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On the Danish Cartoons: When Speech Offends

Questions and Answers on the Danish Cartoons: When Speech Offends

On September 30, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed that its editors said they solicited as part of an experiment to overcome what they perceived as self-censorship reflected in the reluctance of illustrators to depict the Prophet. The cartoons were highly offensive to Muslims because Islam is understood to prohibit graphic depictions of the Prophet and because most of the depictions were extremely derogatory, for example, by associating him, and by implication all Muslims, with terrorism.

At first protests against the cartoons extended little farther than Denmark’s Muslim community, but by February 2006 an extraordinary outcry had spread to the Muslim world at large. Much of the outrage was directed against the government of Denmark, which, invoking its laws on freedom of expression, refused to suppress the cartoons or take action against their publishers. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, representing 57 countries, criticized Denmark for failing to apologize and take action against Jyllands-Posten, and is seeking a U.N. General Assembly resolution to ban attacks on religious beliefs. Mass protests have taken in many countries, in some cases leading to violence, loss of life, and destruction of diplomatic and other property.

Jyllands-Posten, while apologizing four months after publication for offending Muslims and denying any intent to incite a “campaign” against them, defended its right to publish the cartoons. It reportedly received bomb threats that caused it to evacuate two offices in late January. Many other newspapers, in Europe and around the world, have reprinted the cartoons, sometimes as part of their reporting on the controversy and sometimes to reaffirm the right to publish material even if it offends religious views.

The cartoon controversy should be understood against a backdrop of rising Western prejudice and suspicion directed against Muslims, and an associated sense of persecution among Muslims in many parts of the world. In Europe, rapidly growing Muslim communities have become the continent’s largest religious minority but also among its most economically disadvantaged communities and the target of discriminatory and anti-immigration measures. Acts of violence carried out in the name of radical Islamist groups coupled with parallel efforts to suppress that violence have aggravated tensions. So have disputes over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and continuing tensions in the Mideast over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, several authoritarian governments in Muslim countries have seized on the cartoon controversy to deflect pressure from their own citizens for increased official accountability and respect for basic rights.

Much of the outrage against the cartoons has been framed not in terms of tangible acts of discrimination, violence or harassment against Muslims, but in terms of disrespect for Islam itself and those who adhere to it and animosity toward the Muslim world. Some have questioned why many nations in Europe, which continue to have blasphemy laws protecting the Christian religion, do not similarly protect Islam, or why anti-Semitic speech has been suppressed as “hate speech” but not these cartoons. Western governments, in turn, have asked why governments of predominantly Muslim nations are so outraged over the cartoons’ disparagement of Islam when they permit similarly disrespectful commentary about members of other religions or religious sects in their official press.

Western governments have resisted suppressing or punishing publication of the cartoons, but governments in predominantly Muslim countries, including Jordan and Yemen, have arrested and brought criminal charges against editors whose papers reprinted the cartoons. Malaysia on February 9 declared it an offense for anyone to publish, produce, import, circulate or possess the caricatures.

As detailed below, Human Rights Watch rejects the disrespectful and prejudiced attitudes reflected in the cartoons, but affirms that, under the right of freedom of expression, governments are not entitled to suppress speech simply because it is offensive or disrespectful of religion. Still, we recognize that for many the cartoon controversy raises difficult questions. We post below our effort to answer those questions.

What does international human rights law tell us about the dispute over the cartoons?

International human rights law cannot answer all questions raised about the cartoons. Human rights law obliges governments to protect religious freedom and religious minorities, but, as explained below, the cartoon controversy mostly concerns the limits imposed by human rights law, particularly the right to freedom of expression, on governments’ ability to suppress speech. In prohibiting governmental censorship of certain kinds of speech, human rights law does not suggest endorsement of that speech. Similarly, while the right to freedom of expression requires governments to allow speech that they and many others might find offensive, misguided, or even immoral, human rights law cannot answer the question of whether it was wise or proper for Jyllands-Posten and others to publish the cartoons. Nor can human rights law dictate the posture that governments should take toward the cartoons in their public comments—whether, for example, they should clarify that the content does not reflect official views or express their belief that it was unwise to have used the freedom of expression in this way. Rather, human rights law, in relevant part, speaks only to whether governments must permit such speech, regardless of whether they endorse the views expressed.

The cartoons caused extreme offense to many Muslims—why should the right to freedom of expression protect such cartoons?

The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental one, necessary to protect the exercise of all other human rights in democratic societies because it is essential for holding governments accountable to the public. Freedom of expression is particularly necessary with respect to provocative or offensive speech, because once governmental censorship is permitted in such cases, the temptation is enormous for government officials to find speech that is critical of them to be unduly provocative or offensive as well. The freedom to express even controversial points of view is also important for societies to address key political, social, and cultural issues, since taboos often mask matters of considerable public concern that are best addressed through honest and unfettered debate among those holding diverse points of view. Although international human rights law does impose certain limits on the right to freedom of expression (discussed below), the important functions served by that right require interpreting those limitations narrowly.

