Several people this month – wags, no doubt – have been asking me when Impact will be printing the infamous cartoons that have so inflamed Muslim opinion around the world and cost one British editor, at our fellow student publication Gair Rhydd, his job. The short answer is, Impact won’t be publishing them. Why not? Well, I’m going to tell you now. And it’s not only because I’m worried about losing my job or having British Embassies torched worldwide. Impact won’t be publishing the cartoons because I believe that our much-vaunted freedoms of speech don’t entitle you to say anything you like, but give you the freedom to choose what to say. This choice carries with it a certain degree of responsibility. For example, whilst there’s no law specifically against it, no mainstream European newspaper would countenance publishing a caricature of a blood-soaked, hook-nosed Jew grasping at the globe. They’re too responsible for that.
For this reason, all of the wind being made about European newspapers’ right to ‘freedom of speech’ is bogus. The editors of Jyllands-Posten should have known that their cartoons would offend Muslims and they should have apologised immediately. It’s all well and good sparking debate about the relationship between suicide bombing and Islam, but there are less mindlessly provocative ways to do it.
This is, however, a debate we need to have, for Muslims too seem blind to certain facts – particularly the fact that these cartoons were first published last September and are only now causing uproar. It must be realised that extremists have seized hold of this argument and are twisting it to their own ends. The extremist contribution to the debate also includes a considerable degree of misinformation, including the attribution of several photographs not connected in any way with Islam to an alleged anti-Islamic campaign in the European media. Whether this action was accidental or deliberate, it speaks of intent to provoke the inter-communal tensions that we are now witnessing. In the long run, the only winners from this episode will be the European far right – unless Muslims can stand up and say that their co-religionists are hijacking and misrepresenting their faith.
We should also perhaps understand the angry response of European Muslims to this attack on their faith as the behaviour of a minority who perceive themselves as under siege from some quarters. After all, what would you say if newspapers portrayed everyone who shared your religion (or some other secular characteristic) as de-individualised quasi-suicide bombers? European history provides ample evidence that nobody will stand up for minorities but the minorities themselves until it’s much, much too late. This shouldn’t in any way be seen as condoning the violent statements and even actions of some protestors, however – there are legitimate avenues of opposition open to them that they should be taking instead. Fortunately, reason seems to have prevailed in Britain, and the protests staged by Muslims in Trafalgar Square a couple of weeks ago were orderly and restrained.
This was, perhaps, because with the dishonourable exception of Gair Rhydd, the response of the British media has been equally restrained and respectful. For once, Britain’s rags seem to have got it right.