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Freedom of Speech or Incitement to Violence? A Debate Over the Publication of Cartoons of Prophet Muhammed and the Global Muslim Protests

StoryFebruary 07, 2006
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Muslim protests continue to rage around the world against newspapers depicting the Prophet Muhammed. We host a debate with Irshad Manji, author of “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith” and As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. [includes rush transcript]

Muslims are continuing to demonstrate around the world over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. At least six people have been killed in the worldwide protests — in Somalia, Lebanon and four in Afghanistan–and violence has broken out in cities across Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten originally published the 12 cartoons last September–including one that shows the Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse. The cartoons were republished in European and other news media in the last week. Muslims say the images are blasphemous and contrary to Islamic tradition prohibiting depictions of the prophet. The reaction to their publication has stretched across the globe.

In Iran, Lebanon and Syria, the Danish embassies have been set ablaze and several Middle Eastern countries have recalled their ambassadors from Denmark. The Iranian government said it is reviewing trade ties with all the countries where the cartoons have been published. Denmark issued a list of 14 Muslim countries which Danish travelers should avoid and urged its citizens on Tuesday to leave Indonesia.

Some Muslim leaders have condemned the violence.

  • Ahmed Abou-Llaban, Imam of the Danish Muslim Society.

Meanwhile, fresh protests erupted in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, where a NATO base used by Norwegian troops was attacked. On Monday, protesters turned out in Iraq, the West Bank, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Thailand and even New Zealand. Newspapers have defended the publication of the cartoons arguing their right to free speech. One protester in Auckland, argued otherwise.

  • Naveed Hamid, of the Pakistan Association speaking in New Zealand.

The Philadelphia Inquirer became the first U.S. newspaper to publish the disputed cartoons on Saturday. The paper’s editor Amanda Bennett said, “My view is that we need to publish it for a good news reason, we need to publish in context and we need to explain to readers why we did it.”

In Washington, the Bush administration took a diplomatic approach to the issue.

  • Sean McCormack, State Department spokesperson.

We host a debate on the cartoon controversy and the worldwide protests.

  • Irshad Manji, author of the book, “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith.” She is currently based at Yale University as a Visiting Fellow with the International Security Studies program.
    Website: www.Muslim-
  • As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of several books, his latest is “The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power.” He runs a popular blog called “The Angry Arab News Service.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Some Muslim leaders have condemned the violence. This is Ahmed Abou-Llaban, Imam of the Danish Muslim Society.

AHMED ABOU-LLABAN: Our issue is intellectual and cultural. In Syria, what is happening is wrong. Somebody make cartoons, he should be or this group or institution only should be held responsible about it. Setting fire to embassies’ peaceful people, it’s wrong, it’s not acceptable in any terms. Moreover, in Scandinavia have been very peaceful, cooperative and helpful to the people in the Middle East and the total Palestinian issue, so I think this violence is completely wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, fresh protests erupted in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, where a NATO base used by Norwegian troops was attacked. On Monday, protesters turned out in Iraq, the West Bank, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Thailand and even New Zealand. Newspapers have defended the publication of the cartoons, arguing their right to free speech. One protester in Auckland, argued otherwise.

NAVEED HAMID: Freedom of speech does not mean insult. There is a thin fine line on that. So, have to be careful when attacking someone’s religion.

AMY GOODMAN: The Philadelphia Inquirer became the first U.S. newspaper to publish the disputed cartoons Saturday. The paper’s editor, Amanda Bennett, said, “My view is that we need to publish it for a good news reason. We need to publish in context, and we need to explain to readers why we did it.” In Washington, the Bush administration took a diplomatic approach to the issue.. This is State Department spokesperson, Sean McCormack.

SEAN McCORMACK: We understood why many Muslims found the cartoons offensive. We found — we talked about the fact that we found, on Friday, the cartoons offensive. But we also spoke out very clearly in support of freedom of the press. As to what appears in newspapers, what is broadcast over the airwaves, those are decisions in free countries for a free media.

AMY GOODMAN: State Department’s Sean McCormick. When we come back from break, we will have a debate on the cartoon controversy.


