Has Jyllands-Posten been hypocritical?

It turns out that Jyllands-Posten, the paper which published the cartoons of Mohammed in Denmark back in September, had previously, in 2003, refused to publish a cartoon of Jesus, on the grounds that it might cause offence.

Some have suggested that the argument that Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons of Mohammed as a test of Danish freedom of speech and as part of a debate on freedom of speech is a hypocritical one in the light of this.

I don’t think this does necessarily show they’ve been hypocritical, though of course it’s not unknown for newspapers — or any other human organisation — to do so. There are several reasons:

  • according to the article linked above, the editor who rejected the Jesus cartoon is a different editor from the one who commissioned the Mohammed cartoons. Thus we have different people judging the suitability of the cartoons in each case.
  • the Jesus cartoon was submitted for publication, not commissioned by the paper.
  • the paper’s ostensible reason for commissioning the Mohammed cartoons was that, in the light of the difficulties Kare Bluitgen had finding an artist to illustrate a children’s book on Mohammed, difficulties based on fear of death threats from militant Muslims at a perceive insult to Islam if they did, they wanted to test Danish freedom of speech and spark a debate about the issue. The fear of intimidation for depicting Mohammed simply did not exist with regards to Jesus. Thus the need to stand up for freedom of speech did not exist in that case and the possible causation of offence over an unsolicited cartoon would not be countered by the imperative to stand up to intimidation from some militant Muslims.

It is worth nothing that since publication the offices of Jyllands-Posten have been subjected to bomb-scares and that the cartoonists have faced death threats and have gone into hiding. Also, the remnants of the Taleban have put a bounty on the cartoonist’s heads, namely 100kg of gold.

As with Salman Rushdie, Theo Van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, the response of some Islamists to a perceived insult of Islam is to intimidate and threaten the death of those responsible. Indeed, where Salman Rushdie was famously the subject of a fatwa calling for this death, Theo Van Goh was murdered and a note pinned to his body threatened Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Their crime? To have made a film, Submission, highlighting the mistreatment of women in Muslim families.

It is this intimidation that threatens freedom of speech and it seems to me that Jyllands-Posten were trying to stand up for freedom of speech against such intimidation when they asked for the cartoons.

Now maybe JP aren’t perfect, maybe they’ve not always been so good at standing up for freedom of speech, maybe they were even trying to get some publicity, but that does not alter the fact that such intimidation occurs, they are now the recipients of such intimidation – along with anyone else who has published the cartoons and that there is a need to counter this intimidation of people who dare to criticise Muslims or Islamic culture.

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