Aren’t pictures as hateful as these properly considered “hate speech”?

Not all speech that is hateful constitutes “hate speech” that must be prohibited under international human rights law. Advocacy of religious hatred can be suppressed only when it constitutes imminent incitement to unlawful acts of discrimination, hostility or violence. In addition, to constitute such incitement, the discrimination, hostility or violence must be urged or promoted by the speech in question. It is not incitement when opponents of speech or those who find the speech offensive use violence, since that would give censorship over any speech to those who are willing to employ violence to attack it. In this case, the main complaint against the cartoons is that they offend Islam, not that they have inspired acts of violence, criminal harassment or tangible discrimination against Danish or other Muslims. Speech that targets a religion for disrespect, as opposed to speech that targets believers for unlawful acts, is protected, however offensive it may be.

Why not ban the cartoons as blasphemy?

Many European nations still have blasphemy laws, although they are seldom enforced. Some of these laws prohibit blasphemy against only certain religions, such as Christianity. Such laws are clearly discriminatory and may reflect broader societal discrimination. Moreover, many of these laws should not be on the books at all. Although the European Court of Human Rights has upheld some of these laws, it is far from clear why certain religious beliefs should be protected from critical discussion or even ridicule when other political beliefs, aesthetic views, or cultural opinions are not. Freedom of expression is valuable for allowing broad public debate of any topic. It is wrong to exclude from that debate certain religious beliefs, because speech on these topics is about ideas, not incitement or even advocacy of violence.

Why can’t the cartoons be banned as potentially harmful to public safety or the rights of Muslims?

Freedom of expression may be limited to protect public safety and the rights of others, but such limitations must be strictly “necessary” in a democratic society. Banning provocative speech rarely meets that test. In the case of the cartoons, any threat of violence by protesters should be contained through traditional law enforcement means. In some countries where protests have turned violent, however, officials seem to have tolerated the unlawful behavior—a disregard of their responsibilities that makes it all the more inappropriate to blame the original cartoons for ensuing unrest. A society built on respect for freedom of expression and the value of robust debate should, wherever possible, meet offensive speech with more speech—denunciations, objections, explanations—rather than censorship in the name of public safety.

As for the rights of Muslims, the cartoons in no sense impede Muslims’ right to freedom of religion. Religious freedom means that all people have the liberty to adopt the religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) of their choosing and to worship and, as much as possible in a democratic society, live their own lives in accordance with those beliefs. However, freedom of religion does not give anyone the right to impose his or her religious beliefs on others. That Muslims find the depictions of the Prophet Mohammed objectionable does not give them the right under international human rights law to insist that others abide by their views. Muslims, like all others, are free to state their religious objections and to press for more respectful treatment, but they are not entitled to censor the expression of others in the name of their own religious freedom.

Why shouldn’t the government hold editors responsible for publishing such offensive material?

Editors should be held responsible for what they decide to publish—but by their readers, communities, or employers, not their governments. Under the right of freedom of expression, a government cannot impose its views of what is fit to publish except in very limited cases as described above.


Should we consider newspapers that reprinted the cartoons even more culpable of provoking outraged response than Jyllands-Posten since by then it was clear how offensive the cartoons were?

Newspapers that reprinted the cartoons may have done so for many reasons—giving their readers a first-hand opportunity to judge the cartoons themselves, showing solidarity with the Danish newspaper, provoking further controversy, or even reflecting hatred toward Muslims. However, it is not clear that any newspaper intended to incite or caused unlawful acts against Muslims. Republishers of material that is protected should enjoy the same protection from state retaliation as the original publisher. That said, many have legitimately questioned the editorial judgment of those that republished the cartoons in the context of global violence and protest. Nonetheless, international human rights law still protects their decision to republish.

Don’t Muslims and everyone offended by the cartoons have the right to protest them?

Human rights law protects the right to peacefully protest offensive speech, just as it protects the right to utter provocative or offensive speech. Governments have a duty to make peaceful protest possible, by respecting the right of individuals to assemble, express outrage, organize boycotts, and engage in other peaceful acts. Governments also have a duty to protect the public from protests that turn violent, to take appropriate action against specific threats against the life and property of others, and to reaffirm their own duty to avoid discriminatory speech and actions.

Are governments held to a higher standard for speech than private persons?

Government officials have free-speech rights as well, but they also have a parallel responsibility, beyond that of an ordinary citizen, to protect the welfare, lives and rights of the people of their nation, and to combat discrimination and intolerance. As a matter of these other responsibilities, governments should be especially careful not to speak in a way that encourages violence, discrimination or hatred because that would breach their core obligations to maintain a peaceful, open, and tolerant society.

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