AMY GOODMAN: As we host a debate on the controversy over the cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammed and the worldwide protest, we’re joined in the Yale studio in New Haven, Connecticut, by Irshad Manji. She is author of the book The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith, currently based at Yale as a Visiting Fellow with the International Security Studies program. And on the phone with us from California is As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, author of several books. His latest is The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism and Global Power. He also runs a popular blog called the Angry Arab News Service. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Can you respond to these worldwide protests against the publication of these cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, I will try to explain some of the orientations of Muslim Arab angers about the cartoons. Before I do so, I would like to say, right at the outset, where I stand. First, I’m very much in favor, and I relish the opportunity to mock every and other religion. What I think is very bothersome to many Arabs and Muslims is exactly what the other guest does, which is selective condemnation and mocking of one religion over others. I mean, I think if you mock all religion, that is consistent, free thinking, in support for the enlightenment, as well as secularism, but what comes out of many in the West is selective secularism, the notion that you can mock one religion, but all others have to be treated with reverence and sacredness. And this is why this entire defense, in the name of freedom of speech, doesn’t sell very much in the Arab world.

People very much know that offenses against Muslims and Arabs are often treated as defensive, and because they’re in the name of freedom of speech, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, which among other western publications circulated and reprinted those cartoons again in the name of freedom of speech, and we all know that they wouldn’t dare do so if these were offensive to Jews, for example. I mean, this entire debate of newsworthiness of those cartoons also is not very convincing. I mean, David Irving is a grotesque Nazi white supremacist so-called historian in England who was in trial, and I wouldn’t think that The Philadelphia Inquirer would ever dare reprint some of his ugly hateful writings about the Second World era. I mean, this shows exactly the kind of hypocrisy that is striking many in the Arab Muslim world. The second thing I want to say is, I mean —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me get Irshad Manji to respond, and then you can respond to her.

IRSHAD MANJI: Well, thank you very much, Amy. I am, frankly, shocked that your other guest would already attack me for being quote/unquote “selective.” Certainly I have written a book called The Trouble with Islam Today, but as I have pointed out time and again, that doesn’t mean that the other religions are problem-free. It’s just that there are no shortage of books in the libraries about the problem with Christianity, no dearth of books about the trouble with Judaism. It seems to me that we Muslims have a lot of catching up to do in the dissent department. And I think that a program like this very much appreciates the need for dissent of all belief systems.

And speaking of dissent, you know, I find it interesting that your other guest suggests or actually emphasizes that there is a targeting of Islam, but that no other religion, you know, can be mocked. How then does he explain the routinely and viciously anti-Semitic programming that comes out of the Arab world. And I would remind him that we Muslims never protest that kind of atrocity. So, how do we have integrity demanding to the rest of the world that they completely respect our religion, when we ourselves have trouble respecting other faiths?

AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, Amy, that’s very easy to respond to. First of all, I am aware of the pontification of the other guest on FOX News, among other outlets that relish the opportunity to have somebody like her —

IRSHAD MANJI: I’ll let CNN know.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: One second. One second. This is not FOX — O’Reilly show. This is Amy Goodman. Let me speak. Who are very much in favor of having people who are very much uniquely focused only on Islam. I mean, as it happens, the other guest writes on Islam without being trained or knowledgeable about it. If she would, she would know that there are many brave souls, free thinkers on the history of Islam who spoke out, and some of them died because they went against conventional wisdom, and they were braver against Islam, the religion. Many of them mocked Muhammed. Many of them mocked the Koran. And some of them lived with their heads on their shoulder, but she is totally ignorant about that, because that’s not her specialty.

I mean, her specialty is polemics against Islam, and that’s something very much appreciated in the United States. Yes, it is true there are many media in the Arab world that have published grotesque anti-Semitic depictions and images. But these are the responsibility of the government, and many of them are allies of the United States. And she is also, again, ignorant — perhaps she doesn’t know any Persian or Arabic — to know that there’s a big debate and there’s a lot of condemnation about anti-Semitic writings that have come out in some of those publications.

But the issue here also is about something else. I mean, there is a notion in the West here that, you know, the issue is about the fact that Muslims ban depictions of the prophet, I mean, which is true even though in the history of Islamic art, if your guest knows anything about it, there are like tons of, you know, illustrations in Persia, among other places, where Muhammed was, in fact, in very clear detail depicted by Muslims at the time.

For many today in the Arab world, and, I mean, as far as a ranking of outrageous, this is not something that outrages me — that outrages me. But you cannot, in the name of the freedom of speech, deny the Muslims and Arabs the right to be outraged about something that offends them. But that’s the whole issue, that we believe that offenses to Muslims should be defended as something that is in the name of, you know, speech. And there are many outlets today that are reprinting those same cartoons that are offensive to Muslims in the name of freedom of speech, while people do not treat offenses to other religions in the same manner. And it seems to me, if you insist on people having the right to depict in any way they want all prophets, as I do — I mean, I would love to have mocking of all religions. But people don’t do that. People are very selective in what religion can be mocked and ridiculed by comedians and by cartoonists in many Western countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Irshad Manji, your response?

