Saturday, February 11, 2006
  What does a Danish flag look like?
"Up till yesterday, I never knew what a Danish flag looked like. Apparently it's red and white in colour, and has orange flames coming off the top." - Jimmy Carr.

I'll admit that I was slightly unsure how to react to the controversy that was the publication of insensitive caricatures towards Islam. It did feel slightly unfair of the European press to play the 'Free Speech' card and for the Danish to stubornly refuse to apologise. How does someone publish something like that and not expect a massive uproar from the muslim community? And without any gross generalisation here, it was quite plain to see, in my opinion, the more violent, damaging response from protesters who decided to torch a building, burn flags and make 9/11-like death threats with their "anti-freedom" slogans. It was truly a display of irony for such protesters outraged at caricatures depicting Islam's supposedly violent nature. So if such violent protesters were committed to doing violence, does that mean they weren't really 'protesting' then in the first place? Obviously the publications seemed like just an excuse for such people to practice making molotov cocktails and take to the streets with their anti-western sentiments.

Then I see this picture here with a protester holding his placard and an English cop behind him. How does any man gather the balls to make a threat like that on European soil, I wonder. Instinct would bring me to consider his slogan as an act of treason and have any man threatening the lives of Britons shot on the spot without trial. But of course this isn't the year 1800 anymore and such acts wouldn't be allowed. 2002 if you're from Iraq. They have the right to offend and the right to protest as any citizen of this country and emptying a 23-round pistol magazine into a protester would just be hipocritical of me. Tsk tsk.

So what about the Danish press together with the rest of Europe's tabloids fanning the flames? Do they have a genuine point on freedom of expression, or are they equally responsible for the torching and burning of all things Danish? I quickly realise the fallacy of this logic that would mean that the measure of responsibility is defined by the response of another party. I.e. If 100% of muslims had a sense of humour and didn't take it offensively, would that make the publication of the cartoon drawings any less irresponsible? I tried to fathom this literally for days... I try to answer the much longer-lasting question of what exactly is free expression with responsibility? It sounds like a common marketing freebie with some sort of strings attached. Do boundaries pose greater danger to the very founding principles of such freedoms? And then I read yet another brilliant article by Alex Au who shared his thoughts so articulately on the matter of free speech versus religious sensitivity:

Causing offence should not be confused with incitement. To this some will argue that surely we should be aware that those who take offence will respond in very agitated ways. If the agitation is foreseeable, then it is incitement. This is a very poor argument. It makes the definition of incitement entirely dependent on how violent the other party can work himself up to be. The more violent his response, they more he is likely to get his way and the freedom of the speaker curbed. In the final analysis, such a position effectively rewards violence. Hardly a good way to build a peaceful society.

This is related to the problem with the phrase, "expressing an opinion responsibly". It seems to suggest that if free expression causes offence and possible backlash then that freedom must be curtailed in the name of "responsibility". This woolly-headedness was exactly what the Danish newspaper wanted to contest. What is the meaning of freedom, if that freedom cannot in practical terms be exercised due to various forms of censorship? What is the use of a title deed to a piece of land if you are never allowed to take possession of it?

Thirdly, the Straits Times said that the Danish newspaper was doing "violence to the concept" of free speech. One can easily argue that imposing broad burdens of responsibility and non-incitement does even greater violence of the concept. Fourthly, the Straits Times felt that the governments should act against the newspaper for being "downright dangerous to the national interest". Jyllands-Posten -- and it appears from opinion polls, 75% of Danes supporting them -- could have felt that making a stand to defend the cherished principle of free speech was very much in the national interest. Is it typically Singaporean that we only define "national interest" in economic and trade terms?

Christians and Jews I'm sure have been the subject of many office jokes and caricatures. And I certainly don't think Matt Stone and Trey Parker made any exceptions for their provocative cartoon South Park. So why, considering Christians and Jews are probably the largest religions in America, wasn't there an uproar against that cartoon? A cartoon that was 9 seasons or 225 episodes more successful than the Danish caricatures at provoking people, not able to cause at least one embassy or one flag to burn?

