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Western press 'bravado' over Mohammad cartoons
is evidence of a misunderstanding of press freedom

By Benjamin R. Barber

The angry debate still raging over the cartoons published last fall in Denmark, and republished recently in newspapers throughout Europe, has been cast as the opening of a new front in the so-called clash of civilizations – the cultural war supposedly dividing liberty and religion, and putting Western freedom of the press and Islamic religious sensibilities at odds. But although it is rapidly being turned into a cultural conflict by righteous protagonists on both sides, the original Danish provocation along with the subsequent editorial bravado among European editors who reprinted the offending cartoons actually reflects a failure within the West to understand the meaning and purpose of its own vaunted freedom of the press tradition, and to take at least some responsibility for the consequences of this failure as it has impacted Muslim societies around the world. 

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, when he got around to weighing in on the controversy, spoke up this week for freedom of speech and said he was sticking to Europe’s values. “I defend the democratic system” he proclaimed. But it is precisely the relationship between freedom of the press and democracy that is being neglected. Freedom of the press has in fact acquired a promiscuous provenance of late in both Europe and the United States. Like the right to free expression on which it rests, it has come to refer to an abstract right for any one to more or less say anything they please about just about anyone. Ridicule God, stick it to Jesus, brand a clothes line FCUK, satirize the Holocaust, sew the flag into undergarments, or defile the prophet Mohammad – ‘whatever’ (as they say nonchalantly on MTV). That’s the sacred right of press freedom that defines liberal democracy in the West.

Yet though it has come to be used in a radically commercialized Western market society to protect intrusive and offensive commercial speech, and though it is currently being employed to show angry Muslims who supposedly just don’t get it how liberal democracy works, free speech is in the first instance protected in a democracy in order to protect democracy, as well as the open debate that alone makes democracy possible. What Mr. Barroso failed to say was that freedom of the press is designed to protect the weak from the strong, not to enable the strong to bully the weak. Democracy legitimizes power through consent and participation and must constantly counter the abuse of power, whether by an overweening government (or its official media voice), by private power, or by a tyrannical majority intimidating a minority. Free speech is the crucial instrument in confronting such abuse.

The idea is to give people the right to speak truth to power – or at least to speak to power, whether or not they have the truth, without fear of censorship. Two recent examples of what free expression is supposed to be: first, the case of Harry Belafonte, an American citizen, calling the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the world, a “terrorist.” You may agree or not with his characterization (I disagree), but Belafonte – much lambasted by the same media pundits who today celebrate the defaming of the prophet -- used free expression to counter what he understood to be the abuse of power by a sitting American President. Second case: Chinese editor Wu Xianghu, who ran an editorial in The Taizhou Evening news last fall charging the local police with abuse of power. His courageous use of press freedom in a country that does not protect it led to a police beating from which he died a few days ago. These are instances in which individuals committed to democracy try to speak truth to power, often at risk to their reputation if not their lives.

But in the Danish case, which truth was being spoken to which power? A dominant, historically Lutheran but largely secular white society ran cartoon parodies of its exposed and vulnerable Muslim minority’s most sacred religious images. It actually solicited the cartoons, apparently as a kind of “experiment.” People already marginalized in the local culture were graphically told their religion countenanced terrorism. Is this freedom deployed to protect the weak? Or to intimidate the vulnerable?

Then there are the European champions of a free press who have reprinted the cartoons to demonstrate their righteous solidarity with the Danes, when in truth they were merely replicating and amplifying the bullying misjudgment of the Danish press in countries where Muslims remain an embattled minority whose basic freedoms are anything but secure. The hypocrisy comes in pretending that power plays no role what they see as the clash of free speech and Muslim religious sensibility. But freedom of speech is about countervailing power. The rule is simple: the law may insist on formal parity in protecting free expression, but democracy’s freedom demands that the compass of free speech be constrained by the realities of power and the responsibilities that come with them. The more powerful the speaker, the less the need for an absolute right to free expression; the more vulnerable and weak, the greater the need. If European editors want to confront radical fundamentalist Islam, let them travel to Teheran or Karachi and publish the cartoons there, where they would directly confront those who misuse Mohammad and the Koran to justify murder and mayhem.

All exchanges of speech in the marketplace of democracy are skewed by power relations. Though the laws protecting free expression apply a neutral standard, those who actually employ the right, especially when its content is subversive or offensive, must ask themselves not only if they have the right to say what they say, but whether in doing so they are curbing or extending the abuse of power. This is to exercise that civic responsibility tied to press freedom about which pundits prattle on, but from which they have asked nothing.

None of this excuses the violence of the reaction to the cartoons, although it is important to note that while there has been plenty of rhetoric (call it free speech) threatening editors and Westerners, almost all of those wounded or killed have themselves been free speakers and protesters – the victims of force employed by state regimes (some of them repressive) putting down demonstrations.

Recalling the purposes and meaning of free speech in the West would help explain why a vulnerable Muslim minority in Europe might condemn the cartoons not only as a violation of the religious taboo against portraying (letting alone ridiculing) the prophet Mohammad, but also as a misuse of free speech to rationalize what was in fact a cover for intimidation and bullying. To do this could tone down the stupid rhetoric of cultural war and force those champions of the free press who started the controversy to take a careful look in the mirror of democracy at what their own responsibility for what has happened.

Benjamin R. Barber is the Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and a principal of the Democracy Collaborative, with offices in New York, and Maryland. Reprinted by permission.


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