Enemies of Free Speech
Remember the Islamophobic cartoons published by the neo-con Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten? The controversy rumbled on from 2005 into 2006, and involved angry demonstrations, embassy-burnings (in countries where you can’t look at an embassy without a government permit), deaths, boycotts, and campaigns of support to counteract the boycotts. Although I found the cartoons deeply offensive, and not in the least related to free speech or constructive debate, I was more upset by the responses of some Muslims.
The cartoons were a media provocation, and should have been combatted through intelligent use of the media. The outpouring of Muslim anger at a West which insulted Muslims after slaughtering them was certainly understandable, but was aimed at the wrong target. I lived in Oman at the time, where the state-appointed Mufti as well as editorials in the state-controlled press encouraged people to boycott Danish goods. The supermarkets put up signs announcing that they no longer stocked Danish goods (although an English friend assured me that Danish bacon was still on sale in the foreigners-only pork room of one supermarket). Meanwhile the shelves groaned under American products, and Oman continued to stock British and American military bases. American planes were incinerating Iraqi Muslims in their mosques at the time. The cartoon fuss seemed very much to be an organised distraction from more serious issues.
Something that greatly annoyed me was some people’s inability to understand that the Danish government bore no responsibility for the acts of a private newspaper. The fact that Gulf regimes control what is published in Gulf newspapers cannot be generalised to Scandinavia. The Western media picked up on this too, and had a field day noting the backwardness of the Muslims who can’t comprehend the notion of a free press. Very rapidly, this became another story concerning clashing civilisations – a liberal and free West versus a benighted Muslim world.
It’s not surprising that the western media haven’t framed in similar terms Israel’s recent inability to understand Swedish press independence, although the article in question – by Donald Bostrom in Aftonbladet, see below – has prompted not only furious Israeli calls for the Swedish government to condemn the article, but threats to stop Swedish journalists working in occupied Palestine. Fascist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman accuses Sweden of collaborating with fascism. Israeli ministers and demonstrators roar ‘blood libel’ – as if the article were a medieval slur on all Jews and their religious practices rather than an airing of questions raised by eye-witness accounts from Palestinians whose family members have been returned to them dead and – so they claim – mutilated. The story links the recent exposure of a New Jersey organ-smuggling ring to these eye-witness accounts.
It should be noted that reliable commentators from Ali Abunimeh to Gideon Levy have questioned the veracity of these reports. Still, a proper Israeli-Jewish response would be to launch an investigation, or to invite the UN to launch an investigation, instead of screaming anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitism wheeze shouldn’t be allowed to distract us. We know that Israeli Jews have perpetrated far worse crimes than steal a few kidneys. A few months ago they murdered over 1400 caged Palestinians, with over 94% public support.
And if the misguided Muslim response to Islamophobic Danish cartoons came in the context of the West occupying, bombing, starving, and holding Muslim countries in neo-colonial thraldom, the Israeli response to a Swedish newspaper article comes in the context of almost-total western support for Israel’s colonial project.