Roughly 823 people have been injured and 139 people have lost their lives as a result of the controversial cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet, Mohamed. One of the major questions to come from this is whether free speech is justification enough to write and say whatever you want; Whether or not the boundaries of free speech have been breached when such widespread chaos ensues from simple words or, in this case, images.
The importance of this question is far from subtle, especially when violence begins to occur as a result of one particular answer to the question. But, even putting violence aside, no matter how hard that may be, there are still many disagreements on whether free speech can account for offending someone as deeply as the Mohamed cartoons have.
I will give you the background of this issue, followed by presenting to you both sides of the issue; from what offended people believe should be done, to what people who support the publication of the cartoons believe should be done. I will then go on to give you my opinion on this very sensitive issue.
On September 30, of 2005 12 cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet, Mohamed, were published in a Danish newspaper. It was originally designed to be a social project within the Danish community. The newspaper’s cultural editor, Flemming Rose, invited 12 cartoonists to draw their own interpretation of what the Muslim prophet looks like.
The newspaper would then publish the different drawings for discussion amongst the community; the goal of the newspaper was not to offend any Muslims. However, when a few of the 12 drawings depicted Mohamed in a negative light, including one with him as a terrorist and a bomb on his head where a turban would usually be, many Muslims could not help but feel offended.
The Koran reads in Chapter 42, verse 11, that, “[Allah is] the originator of the heavens and the earth… [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him.”
A BBC news report states that, “From this arises the Muslim belief that images can give rise to idolatry – that is to say an image, rather than the divine being it symbolizes, can become the object of worship and veneration.” Because of this, images of the prophet Mohamed are outlawed by Islamic cultures and are seen as disrespectful, even if the drawings show Mohamed as a peaceful, loving person. You can imagine if it is disrespectful to draw images of Mohamed in a positive light, that it must be extraordinarily disrespectful to draw him in a negative light; and some of the cartoons did just that.
Muslims found themselves disrespected, offended, and enraged by Westerners stereotyping their entire culture as being full of terrorists and violent people. Having been given a bit of background about the issue and how Muslims feel in regard to drawing images of the prophet Mohamed, we can now better understand the opinions of Muslims about the issue at hand, and still take a look at what supporters of the cartoons have to say about the issue as well.
Most Muslims agree whole-heartedly that violence is not the answer and that there can be a peaceful solution to this. These Muslims do not support the violent riots of extremist Muslims that end up in many casualties and injuries. Among the Muslims who think there is a peaceful answer to all of this is Dr.
Yunes Teinaz, who is the spokesman for the London Mosque and the Islamic Cultural Center. He says that the cartoons of the prophet Mohamed are, “…humiliating and racist.”, that, “Muslims love the Prophet more than anyone – even their own families – and have a very strong belief that he is the messenger of God.” He goes on to state that, “We do value… freedom of expression in Europe, but it shouldn’t be abused to provoke hatred and division between communities.”
Teinaz also says that, “the governments that allowed these freedoms to be abused should apologize to the Muslim communities.” On the opposite side of Yunes Teinaz are people like Munira Mirza, who is a commentator on multicultural issues and Islamophobia. He states that, “…newspapers should publish the images [and] Muslims should be able to see them and judge them for themselves, that’s why we have freedom of speech.
Many Muslims want the same freedoms as everyone else to debate, criticize and challenge their religion. They want to be able to say: “Hey we’re not children, we can handle criticism, we don’t need special protection – we’re equal.”” He also states that, “In Denmark, there are counter-demonstrations by moderate Muslims saying they don’t want the images banned.”
Now that you have heard, not only, a brief background of the issue and how the Islamic religion feels about images of the prophet Mohamed, but also a few of the arguments for and against the censorship of the Mohamed cartoons, I will now tell you my opinions regarding the issue.
I believe that freedom of speech is the single most important right that we have in this nation; and it should not be put into jeopardy for any reason, nor at any time. The number one argument that is heard from those that believe the cartoons and other images of Mohamed should be censored is that showing Mohamed can, as Yunes Teinaz put it, “provoke hatred and division between communities.”
Whether what follows from the division is someone being offended by the images or someone being so deeply offended that they feel the need to murder other human beings, the division itself is still there. However, it is this division that helps make this country what it is.
It is our ability to differ from one another in opinions, ideas, and ways of life, it is our individuality and our uniqueness, it is all of these very divisions which unite us all as free human beings and gives all of us the right to express ourselves freely and for others to make their own decisions about whether they agree or disagree with what we said. That is how freedom of speech works and that is what living in a free country is all about; and, more then that, it is about standing up for these rights and protecting them at all costs.
Terrorism always has a goal, an objective, something it wants to accomplish. What makes terrorism different from other paths to one’s goals, is that terrorism achieves its goals through fear; and when one succumbs to this fear, when one submits and gives in to this fear, then the terrorist’s very mission is accomplished. It is times like this, when freedom of speech is being put to the test, when it is being threatened, that we must stand tall and defend it.
If we don’t defend freedom of speech and instead we censor images of Mohamed simply because it offends Muslims, or simply because extremists are threatening violence, then what is next? Christians can demand something that offends them be censored, Catholics and Jews can do the same – and this won’t just affect religion either.
Blacks, whites, Asians, Mexicans, Native Americans, people with disabilities, people with various diseases, people who are offended by trees, people who are offended by people, people who are offended by anything that is colorful, people who are offended by darkness, people who are offended by lightness, people who are offended by offensiveness, they can all demand something be censored because it offends them, and since all of us are equal human beings, what right does our government have to place the offensiveness of one group of people, or one individual, over another? And so what are we left with? A society of nothing, of emptiness.
The best form of art or literature will be a blank piece of paper, having not one single creative or unique idea written or drawn onto its page. We will have a complete censorship of everything because we are too afraid to defend freedom of speech when violence is threatened. Which is why it is important that as a free nation, a nation that is supposed to cherish and appreciate its freedoms, that we do all we can to defend them.
Otherwise we might as well rip the first amendment out of the constitution, be intimidated by every terrorist organization that threatens violence, and look forward to living in a nation where we have little to live for.
You have now heard the background of this issue, supporters from both sides of the issue, and you have heard my opinions as well. Sadly, America, which is the country that is supposed to stand for freedom, was one of the most cowardice countries during the Mohamed cartoons conflict. Censorship was taking place left and right in our free country, limiting our freedom out of the fear of violence.
Some government officials, such as Sean McCormack, who is currently the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and Department Spokesman, rested the decision to censor or not the Muslim prophet on the American people – where the decision should lie; and the American people spoke with reassuring apathy and cowardice, with only 19 newspapers or magazines in the United States, out of the thousands upon thousands that we have, showing the courage to reprint some of the cartoons, while the rest were prevented by their fear of violence; including on television, where there was not one single image of Mohamed in any way permitted.
This sends a strong message that we are more worried about our safety then our rights as human beings, we would rather be unscathed with a lack of freedom, then risk ourselves for what we supposedly believe.
I hope that in the future America will learn from this experience and when the next threat to our freedom of speech comes, which it inevitably will, rather then produce the result in America that the Mohamed cartoon conflict produced, we will, instead, stand up bravely and show our support and appreciation for our most important right, risking our comfortable and safe lives if need be.
And when the question arises again: is free speech justification enough to write and say what you want, even when such widespread chaos ensues as a result of it? America’s answer will be, “Yes.”