denmark.

Daily newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands featured the 12 cartoons, which have caused a fire-storm in the Islamic world.

Ok – this is a tough one. First reaction: come on Muslim buddies, get a life – if you can't laugh at yourself – who can you laugh at! Then I started to read and consider this more thoroughly. According to the Times, “Showing any depiction of Muhammad is deemed blasphemous”. I'm inclined to believe the Thunderer. These cartoons, which I haven't seen, are probably blasphemous.

We come to the real question. Is blasphemy allowed in the press and, if so, when and where?

This is a larger question altogether and deserves more than just a cursory glance at what is right, what is proper and what we should expect from - not only the press, but also society in general when dealing with people's religious beliefs. In other words, it's a big one.

Let's take an example. In the 1920's, 30's and 40's Julius Streicher's Der Stürmer, was as vile a piece of anti-semitic propaganda as there was. Not many people today would justify his attacks on Jews which closely mirrored the Nazi perversion of race, culture and creed. But, it was a widely read paper in Germany during that period. Some of the cartoons in the paper make what is inflaming the Muslim world at the moment seem very tame indeed.

Der Stürmer was not a newspaper at all – but a mouthpiece for the Nazi regime and a reprehensible stain on the liberal idea of a free press. It would have been better if it had never been published. It should have been banned for inciting racial hatred. If anyone tried to publish such rubbish today, it would surely be banned. Or, would it?

So,when the press in modern Europe get on their high horse and leap to defend freedom of the press to publish what Muslims believe is blasphemous is it a storm in a teacup or a monumental own goal in the home team's net? The truth is that in a free society you should be able to publish whatever you like. Yet, no society allows everything to be published. Most insist that certain standards be observed. The Muslim cleric, Abu Hamza, 46, faces nine charges, including hostage taking and supporting al-Qaeda, if the US successfully extradites him from Britain. He is being held at Belmarsh prison in London. The court has seen video footage of Hamza's preaching and will have to decide if his words violate UK law against inciting racial hatred. Needless to say, Jews in Nazi Germany received no such legal protection.

Therefore it is quite reasonable for Muslim countries to forbid the caricature of the Prophet. It is reasonable for non-Muslim countries to pursue laws that protect the citizen's right to lampoon and ridicule religions. How the two concepts can survive in extremis will tax reasonable people for a long time to come.

Just to complicate matters even further the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, has also been in court accused of inciting racial hatred – see the following report:

The Times

February 03, 2006

BNP leader is acquitted of race hate but faces new trial

By Andrew Norfolk

THE leader of the British National Party walked free from court yesterday after being cleared of seeking to incite racial hatred, but prosecutors said immediately that he and another member of the hard-right party would face a retrial.

Nick Griffin said that he felt “absolutely vindicated” after a jury decided that his speech, made during the run-up to the 2004 local elections and secretly filmed by a reporter, was not abusive or insulting to Asian people.

Mark Collett, a senior member of the BNP, was also acquitted of race-hate charges triggered by two speeches that he had made to party supporters in West Yorkshire, one of which compared asylumseekers with cockroaches.

The jury at Leeds Crown Court was unable to reach a verdict on further charges in relation to a second speech by Mr Griffin, 46, and two more speeches by Mr Collett, 25. The Crown Prosecution Service said that the two men would be retried on the outstanding charges — a decision which surprised several observers, given the success with which Mr Griffin managed to turn the case into a trial of the Islamic religion.

A key element of his defence was the claim that he was not criticising Asians or Muslims, but the “wicked, vicious faith” of Islam. Ironically, given this week’s House of Commons vote on the religious hatred Bill, the BNP chairman was able to argue that he had not been charged with inciting religious hatred.

He also presented himself as a standard-bearer for freedom of speech and blamed the Government, the police and the media for seeking to hush up racist crimes committed by Muslims against whites.

Mr Griffin told the jury that Islam was “a terrible, mortal enemy” that threatened to “bring misery and disaster to this country”. He blamed it for crimes ranging from murders in Africa and the Middle East to the grooming of young white schoolgirls for sex and prostitution in West Yorkshire.

The “politically correct establishment”, he said, “want to outlaw any criticism of Islam in this country by saying it is a criticism of Muslim people. It is not.”

So, things, as usual, are not always as straight-forward as they may appear. In a free society it is these difficult and dangerous choices that tax our capacity to take the debate forward and live in peace with our neighbours and our Muslim friends and countrymen.

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