In Europe, free speech may end with neither a bang nor a whimper — but with a lawyerly assist.
It was three years ago this month that the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published twelve editorial cartoons satirizing Islamist terrorism. Some Muslim organizations objected. Protests were organized. Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran were set ablaze. Dozens of people were killed. The cartoonists and their editors received death threats from such characters as Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza.
Kurt Westergaard is the artist who drew the most iconic and controversial cartoon: He depicted Mohammed with his turban turned into a bomb, its fuse lit. His message was clear: Here is how Mohammed appears to those who learn about Islam from suicide bombers. Westergaard is neither apologetic nor regretful. But he has said as clearly as he can that his drawing was aimed “at fanatic Islamist terrorists — a small part of Islam.”
Westergaard has required police protection ever since. Last year he had to leave his home after Danish intelligence learned of a “concrete” assassination plot. Earlier this year, he also was forced to leave the hotel in which he had been staying because he posed “too much of a security risk” to other guests and staff.
And then, in June, a “prosecutor general” in Jordan — a Muslim nation usually described as moderate — issued a subpoena demanding Westergaard face a lawsuit in an Amman courtroom.
The 73-year-old cartoonist does not plan to submit. He said that although it ought to be obvious that “my problem is with terrorists not Muslims,” people are free to interpret his work as they wish. “Disagreement is very important and if we disagree,” he told a reporter, “it does not mean that we have to sue each other and kill each other.”
Apparently, it is not only Islamists who find that logic unpersuasive. The English language Daily Jordan Times reports that attorney Osama Bitar, an attorney affiliated with the lawsuit (on behalf of the “Messenger of Allah Unites Us” campaign — such an inspiring name!) has been in contact with French attorneys who “have expressed their support for the campaign and its lawsuit against Westergaard.”
“The lawyers are studying the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the cartoonist in accordance with French and international law such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Bitar. He added that the French attorneys also are considering contacting colleagues in other European countries to file separate lawsuits against Westergaard.
Bitar enthused: “The idea of European lawyers joining us in the campaign and supporting our efforts is tremendous. We are defending Islam in a civilized way and are trying to hold those responsible for the caricatures accountable according to the law.”
Additional legal assistance may be on the way. The United Nations General Assembly is considering a resolution sponsored by the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The ostensible purpose of “Combating Defamation of Religion” — yet another inspiring name! — is to stamp out “incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular.” As for other religions, rest assured this resolution will guarantee them as much protection and respect as Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i, and Hinduism now receive in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or any of the other sponsoring nations.
While General Assembly resolutions do not actually have the force of law, they provide diplomatic cover for tyrants eager to muzzle critics, and they are routinely cited by leftist “human rights” groups and journalists as though they were international law.
Felice Gaer, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal body, says it’s clear that the OIC countries are attempting to “mainstream” prohibitions on any speech that could be considered critical of Islam.
“They are turning freedom of expression into restriction of expression,” she said.
And the European Center for Law and Justice has filed a brief with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights warning that such resolutions “are in direct violation of international law concerning the rights to freedom of religion and expression.” The brief argues that the resolution is incompatible with any serious conception of free speech, that it substitutes instead “a subjective criterion that considers whether the religion or its believers feel offended by the speech.”
It’s encouraging to know that some Europeans are concerned. It will be instructive to see what they do when it becomes clear — as I’ll bet you a Euro it will — that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights — won’t lift a finger.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.