Free to Desecrate?


Last year, the world was outraged to hear about possible religious desecrations at Guantanamo Bay. Reports of flushing the Quran down the toilet, splashing urine on the Quran, preventing Muslim prisoners from praying, and other religious indignities were condemned as impermissible within American interrogation protocols. Although many of these accusations were questionable or ultimately discredited, the response from both Western and Muslim communities remains clear and unequivocal: desecrating religious objects – even when such desecration might yield valuable information that could end wars and save lives – is unacceptable in civilized societies.

How is the desecration by France Soir and other European newspapers this past week any different? The journalists and commentators who support France Soir’s actions argue from the bulwark of free speech. But if ending wars and saving lives can’t justify desecration, then reprinting newspaper cartoons surely does not meet the bar.

Freedom of speech is not absolute. Many Western cultures recognize that there are reasonable limits on free expression, including prohibitions on hate speech, incitement, and defamation. Anti-Muslim discrimination and “Islamaphobia” are pervasive in the West, even in liberal sectors. Even though the vast majority of Muslims are ordinary, peaceful citizens, they (and their religion) are widely and frequently mischaracterized as violent, primitive, secretive – in short, as terrorists. The cartoons themselves perpetuate that pernicious stereotype by portraying Mohammed, the founder of Islam, as a modern day suicide bomber. This lashing out cannot be permitted.

Moreover, the social and political circumstance of Muslims in Europe is precarious and unstable. There is, of course, the ongoing war in Iraq. Terrorism in public centers. The “burka ban” in French schools. Everyone knows that tensions between Muslims and Western democracies are extraordinarily high right now. You would think that a French paper, members of which must have seen cars burning night after night in the Parisian suburbs as Muslims rioted there less than a year ago, would be especially sensitive to this atmosphere. Yet despite these tensions France Soir decided to reprint the offending cartoons – the literary equivalent of lighting a match near a stockpile of dynamite. Surely the violent reaction of the Muslim community – especially considering that the original printing of the cartoons in September was met with protest and boycott – was not a surprise. Can the journalists honestly say that their right to publish those materials within those circumstances is more valuable than the right for an entire religious community to feel free from persecution? More legitimate than the Muslims’ right of religious expression? More defensible than maintaining public order and preventing violence? The actions of the France Soir editor smack of self-serving opportunism, a chance to sell more papers at the expense of an ancient religion.

Ultimately, brandishing the “freedom of speech” shield simply reveals the supreme ethnocentrism of western cultures. Europeans and Americans observe their own cultural boundaries, even within political satire; it is unthinkable, for example, that an American newspaper would print cartoons with flagrantly anti-Semitic or racist images. There could be several reasons for this editorial discretion, including respect for subscribers’ views, an understanding of history, an appreciation of the tensions and pressures shaping the present moment, or simply a self-interested desire to continue selling papers. Concerns about “freedom of speech” ring hollow in light of this cultural hypocrisy and double standard. Firing the France Soir editor was a step in the right direction, but is not enough. By reprinting anti-Islamic cartoons, France Soir and other newspapers demonstrated that they – and perhaps the West as well – have not understood or incorporated the Islamic experience and perspective in any kind of meaningful way. Until they do so, the pluralistic society extolled by liberal western humanism will be a charade.

Jennifer Reynolds, 2L, is from Austin, TX.

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