While this Chicago Trib article seems to be a few months behind the times with respect to the cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot (Vlad reported on this May 17 2008 http://vladtepesblog.com/?p=160 ) examples given of more recent actions to destroy freedom of expression because of Islamic ‘sensitivities’ are worth the read.
Free to express, but not to offend
By Frida Ghitis
June 29, 2008
It could have been a scene from a frightening thriller. Or, on second thought, from a satirical cartoon.
An armed government team, including a half-dozen police officers and several prosecutors, raids the home of a mysterious artist who goes by a pseudonym, inspires zeal and tackles political themes. They arrest the man and confiscate his computer, telephone, various DVDs and other materials.
A terrorism suspect?
No, the man arrested May 13 in the Dutch city of Amsterdam was Gregorius Nekschot, a cartoonist. And his alleged crime was making drawings that some people found offensive.
This show of force did not come in a faraway land of extremism, or in a country widely known for intolerance or fundamentalism. It happened in the Netherlands, in the heart of Western Europe.
Nekschot’s arrest and 30-hour detention were the latest battle in the war over freedom of expression in the West.
On one side stand those who argue that freedom of expression does not confer a blanket permission to say, write or draw words or pictures offensive to certain religious groups.
The other side says that with actions like the one in the Netherlands, governments are sacrificing a fundamental right of a democracy and forcing citizens to censor themselves. They see in these government moves preventive surrender to violent and intolerant extremists whose views threaten the very concept of liberal democracy.
Nekschot is a provocateur. He says he took his first name, Gregorius, from the Roman Catholic pope who instituted the Inquisition, and Nekschot, which means “shot in neck,” from a favorite execution method of fascists. His cartoons, which appear mostly on his own Web site, target extremists of all stripes, but most frequently Muslims. Nekschot also has mocked what he sees as the hypocrisy of Dutch politicians and the rigid views of Christian fundamentalists.
His arrest came three years after a complaint was filed against his work. The government says it took that long to track him down. It now alleges that eight of Nekschot’s cartoons, since removed from the Web site, may violate the country’s laws against discrimination and incitement to violence.
The case reportedly started in 2005 when Abdul Jabbar van de Ven, a convert to Islam who eventually became an imam, complained about the cartoons.
Van de Ven had expressed happiness at the assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist, and declared a wish for the death of another Dutch politician deemed anti-Islam. To critics, the decision to go after Nekschot for his cartoons and not Van de Ven for his statements offered proof that the government is headed in the wrong direction.
In the aftermath of Nekschot’s detention, authorities revealed that the Dutch secret service has established a branch dedicated solely to examining cartoons published in the Netherlands. Presumably, the Dutch want to prevent the ugly riots that followed the September 2005 publication of Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Just this month, a suicide bombing targeting the Danish Embassy in Pakistan killed at least six people.
Efforts to prevent trouble with short-fused zealots, however, go far beyond cartoons. Last December, a museum in The Hague canceled an exhibit by an Iranian artist who uses the pseudonym Sooreh Hera because, as the museum director explained, the works “elicit too many reactions from people who are offended.” Hera expressed astonishment at finding such obstacles in the West after leaving Iran. According to the daily De Telegraaf, the Dutch town of Huizen removed from City Hall abstract paintings vaguely depicting nude women “because of a request from a Muslim gentleman.”
Limiting artistic expression to prevent outbreaks of violence is hardly unique to the Netherlands. In a well-publicized case, the Berlin Opera canceled the performance of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in 2006 after police warned that the staging could pose “incalculable risk.” The opera included a scene in which Idomeneo, the king of Crete, carries the heads of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and Poseidon, and places each on a stool.
The outcry over the cancellation reached all the way to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said self-censorship “does not help us against people who want to practice violence in the name of Islam.” The opera was eventually staged without incident.
One of the most significant victories for those who would limit freedoms came at the UN Human Rights Commission. In a stunning move, the agency earlier this year adopted a resolution ordering its expert on freedom of expression to guard against “abuses of the right of freedom of expression.” The resolution was sponsored by the African Group and the Islamic Group, whose members routinely rank as “Not Free” in the analysis of watchdog group Freedom House.
European laws tend to be less absolute than the U.S. Constitution on the issue of freedom of speech. Europe also has a much larger population of activist Muslims, which means Europe will continue to see a tug of war between proponents of mutually exclusive views on freedom of expression. The case of Nekschot has spurred angry debates in the Dutch parliament, with loud expressions of opposition to the government’s actions. Still, the case remains under investigation.
Regardless of the outcome, there is every reason to expect more freedom-of-speech incidents unfolding at the intersection of satire, comedy and tragedy.
Frida Ghitis is the author of “The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television.”