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Our cherished right to blaspheme

The Danish Muhammad Cartoons

Rotating Compass & Square

National Post

Our cherished right to blaspheme

February 16, 2008


This week, at least 17 Danish newspapers reprinted one of the 12 Muhammad cartoons that two winters ago set off an orgy of outrage and killing in the Muslim world. They did so not to sensationalize the news or ignite a return of the street riots in which scores of protestors were killed in early 2006. Rather, they published the caricature of the Muslim prophet to take a stand for freedom of expression. Danish police had earlier arrested three suspected plotters whom they believed were readying to murder Kurt Westergaard, the artist of the cartoon in question. The papers' owners, publishers and editors wanted Muslim extremists to know they would not let threats and terror tactics intimidate them into giving up one of Western civilization's most fundamental freedoms, what one called "the right to blasphemy."

The papers and their staffs are to be commended for their courageous act. What they have done may seem, on the surface, trivial. After all, countless publications around the Western world every day publish material that is provocative and even scandalous. But in a world were political correctness and extremist violence have combined to stifle debate about the threat posed by militant Islam, the reprints were anything but ordinary.

Perhaps in this regard, the Danes are way ahead of us North Americans. Having been among the first Western nations to welcome large-scale Muslim immigration more than 30 years ago, Danish society is now engaged in a national debate over what to do with the roughly 5% of the population who are Muslim and refuse to learn the language, participate in mainstream Danish life or respect the country's pluralistic traditions. The high-stakes Danish conversation over what we have come to call "reasonable accommodation" makes Quebec's version look like a pleasant chat about the weather.

This week, the National Post reprinted the same cartoon -- showing Muhammad wearing a turban, which doubles as a bomb with a lit fuse. We claim no high-minded motives for doing so. It merely seemed a logical part of our news coverage. The response from our readers has been heartening: virtually none at all. Only about a dozen people wrote to us about the inclusion of the image, and only three of those were critical. Our readers understand that there should be nothing exceptional about a newspaper publishing a newsworthy image.

No doubt, the non-reaction is due in large part to the cartoons' widespread availability on the Internet: Most of our readers have already seen the images on Wikipedia and other sites. But we also believe it is a sign that Canadians realize that there can be no special sectarian carve-outs from the general principle of free speech. Christians don't get a veto on words or images that blaspheme God and his prophets. The same must be true of Islam -- not to mention Judaism, Hinduism and every other faith. No matter what your faith, the trade-off for living in a society that honours free speech is the requirement to grow a thick skin.

Even Syed Soharwardy now claims to have realized this. Mr. Soharwardy is the Calgary imam who launched a human rights complaint in Alberta against Ezra Levant over the printing of the cartoons in Mr. Levant's now-defunct Western Standard magazine. Earlier this week, the imam, who also heads a group called the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, announced he was withdrawing his complaint against Mr. Levant. He told the Calgary Herald that his two-year fight with Mr. Levant had shown him this was a free-speech issue rather than a hate-speech or religious discrimination issue. He now better understands how "holy and sacred" free speech is in Canadian society.

If Mr. Soharwardy can see this, why can't our politicians? Why do Canada's federal and provincial leaders continue to defend human rights councils and their power to decide what views are and are not acceptable to be voiced in public?

Two weeks ago, Victoria Liberal MP Keith Martin introduced a private member's bill that would repeal the censorious Canadian Human Rights Act section that makes it an offence to publish, post or broadcast any message that might make an identifiable group the subject of hatred and discrimination. For his troubles, his own leader, Stephane Dion, has asked Dr. Martin to withdraw his bill. Meanwhile, Tory Justice Minister Rob Nicholson last week sent a letter to all Conservative MPs telling them to clam up whenever the subject of rights commissions comes up. All parties are frightened of appearing to be against human rights, so none will take a leadership position.

Perhaps what we need in the House of Commons is a few members with experience as Danish newspaper publishers. Then perhaps our government could summon the courage to do away with the assault on free speech being waged in the name of "human rights."

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