The debate about freedom of speech continues to bedevil the world. What started as a protest against the publication in Denmark of insulting cartoons of Prophet Mohammed has become an ongoing crisis in most Arab and Muslim countries. The crowds in those countries continue to take to the streets to mount violent and often bloody protests. The governments in those countries have for the most part looked the other way because they do not want to create martyrs that will fuel an already out-of-control fire. While a great majority of Muslims have shown their revulsion to these protests, the streets from Jakarta to Tripoli continue to be dominated by frenzied mobs.
Iran entered the fray by sponsoring an international cartoon competition where hundreds of derogatory cartoons about the Holocaust were submitted from the Middle East and South America. Ostensibly it was done to test the limits of freedom of speech as championed by the western media.
The Danish newspaper and its cheerleaders were wrong in confusing freedom of speech with a license to demean a faith and thus insult Muslims everywhere in the world. Iran is wrong in making it possible to poke fun at that awful period in the history of mankind which was the Holocaust. Two wrongs, as the clich goes, do not make a right. They remain two equally deplorable acts.
Freedom of speech also came under question last week when a court in Vienna sentenced David Irving, a British historian, to three years imprisonment on the charges of Holocaust denial. In 10 European countries - Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Switzerland - it is a crime to publicly diminish, deny, or justify the Holocaust. David Irving had, in speeches made in Austria 17 years ago, denied the Holocaust. On a recent visit to Austria he was arrested, tried, and sentenced. In a five-year period between 1999 and 2004, according to the Times of London, 158 people have been tried in Austria alone for the same crime.
In the face of the Danish cartoon controversy, this is paradoxical and incomprehensible. Why such curbs on free speech in the bastions of democracy? After all, a seminal historic event like the Holocaust cannot be brushed off the pages of history books just because of the anti-Semitic ranting of a few already discredited naysayers. But in a democracy, those nay-sayers should have the right to shout in the public arena whatever they wish, no matter how outrageous or insulting.
Israel has been toying with the passage of a law that would make it a crime to deny the Holocaust anywhere in the world. The Knesset had unanimously passed the bill at its first reading in July, 2004. The ultimate passage of the bill remains pending, however. It does not auger well for a democracy like Israel to create criticism-free zones around the world.
This is exactly what the misguided frenzied mob on the Arab and Muslim street is doing: demanding that those who willfully heap abuse on their faith should be brought to justice no matter where they live. A bounty of $1 million on the head of the Danish cartoonist was recently announced by a cleric in Pakistan. This is pushing the limits of crime and punishment to ridiculous levels.
Restrictive laws, threats, and bounties will not prevent a cartoonist from drawing an uncomplimentary cartoon of the prophet or a Holocaust denier from calling the Holocaust a gigantic fabrication. Non-Jewish people may not look at the Holocaust with the same intense feelings as a Jew and non-Muslims may not comprehend the depth of devotion Muslims have for Mohammed. But instead of hiding behind the tattered fig leaf of freedom of speech, they ought to raise their voices in unison against any profanity.