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(DV) Petersen: Europe's Free Speech Paradox







Europe's Free Speech Paradox
by Kim Petersen
February 20, 2006

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“What about freedom of expression when anti-Semitism is involved? Then it is not freedom of expression. Then it is a crime. Yet when Islam is insulted, certain powers raise the issue of freedom of expression.”  


-- Amr Mousa, Arab League Secretary General 


Whether questioning conventional history is anti-Semitism is debatable. Illuminating is that Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa brings to the fore the dichotomy in adherence to free speech depending on who is making that speech and who is on the offended end of remarks made under the cover of free speech. The infamous Danish caricatures of the Islamic prophet Mohammed are argued to be a free speech issue. The cartoons are published, so free speech was exercised. That does not make the issue one about free speech. The issue was rather about the right to make choices. What kind of choice did Flemming Rose, the culture editor at Jyllands Posten, make when he commissioned the cartoons? It was a calculated choice to be provocative, blasphemous, offensive, and to stir up enmity between Denmark’s majority population and its Muslim minority.  

It is about choices -- not freedom of speech. We make choices each time we decide to utter or not utter something and hopefully good manners will hold us in check from making bad choices about what to say. The old idiom “to bite one’s tongue” refers to the effort a person makes so as not to say something he/she might regret. If I were to cross the street, walk up to an overweight, disfigured man and tell him impolitely that he was in need of a diet and cosmetic surgery then I might myself wind up the recipient of facial reconstruction. Why should the provocation of Muslims be met with a different response? 

If the Europeans were so concerned about freedom of speech then they should speak out against the denial of the right of free speech to historian David Irving in Austria and others imprisoned elsewhere in Europe for their views. Jyllands Posten, to its credit, did speak out in a December 2005 piece from its culture section: 

Germany and Austria have gradually removed themselves far from their Nazi past, so the power of the state in these countries ought to let people think, write, and speak as they please -- of course with responsibility for the legislation surrounding blasphemy, injuries, and more. 

David Irving enjoys recognition as an excellent historian, but he also has the stubborn idea that the Holocaust didn’t take place. This idea that he formulated 16 years ago can be considered as hysterical, but should it be criminal? 

Obviously under Austrian concepts of justice. That Irving long ago had a change of mind and acknowledges that a genocide against Jews took place, didn’t help him when he set foot in on Austrian soil in late autumn. When his case comes to trial in late February, he risks up to 10 years imprisonment for having uttered his opinion, that according to his own statement, he no longer holds. 

This is grotesque and out of step with the European tradition of freedom. [1] 

In Austria, the newspaper Kleine Zeitung published the offending cartoons. Austria ostensibly practices a double standard on free speech as it impacts Jewish sensibilities versus Muslim sensibilities. In Germany, where Nazi sympathizer Ernst Zündel is on trial for views held about the World War II Holocaust, at least two newspapers published the cartoons: Die Welt and Berliner Zeitung. The German newspaper that chose to publish the caricatures of the prophet Mohammed holds German citizen Zündel accountable for expressing his views. In a byline from Die Welt: “The 66-year-old pensioner [Zündel] in Mannheim District Court must take responsibility for incitement of the masses, defamation, and denial of the memory of the deceased.” [2] Fair enough. Of course freedom of speech does not come without responsibility for how one wields it. That is where choice comes into play. Does Die Welt likewise assume responsibility for its decision to publish the inflammatory caricature pouring further fuel on the raging fire in its incitement of the Muslim masses? 


Discussion has picked up in Austria on holocaust revisionism and freedom of speech. [3] Christian Fleck, a professor of sociology at the University of Graz, maintains that Austria must use argument against those who question the Holocaust and not the law. Fleck asks, “Are we really afraid of someone whose views on the past are palpable nonsense, at a time when every schoolchild knows of the horrors of the Holocaust? Are we saying his ideas are so powerful we can’t argue with him?” 

Fleck then undermines his proposition by stating: “Irving is a fool. And the best way of dealing with fools is to ignore them.” On the one hand he argues for using facts and logic to defeat false ideas and then he resorts to a personalized attack and argues instead of using reason just to ignore ideas that one might find distasteful.  

However, for Hajo Funke, a professor of politics and culture at the Free University of Berlin, free speech is a luxury unaffordable for Teutons. Funke takes the stand that restricting free speech is moral: “In Germany and in Austria there is a moral obligation to fight the kind of propaganda peddled by Irving. We can’t afford the luxury of the Anglo-Saxon freedom of speech argument in this regard.”  

Polish-born German citizen Funke opines that there is something about Teutons that renders them incapable of properly exercising free speech -- an opinion that if expressed by a non-Teuton could be considered racist.  

Says Funke, “It’s not that I don’t understand it, it’s just not for us. Not yet. Not for a long time.”  

Elementary morality is not meant to be difficult to understand. The principle of equality of rights holds that if one group enjoys a right then it should be accorded to other groups. Elementary morality holds that if insulting one group is impermissible then insulting other groups should be impermissible. One doesn’t need a PhD to understand such concepts. 

Kim Petersen, Co-Editor of Dissident Voice, lives in the traditional Mi'kmaq homeland colonially designated Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org.   


[1] Translated from Per Holm (2005, December 29). “
Ytringsfrihed -- igen,” Jyllands Posten. 

[2] Translated from Editorial (2006, February 9). “Holocaust-Leugner Zündel wirft seinem Richter Befangenheit vor,” Die Welt.  

[3] Clare Murphy (2006, February 16). “Irving tests Europe’s free speech,” BBC News.


Other Recent Articles by Kim Petersen

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