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Human rights | Media | Culture - Arts | Society

Editorial: Banning blasphemy would be an insult to Islam

afrol News editorial, 7 February - Freedom of expression has its limits, but those are related to protect weak and exposed groups from persecution or stigmatisation. Large world religions as Christianity or Islam are not in need of special protection; claiming that would be an insult. Blasphemy has indeed proven to be a necessity to challenge religious totalitarianism.

Caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed have been published all over the world, including a facsimile in afrol News last week, causing rage among Muslims. According to most (not all) interpretations of Islam, it is forbidden to picture the Prophet. Many Islamists demand that this "blasphemy" shall be published. Radicals threaten to kill Danes, Norwegians and others responsible for publishing the "insult".

These immature reactions do not impress very much. Insults form a natural part of the freedom of expression. Most expressions carry with them an insult to somebody and forbidding insults would ban communication, discussion, intellectual progress, science, art and development. And it would ban the even less violent and legitimate protests against the publication of the cartoons.

afrol News in an earlier editorial expressed its scepticism against the motives of Denmark's daily 'Jyllands-Posten' and Norway's fundamentalist Christian weekly 'Magazinet' when first publishing the Mohammed caricatures. It has now been established that 'Jyllands-Posten' in 2003 rejected the publication of Jesus caricatures because the "could insult" readers. 'Magazinet' earlier has protested the widespread use of blasphemy (ie against Christianity) in Norway.

The two newspapers therefore seem to have had an agenda of provocation. Nevertheless, they were completely in their right to publish the Mohammed caricatures. And despite the excusing statements of Danish and Norwegian politicians, they were right in doing so.

'Jyllands-Posten' and 'Magazinet' may have their agenda sceptical of Muslim immigrants and of Islam. They are entitled to have this agenda and to demonstrate that Mohammed should be treated with the same (dis)respect as Christianity's prophets in today's Europe.

Mohammed's followers represent a large religious group in Europe. Islam is the second largest and the fastest growing religion in the world. Islam has an agenda of growing in numbers, importance and influence. This is a totally legitimate agenda, but it should not surprise anybody that this agenda also will create reactions.

Islam is strong and it is challenging. Islam does not need special protection as it is rising to even greater strength. On the contrary. It needs critics from within and from without. Any power - whether secular, economic or religious - shall be in the critical limelight of the press. It must even stand to be ridiculed. Not accepting this negative approach, a power even shows that it is unaware of its strength or that it aims at totalitarian powers. None of this is acceptable and must be challenged.

Now, the Arab press should not exaggerate its "outrage" over Western use of blasphemy. Blasphemic drawings ridiculing Christianity and Judaism have a long tradition in Arab newspapers. Maybe one feels comfortable with this because these religions seem stronger than the "humiliated" Muslim world? My dear Arab friends: look at the secular state of Westerners and you will soon find out that Islam is the world's strongest and most expansive religion!

"If Allah is insulted by these drawings, that is very childish and how can he then be almighty?" "How can you know that it is actually Mohammed that has been drawn if you claim not to have seen pictures of him before?"

Do you find these current jokes blasphemic?

Similar questions were raised as the right to commit blasphemy in Norway was firmly established. Writer Arnulf Øverland in a famous speech ridiculed parts of the common faith as taught by the Norwegian Lutheran Church. "God," he resumes, had created mankind, but then introduced the Devil the make them sin. "He is so almighty that he knows in advance they will fall into temptation; but nevertheless he gets mad and punishes all mankind with eternal Hell."

Mr Øverland was denounced by leading Norwegian clerics for this and other blasphemies and sent to court in 1931. Acting as his own lawyer, he won a clear victory. Freedom of expression was established as more important than the protection of powerful groups such as the clergy. Since that, there have been no blasphemy cases in Norway. Blasphemy, instead, plays an important role in Norwegian humor and "Hell" does not exist anymore in the Norwegian Church.

Despite these lessons, most politicians and quite a few editors all over Europe say it was wrong to publish the Mohammed drawings. The need to show respect is greater than the need to express blasphemies. afrol News somewhat agreed to this view, but the violent reactions to the cartoons has made us surer that the publications were both right and necessary. The press "cannot yield to any pressure from anybody who might want to prevent open debates, the free flow of information, free access to sources, and open debate on any matter of importance to society as a whole," the ethical guidelines of the Norwegian press say. Thus, editors of the world are in fact obliged to publish the caricatures.

An important eyeopener was the heroic statement by Jordanian editor Jihad al-Momani of the newspaper 'Shihan', who was the first Muslim editor to publish the cartoons. "Muslims of the world, be reasonable," he asked in an editorial, "what brings more prejudice against Islam - these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras?" Mr al-Momani is now in prison following his exemplary use of comparative blasphemy.

The importance of blasphemy, as shown in Norway and Jordan, cannot be underestimated for the progress of society, in which religious leaders always will want to achieve totalitarian powers if not unchecked. British comedian Rowan Atkinson last week pointed out that expressions that will cause offence to many faithful can create religious modernisation.

"Ridiculous, outmoded or hateful religious practices need to be criticised and exposed," Mr Atkinson wrote. "If the exposure of hateful or ridiculous religious practices generates dislike of that religion's followers, they should accept that also and not seek legal immunity. They cannot renounce responsibility for their practices. They should defend them, justify them, or correct them."

Whithout criticism of religion and religious leaders, Europe would still be burning witches and killing Jews and Muslims. Demanding respect for Islam has been considered a blasphemy in Europe! European liberalists were called unfaithful by Church leaders when campaigning to stop slavery. Islam's holy scriptures defend slavery. Thanks to liberal minds and the use of what thus was seen as blasphemy, some of these ills have been rooted out. Taleban has shown us the way "forward" if we give into totalitarian religous fanatics.

Islam, with its many sub-beliefs, self-appointed leaders, diverging cultural norms and diverse practices is strong enough to face such criticism and exposure. It needs no protection. Claiming otherwise may even be understood as blasphemy. Islam needs freedom of expression and blasphemy to develop its potential strength, self-esteem and to root out the many rotten fruits claiming to represent the true faith just to gain a personal power basis.

World editors, writers, artist, scientists, politicians and the public at large are well advised to stand up and defend total freedom of expression - it is a universal human right - at this crucial moment. The cowardliness seen in great parts of Europe and most of the world now, as totalitarian forces attack this freedom is totally unacceptable.

In Norway, ten of the nation's most prominent writers have voiced their outrage with the government's cowardliness. Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has gone do far in apologising the cartoons that the writers feel is apologising the existence of freedom of expression in Norway. By denying that two of the country's main daily's, 'Dagbladet' and Aftenposten' also have printed a facsimile of the drawings, the PM is trying to make 'Magazinet' culpable, they hold.

This is not the time to act cowardly. Freedom of expression already has seen thousands of martyrs throughout world history - in greater parts of the world than any religion. In Europe, we thought the era of martyrs was over. Acting cowardly towards totalitarian practitioners of religion or isms can only lead us towards a new Munich and a new era of martyrs. Editors, politicians, artists, intellectuals, citizens of the world: blasphemy is a necessary deed!

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