IRSHAD MANJI: It seems to me that our friend here believes that the more angry you are, the more right you are. Boy, I certainly don’t make that kind of an equation. And as far as, you know, reprinting and re-broadcasting these cartoons, I find it interesting that my favorite propaganda platform, according to your guest, FOX News, won’t even go there. They won’t rebroadcast these cartoons, and yet last night they were only too happy to trot out the viciously anti-Jewish cartoons that routinely appear in the Arab world. And you know why they believe they could get away with that? Because the Jews are not going to storm their offices. The Jews are not going to issue death threats against the journalists who are behind these cartoons. The Jews are not going to threaten the lives of people who carry American passports, whereas we Muslims, we do, you know, have trouble containing our own violence, and anybody — anybody who denies that is clearly living in the world of theory, not in the world of reality.

AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil, would you say this is an overreaction, what is happening?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: I mean, first of all, Amy, it’s not up to me to decide. I have my own sensibilities, and for me, I mean, as a secular atheist, you know, I would love to have people who mock and ridicule all religions together, but it is the inconsistency that’s striking, as well as hypocrisy. I mean, she happens to mention the network when she is always pontificating about — about the issues of Islam, even though she is not trained in the subject whatsoever, is that FOX News have routinely talked about how there are offenses to Christianity because people don’t say “Merry Christmas” during the season. I mean, we cannot in any way deny that there are sensibilities of Jews and Christians right here in this country, and that’s something that’s very controversial. You cannot deny that. And when she talks about routine anti-Semitism, I mean, that is also a generalization about an entire region and about millions of people in the world. As I said, she is totally unaware about the many Muslims and Arabs who routinely speak out against anti-Semitism in the Arabic press, and these are governments that control the press, so we cannot say it’s the reflection of society in general.

IRSHAD MANJI: Where are the protests, my friend? Where are the protests? Where are the ordinary people pouring into the streets?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: You don’t know about them. They don’t have to appear on O’Reilly for you to know about them. They write them in Arabic.

IRSHAD MANJI: You know what? You can invoke FOX News all you want, alright, in order to try to detract from the real issue here, but I challenge you to tell me: Where are the ordinary Muslims in the Islamic world pouring into the streets to demonstrate against Saudi Arabia’s policy to prevent Jews and Christians from stepping on the soil of Mecca, merely because they are Jews and Christians? Tell me! Where are those protests? Answer!

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, if you read Arabic, which you don’t, and maybe you want to learn it, you would realize that many writers and intellectuals have written about these issues, have condemned anti-Semitic writings wherever they occur. If they do not appear in certain demonstrations, because these governments do not allow the demonstrations —

IRSHAD MANJI: Where are the demonstrations?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Once again, let me finish. And there’s another element here, Amy, in the story which I think — I mean, I have written about it on my blog which I think is important. I totally believe that these demonstrations have been instigated and have been set off by the Arab governments and Muslim governments themselves. These are corrupt bankrupt governments that are very much aware of the anger of their people about Israel and about U.S. foreign policy in the region and about wars, and I wish people are much more angry about occupation and about oppression and poverty, as well about Israeli brutality against the Palestinians, which your other guest would not dare talk about, of course, because O’Reilly wouldn’t invite her on that show to speak about that. But as it is, Arab governments realize that Denmark and Norway are easy targets to pick on, and that’s why they are letting their populations to let off steam on that subject. So there’s hypocrisy going on now from many different places on this very issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Irshad Manji, let me get your response to that question of protesting on other issues, as As’ad AbuKhalil has laid out.

IRSHAD MANJI: I’m not sure I understand the argument, Amy. Can you reprise it for me?

AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil, talking about your saying where are the demonstrations around government violence, around what is happening in the Occupied Territories, with the same kind of vehemence. Irshad Manji.

IRSHAD MANJI: Well, listen, I mean, if you want to talk about the Occupied Territories, let’s talk about that. There is —

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: No, you don’t. You never do.

