FOR people living in Western liberal societies, free speech
underpins the very freedom to think. That's what makes it the
mother of all rights.
In fact, free speech is the first right mentioned in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And as George Orwell once
said: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell
people what they do not want to hear."
As the Danish cartoon row spreads, it is clear that freedom of
expression is not an absolute, especially when it conflicts with
"It's grossly irresponsible of the editors to publish these
cartoons," says Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh, senior lecturer in global
politics at Monash University. "In a sense they are trying to break
a taboo here, but it's not their taboo to break."
Denmark has been the main target of arson and threats. In Syria,
protesters torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies. Iran
recalled its ambassador to Denmark, following the example of Syria,
Saudi Arabia and Libya. Lebanon's Interior Minister resigned after
protesters burnt the Danish consulate. Thousands protested in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Indonesia, protesters attacked the
building housing the Danish embassy. Threats against Europeans and
their diplomats spread around the Muslim world.
One cartoon depicts Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, another
shows him holding a sword with two women in Islamic dress. Another
has him standing in paradise telling a parade of suicide bombers:
"Stop, stop. We have run out of virgins."
"Freedom of speech," says former prime minister Malcolm Fraser
"has never meant the right to say anything, no matter how offensive
to some other race, group or religion … I believe they (the
cartoons) have to be put in the total context of the war on terror.
Very few things are absolute and freedom of expression is not
We should be trying to make it harder for extremists to recruit,
but we are making it easier by "doing things that are stupid", he
But do the cartoons lampoon the prophet, or terrorists who
commit evil in the name of Islam? And are they really offensive to
"I've seen all of the cartoons and not all of them are
offensive," says Amir Butler, the co-convenor of the Australian
Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network. Some would be offensive to
all Muslims and editors should have predicted the ferocious
reaction, he says.
But Mr Butler adds another dimension. Governments have inflamed
some of the reaction for political reasons.
"Knowing Syria is a police state, I don't think these things
would have happened unless the Government was tolerant of it," he
says. "I think there was a reaction among the people and the
governments of these Arab countries said 'OK, here's an easy way
for us to bolster our Islamic credentials amongst our own
Press freedom is an alien concept to some in Muslim countries
because of tight government control, he says. "They view the media
as an arm of government. So when they hear the media in Denmark,
for example, have done this, they immediately assume it's because
the Government is supportive."
As was the case with Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic
Verses, many Muslims may not have seen the cartoons but have
still lashed out. "With The Satanic Verses, if people hadn't
reacted the way they did, that book wouldn't have got the airing
that it did and it might not have done so well," Mr Butler
Helen Szoke, the chief executive officer of Equal Opportunity
Victoria, says given the intense scrutiny the cartoons have
attracted, any attempt to publish them in Victoria might be
The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 provides a means of
redress in the case of religious vilification, she says. But given
that the law sets a high bar for what constitutes religious
vilification, and given that there are exceptions allowed such as
publications, works of art and performances done in the public
interest, it may well be that the cartoons would come under the
exception provisions, she says.
Victoria's Christian and Jewish leaders say they understand the
Muslim fury, but defend the importance of free speech.
Dr Paul Gardner, the chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission,
a Jewish human rights group, attacks what he calls Muslim hypocrisy
in demanding sensitivity for Islam while "despicable anti-Jewish
caricatures appear almost daily in government-controlled newspapers
across the Arab and Muslim world".
Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen says he sympathises with
Muslims, but freedom of speech is important. "Mockery of the church
is one of the things we have to put up with. Free speech is only
possible in a moral society where people actually care for each
other. Freedom of speech will be abused in an immoral society, but
even so, it's so important that the people who suffer from it have
to put up with it."
Brian Walters, SC, the president of Liberty Victoria and
vice-president of Free Speech Victoria, says that while publishing
the cartoons is a subjective decision for editors, he would
"strongly support" their right to publish. " … If free speech
means anything, you've got to be able to say offensive things and
it's vital that there be that freedom," he says.
That is Salman Rushdie's message. "What is freedom of
expression?" he once asked. "Without the freedom to offend, it
ceases to exist."
with Barney Zwartz
, 7 February 2006