Preachers, fascists and cartoonists

A series of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten have provoked an international debate about the limits of freedom of speech. The soul searching has been particularly acute in Scandinavia, partly due to its position at the epicentre of the latest contoversy, but also because of large immigrant groups and liberal traditions. In Sweden, it has brought questions about freedom of speech, political correctness and minority groups rights back to the heart of public debate.

Sweden was itself forced last week to deal with publications of cartoons of Muhammad on the website of the far-right Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, SD), which were reported to be causing an uproar in Syria. The site was taken down by its hosting company after information was brought forward to it by the foreign ministry and security service, Säpo.

Foreign Minister, Laila Freivalds, while denying government pressure on the hosting company, has said that “there are those who still clearly want to offend and provoke in this way, and I think that they too ought to show some responsibility”.

SD’s secretary, Björn Söder, protested against the censorship but said the party has received threats and eventually removed the cartoons from the site with the safety of Swedish citizens abroad in mind.

The episode was another illustration of the dilemma facing Sweden and other countries. Security, diplomacy and racial harmony demand a harsh response to papers publishing offensive cartoons. Principles of freedom of speech appear to require the state to take a hands-off approach.

When asked what he would have done if Muslim countries had complained that a Swedish newspaper had published the cartoons, Swedish Prime minister Göran Persson said he would have called in the ambassadors: “I would have explained what freedom of the press is about, what democracy and the formation of public opinion mean for us and made it very clear that this has nothing to do with ridiculing or scoffing at another religion”.

But can total freedom of expression avoid ridiculing and scoffing? The Swedish example shows that this is no simple issue.

Sweden’s constitution gives all individuals a fundamental right to express their opinions and disseminate them without censorship. Press freedom in Sweden dates back to the 18th century, and Swedes have always been very proud that things here can be discussed in the open.

Today, however, these principles are set against a constant struggle to reconcile free speech with a modern tradition of strident political correctness and a desire not to offend minorities (or most often for different minority groups not to offend each other). But is this an attempt to square a circle?

“Unlike many other Western societies, this is a country where women are thought to have a natural place in working life, where homosexuality is not a crime, and where same-sex marriages and women priests no longer raise any eyebrows” says Alexa Robertson, a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University.

“The problem, of course, arises if you think freedom of speech should apply to extreme right wing groups and Pentecostal ministers who say homosexuality is a disease, for example. There is an inevitable conflict of principles here and it is very difficult to resolve. It seems to me this is the same conflict we have been experiencing when it comes to the Danish cartoons”.

Sweden enacted a new hate crimes law in 2003, which makes any expressions of “disrespect” or “incitement” towards individuals and groups of people illegal. The law was motivated by attacks on racial and religious minorities, and also criminalized speech against people because of their sexual orientation.

The last couple of years have seen many examples of this conflict. In 2004 the Israeli ambassador to Sweden attacked a piece of art depicting a Palestinian suicide bomber. Following this, subway posters advertising the exhibition with the bomber’s face on them were removed by local transport bosses.

Last spring, Sweden’s biggest ice cream maker, GB Glace, was accused of racism after launching an advertising campaign for its new ice cream, Nogger Black, and this week, a subway campaign for bras was stopped because its slogan, “We Love Boobs”, was found offensive.

“The boobs are still there of course, but not the slogan”, says Alexa Robertson, “so whatever the issue, there is obviously sensitivity towards ruffled feathers and the public sphere in Sweden”.

This sensitivity isn’t always enough though. In a famous case Sweden’s Supreme Court acquitted pastor Åke Green of charges of hate speech arising from a sermon he preached in July 2003 denouncing homosexuality. The Öland pastor said, amongst other things, that ‘sexual abnormalities’ were a social tumour.

In another very recent case authorities closed an investigation into an extreme right wing Christian web site which lists famous homosexual Swedes and makes death threats against them, quoting passages from the Bible. Sören Andersson, chairman of gay rights group RFSL said, following Green’s trial, that the judgment showed the need for protection laws to be strengthened.

“Agitation and threats, such as those uttered by Åke Green, limit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people’s rights and opportunities to participate in debate.”

One of the ironies about the long-running debate on freedom of speech in Sweden is that in many cases ultra religious and conservative groups were the ones fighting for the freedom to speak out, while secularists and left wingers were the ones arguing for curbs on it.

For Sweden’s 300,000 Muslims the cartoon scandal is just another issue in their attempt to build a functioning Muslim community in this modern, secular society, where freedom of speech is almost a religion. But some argue that the ‘right not to be offended’ is just as important.

”The Danish cartoons are a provocation against Muslims all over the world and can’t be seen as a statement of freedom of speech even with good will” says Sveriges Muslimska Råd (The Muslim Council of Sweden). The organization claims that the cartoons are similar to those depicting Jews in the 1930s; anti Semitism, they say, has become Islamophobia.

“The Danish government has failed to maintain tolerance and an open dialogue and has turned its back on Danish Muslims“. However, the organization has also strongly condemned acts of violence in the Middle East and stresses the importance of a non – violent debate.

“We are glad the climate of debate in Sweden is considerably better than in Denmark”. The organization has also called for a conference of politicians and Islamic organization from all over Scandinavia to discuss minority politics, integration issues, religious rights and freedom of speech.

Some commentators have claimed the Danish cartoons have nothing to do with freedom of speech; they are a provocation which is part of the Danish attempt to tighten immigration laws and part of a struggle to fight the “Islamization of Europe”. Others claim the demonstrations are only a tool for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to deal with domestic pressure from Islamic opposition forces. In any case, it is apparent that Muslims in Europe have not been tempted to initiate a violent reaction; theirs is a more peaceful and responsible one.

Yet the essential problem for Sweden remains the same as that in many other countries: there can never be a guarantee that freedom of speech will be exercised responsibly. The calm and measured way that Sweden has faced up to these clashes is largely a sign that respect for minority groups is firmly anchored in the mainstream media. But one thing is for sure – the examples of the Sweden Democrat case and Åke Green’s conviction (then acquittal) show that anything the government does to try to control the debate is likely to blow up in its face.

David Stavrou

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