IRSHAD MANJI: Hold on a second, sir. Let me answer this time. There are, for example, groups called, “Rabbis Against Human Rights” who do, in — sorry, Rabbis For Human Rights who do, in fact, organize Jewish protests against the occupation of the West Bank now and latterly of Gaza. But, again, where are we Muslims in this? Where are the “mullahs for human rights”? Where are we when beheadings take place? Where are the mullahs for human rights when it comes to defending the right of Jill Carroll or of Margaret Hassan, the woman who overtly expressed solidarity with the Iraqi people, was Executive Director of CARE in Iraq and was still assassinated? Where are we when it comes as imams and as religious leaders? Where are we when it comes to speaking out against honor killings, which happen at the rate of three times a day in Pakistan, and this is according to Amnesty International?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Muslim women —

IRSHAD MANJI: Once again —

AMY GOODMAN: All right —

IRSHAD MANJI: — we have a lot of introspection to do, and 'Mr. Angry Arab' over there is angry only at the West, not at the Muslim imperialism against other Muslims.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Obviously —

AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Obviously, you haven’t read my book on Saudi Arabia or others to know about my anger and how it’s expressed —

IRSHAD MANJI: No, because I’m ignorant, as far as you’re concerned.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: I find it interesting how many times, whenever you speak, whether here and elsewhere, you refer to yourself as Muslim. Personally, I am a human being, so I do not identify with any religion; but you conveniently do that to try to lend credibility on a subject on which you have no credibility. But it seems to me, it’s very offensive to all the brave Muslim women in the world who speak out and who demonstrate, and some of them get injured against honor killings and against the injustices. But you don’t know anything about them. You bring up issues —

IRSHAD MANJI: I don’t know anything about anything according to you.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: This is not O’Reilly. One second. Let me finish. It’s not a monologue for you here. And another thing is, when you speak about some rabbis who are in favor of peace, of course they exist. And there priests for peace. And there are Muslims for peace. But what is your argument here? You are trying to say that there are rabbis for peace, but they don’t exist in other religion that is Islam —

IRSHAD MANJI: Where are the mullahs for human rights?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: — because there’s some genetic incompetence or inequality, and that’s because Jews and Christians are genetically superior to Muslims. I mean, this is your point, basically —- it boils down to. It -—

IRSHAD MANJI: That’s your insecurity talking, sir, not mine.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: — inferiority, intellectually as well as politically to Arabs and Muslims, and you wish that this genius that is exhibited by people who are Jewish and Christian would spill over to the Muslim world. That’s what it boils down to, right?

IRSHAD MANJI: That’s your insecurity talking, sir, not mine.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask a question about the —

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: I don’t know what that means —

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask two questions. One: As’ad AbuKhalil, you made an interesting comment about — you’re saying you think governments are behind the protests. Would you like to elaborate?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, I certainly believe that many governments, like the oppressive governments of Syria and Jordan, I have noticed that the security forces have a long record of brutality and of torturing of people, have become extremely polite. And I’ve noticed the footage on the Arabic media, that they allow them basically to proceed peacefully and to speak out and, in the case of Damascus, to torch down the embassy of Denmark; and I find that to be very convenient for those governments, because they are very much under attack by their own people for being largely silent about foreign occupation by the United States and about oppression by these same governments. And this is an opportunity for them to let on some steam be expressed by those people, because Denmark is an easy country to pick on. And it seems to me — and they’re organizing a boycott of Denmark, when those same governments would not dare to launch a boycott of Israel or the United States, which have been responsible for more offenses against Arabs by virtue of occupations than the Denmark government is; and it is not responsible, I think, for cartoons that appear in one publication.

AMY GOODMAN: Irshad Manji.

IRSHAD MANJI: What “Mr. Angry Arab” there doesn’t seem to appreciate or care to acknowledge is that in the past 100 years alone, more Muslims have been tortured, imprisoned, raped, maimed and murdered at the hands of other Muslims than at the hands of any foreign imperial power. This is not to deny Western colonialism, not at all. It is to point out that colonialism comes in many shades and many colors, and if we’re going to have integrity as human rights advocates, then we also have to stand up on that front, and that’s what he seems to be forgetting.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: The last point I want —- I mean, the thing I want to say, if the question of integrity of the last person to speak on that subject, especially on the subject of religion, and especially -—

IRSHAD MANJI: You love personal attacks, don’t you?

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but I want to ask about the continued publication of the cartoons, and I want to get each of your response to them. Irshad Manji?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: I think it’s very obvious what’s going on —

AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: There are people in the West who very much enjoy the opportunity to provoke Muslims and to offend them further, and Muslims feel offended on this very subject. But it seems to me, we should insist on the principle of freedom of speech and the right to offend people’s beliefs and values. But it seems to me, it doesn’t take much courage to offend Muslims in Western countries, which is exactly the polemical career of the other guest —

AMY GOODMAN: Irshad Manji, we have five seconds. Your response to that question.

IRSHAD MANJI: Yeah, bring on the cartoons, and let’s remember that more Muslims are offended by the violence in the name of these cartoons than they are by the cartoons themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end it there. Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, a Visiting Fellow at Yale University; and As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. His blog is the Angry Arab News Service.

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