Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Debating the Danish Cartoons: Civil Rights or Civil Power?"

Cindy Holder, Debating the Danish Cartoons: Civil Rights or Civil Power?, 55 U.N.B. L.J. 179 (2006).

In its annual forum on a topic of legal and political interest, the University of New Brunswick Law Journal chose in 2006 the topic of the Danish Muhammed cartoons. One of the contributions was this brief article by Cindy Holder, which took the interesting position of arguing that the debate should not be over whether the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten should have the right to run the cartoons, but whether the newspaper was right to run the cartoons (p. 184-85). According to Holder, "having the right to free speech doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry" (p. 182) and the newspaper's decision to run the cartoon and refusal to apologize for it demonstrate that "what is actually being defended in this case is not civil liberty but civil privilege. In particular, what is at issue is the privilege to exclude and define Muslims." (p. 179). Holder argues that the cartoon controversy is "about the power of Westerners to speak as they wish about Muslims. That power includes the ability to exclude Muslims from determinations of what may be said, both by excluding them from the conversation and by being indifferent to their responses." (p. 183) She concludes by stating that "[a]t the heart of this controversy is an implicit assertion that Westerners can and should speak with impunity about Islam and its adherents."

Moving the ground of the controversy from the legal/political question of whether the newspapers should have had the right to publish the cartoons to a discussion of the appropriateness of the cartoons certainly provides an interesting new angle to address the matter. From my reading of various contributions to the debate, the reason these cartoons and the accompanying protests have become such a topic of conversation is not because they raise a traditional civil liberties issue (should the newspaper have the free speech right to run the cartoons) but because some seem them as raising an even more fundamental question: are Western values of free speech, freedom of religion, and equality compatible with Muslim religious values or is violence the inevitable result of a "clash of civilizations"? The Danish Muhammed cartoons arose in the context of a growing fear in some segments of Danish society (reflecting wider fears elsewhere in Europe) that core Enlightenment values would diminish in the face of an increasing population of Muslim citizens.

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