These governments have been paying lip service to freedom of speech around this controversy. At the same time, they have grabbed onto reactionary demands by governments of majority Muslim countries, which call for banning the caricatures that they describe as blasphemous to Islam, in order to win support for censorship and other attacks on democratic rights.
The 12 cartoons that sparked the dispute first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten September 30. The paper published them as responses from 40 well-known illustrators to a request to draw Muhammad the way they see him. Initially, two months of campaigning by individuals and groups in Denmark to force the paper to apologize gained little support, including among Muslims.
This changed, however, after a December meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conferences (OIC), which is made up of 56 majority Muslim states. Meeting in Mecca, the OIC condemned in its closing communiqué the recent incident of desecration of the image of Holy Prophet Muhammad in the media of certain countries and the use of freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religions.
The Islamic, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, comprising more than 50 states, then called on member nations to impose a boycott on Danish products. In early January the Jordanian parliament condemned the cartoons, as did other governments of majority Arab countries, after a Norwegian and other European newspapers reprinted the disputed illustrations. By the end of the month, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Libya withdrew their ambassadors from Denmark.
Protests flared up in early February. Major actions took place in more than 15 countries largely in Africa, Asia, and the Pacificincluding Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Kenya, Malaysia, the Philippines, Turkey, and the West Bank and Gaza. Some protests have had the tacit backing of local authorities. Bourgeois opposition and other groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have called others.
Tolerated by the police, protesters in Syria torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus February 4. In Afghanistan, at least 12 people have died so far in clashes with U.S.-led occupation troops during such actions. Security forces killed five people in Pakistan rallying against the cartoons in several cities February 14-15.
Imperialists boost support for war
Washington, London, and other imperialist regimes jumped into the fray.
Washington initially criticized the cartoons as offensive. At a subsequent White House press conference with Jordans King Abdullah, U.S. president George Bush condemned the protests against the illustrations, adding that freedom of the press comes with the responsibility to be thoughtful about others. Most major dailies in the United States have not reprinted the cartoons.
On February 7, Bush telephoned Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had earlier refused to meet ambassadors from Arab governments to hear their demands for censoring the cartoons or apologizing for their publication, to express our support and solidarity, the Associated Press reported.
We consider ourselves a faithful and loyal ally of the United States and we appreciate very much to see this reciprocated, Rasmussen responded, adding that his administration will maintain the 530 Danish soldiers in Iraq and 390 troops in Afghanistan, and are taking additional responsibilities in the NATO operations in that country. That was another sign of the progress Washington is making in drawing imperialist powers in Europe to get more deeply involved in U.S.-led military campaigns in the Middle East and Central Asia.
From Copenhagen to Washington, the imperialist campaigns for regime change in Syria and Iran intensified and gained wider popular support.
Rasmussen told the press he would not exclude the possibility that the government of Syria had been involved in organizing attacks against the Danish embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. He alleged Tehran was trying to use the controversy to divert attention from pressure to end development of its nuclear program, and Damascus is exploiting the dispute to avert investigation into accusations that top Syrian officials were behind the assassination last year of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Rasmussen said he held the two governments responsible for the burning of the Danish embassies in Tehran and Damascus.
U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice chimed in. I dont have any doubt, she told the press February 8, Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiment and to use this for their own purposes.
Washington and its allies recently succeeded in referring Irans nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions, claiming the Iranian government is secretly trying to build nuclear arms, which Tehran denies.
On February 12, the British daily Telegraph reported the U.S. military is making contingency plans for military strikes against Iran. Strategists at the Pentagon are drawing up plans for devastating bombing raids backed by submarine-launched ballistic missile attacks against Irans nuclear sites as a last resort to block Teherans efforts to develop an atomic bomb, the Telegraph said. The most likely strategy would involve aerial bombardment by long-distance B2 bombers, each armed with 40,000 lb of precision weapons, including the latest bunker-busting devices. They would fly from bases in Missouri with mid-air refueling.
Attacks on democratic rights
The same imperialist regimes are using the controversy to push for censorship and attacks on workers rights at home. According to the BBC, the government of Sweden has just shut down the website of SD-Kuriren, the newspaper of the Swedish Democrats, a right-wing group, after it posted a cartoon of Muhammad that authorities claimed Muslims would find offensive.
While posing as defenders of free speech and freedom of the press, governments in Europe are doing the opposite under the banner of banning fascists. German author Ernst Zuendel was deported from Canada to Germany in November for writing a book denying the Holocaust. The same month, British author David Irving was arrested and thrown in jail in Austria for the same offense, on charges stemming from speeches he gave in 1989. If convicted, Irving could face up to 20 years in jail. Saying the Holocaust didnt happen is a crime in Austria, France, Germany, and other European Union member states.
British foreign secretary Jack Straw praised the British press for not reprinting the disputed cartoons, adding that freedom of speech does not allow open season on religion, said the BBC.
British members of parliament reintroduced last June a Religious Hatred Bill that had previously failed, which would make forms of blasphemy against Islam a crime, a move backed by the Muslim Council of Britain. Similar laws regarding Judaism and Christianity are already in the books.
The British government is using the protests over the Danish cartoons as a pretext to encroach on democratic rights in a dual way, Tony Hunt, a leader of the Communist League in the United Kingdom, told the Militant. They are using it to curtail freedom of speech. The police in London recently told the organizers of a rally against the cartoons, the Muslim Association of Britain, they will remove placards if they deem them inflammatory. They also push for laws restricting religious hatred to win support among bourgeois Muslim groups for the British rulers war on terrorism.
Under this banner, a British court recently convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail Abu Hamza Masri, a Muslim cleric in London, for allegedly inciting violence against non-Muslims through insulting words. The British, Danish, and other European governments have also further restricted the right of immigrants to get residency and work permits.
Meanwhile, governments backing the protests against the Danish cartoons and their supporters are taking the level of the dispute even lower. Irans largest daily announced February 7 an international competition for cartoons on the Holocaust. Washington and its allies have had a field day in using previous statements by Irans president saying the Holocaust was a myth and calling for wiping Israel off the map to win popular support for the imperialist campaign against Tehran. And the Arab European League, in retaliation for the Danish cartoons, posted on its web site a drawing of Adolph Hitler in bed with Anne Frank, with Hitler saying, Write this one in your diary. Frank, a German-Jewish teenager, hid for two years from the Nazis in an annex above her fathers office in Amsterdam. She was later captured and died in Hitlers concentration camps. She left a diary of the ordeal that has been widely published.
How blasphemy has been used
This is not the first time capitalist regimes in semicolonial countries or imperialist democracies have used blasphemy laws to enforce censorship and broader restrictions on democratic rights.
In 1989 Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini exhorted Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, an Indian-born British resident. Khomeini charged Rushdie with blasphemy against Islam on the grounds his novel Satanic Verses portrayed Muhammad and his wives in an offensive manner. Rushdie, a defender of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, was forced into hiding. The largest U.S. bookstores pulled his book off their shelves. Washington, London, and Ottawa used the case to step up surveillance and deportation threats against Iranians. And many U.S. bourgeois figures echoed the charge of blasphemy against him, while taking a distance from the call to kill him.
Ten years later, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened the Brooklyn Museum of Art with loss of city funding and eviction from its premises, on the grounds that an exhibit scheduled to open there contained a painting offensive to Catholics. The piece by Nigerian-born British artist Chris Ofili depicted a Black Madonna with breasts made from elephant dung, material Ofili had used in many of his works. Over a 1,000 people rallied in front of the museum to back the opening of the show.
Censorship hurts working class
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home