On the TV news Tuesday night, 31 January, Channel News Asia reported that the Saudi government called on European governments "to protect religions." Why should religion be privileged? Why should the beliefs of some curtail the freedoms of others, especially non-believers? Who decides what constitutes a religion and what does not, such that one set of beliefs is privileged and another set is not? What if a Christian sect said the use of the cross for non-Christian purposes caused serious offence to them, and demanded that the entire world stopped using the "+" sign for addition? Are we supposed to comply? It is one thing for a person to live by his beliefs, e.g. a vegetarian who chooses to forgo meat or a member of the clergy that takes a vow of celibacy. We have to respect that person's choice. It's another thing for someone, or an organised mob, to insist that others too must abide by his/their rules. It's even worse when people with a set of beliefs call upon governments to use governmental power to impose those rules upon everybody else.

The Danish Prime Minister was right to stand his ground.

Was it all necessary? you might ask. Couldn't the children's book that started everything have been published without drawings of the Prophet? Perhaps, but it's not my book or yours, and thus, it's not my decision or yours to make whether Kare Bluitgen should have done without. (Personally, I am quite mystified why he didn't think such illustrations would reduce the sales of his book, especially to Muslim
families.... but then, it's his book) Couldn't Jyllen-Posten, the Danish newspaper, have written about Bluitgen's difficulties without commissioning the 12 cartoons, and still made its point just as effectively?

Again, perhaps it could. But at what point do we stop complaining about the erosion of freedom, and actually seize it to prove a point? Do we choose paralysis or action to defend our freedom? Perhaps, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born member of theDutch Parliament said, it is necessary.

The protest demonstrations in the Middle East, and by Muslim communities in Europe too, only prove the point that believers in free and secular societies need to be alert to creeping censorship from religious extremists, the very point that Jyllands-Posten set out to highlight. What are the demonstrators calling for? They are calling for censorship. Not because they have been injured in any measurable way, though some may argue that such cartoons reinforce the prejudices against Muslims that is manifested in other, concrete ways. To that, the reply was given by none other than a Muslim editor in Amman, Jordan. Jihad Momani wrote in his newspaper Shihan, "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?" (However, he was also reckless enough to reprint 3 of the cartoons. In Jordan! He was sacked before the day was over, and arrested the following day, accused of insulting religion under Jordan's press and publications law. Whether it was because of his words, or his decision to print the cartoons, is not clear. Source: BBC)

Yet this only reminds us of the very reason why the West is leagues ahead in cultural vibrancy and creativity. The freedom to challenge, which necessarily causes offence to some who embrace the status quo, is fundamental to intellectual, economic and socio-political progress. Calling pet ideas into question is essential if we are to use human intelligence in any meaningful way. Of course, Muslim groups are free not to purchase any goods from the Nordic countries and make their displeasure known; and they are free to hold as many protest demonstrations as they wish. But without a better intellectual foundation, the uproar only shows it up for what it is: bullying.

The calling for compromise in western values of free expression in order to be accomodating to religious values shouldn't be answered, unless you wish for values such as these to errode with time. As Alex observes, a shocking degree of self-censorship has already been evident amongst Danish people since the murder of Van Gogh whose film, Submission, was deemed offensive to Islam. The distance between western freedom and some protesters from Eastern countries is accentuated in things like calling for the Danish PM to apologise on behalf of the publication company. And if it's one thing I admire about some aspects of western civilisation, is that they live by their principles and stand up for it. A government in a free nation can never take responsibility for the actions of an independant newspaper. It is a disturbing thought that people are able to take the actions of one entity and expect responsibility to lie on all Danish people. Why are Danish people being barred from some coffeeshops? Why are Danish people overseas now fearing violent retribution from vigilantes?

I am inclined to believe Alex's conclusion that it all boils down to religious bullying; to undermine western values and pressure the west into feeling guilt over its own principles by creating a false pretext of religious insensitivity. It encourages self-censorship and hence one will always be wondering how far is too far? I am sure that majority of Danish people do not feel that Islam is a dangerous religion just as I believe majority of muslims are definitely not the violent people the cartoons made them out to be.

And as Alex writes from a Singaporean perspective, he certainly hit the nail on the head with his mention that the West has always been 'leagues ahead in cultural vibrancy and creativity'. They nourish diversity and freedom of thought more so than many countries that decide to adopt highly conservative and authoritarian values. On a note that hits closer to home, and possibly an entirely different subject of its own, he lightly touches on how the situation reflects on Singaporean media. The one thing the island nation has always lacked amidst its riches, growth, success and prosperity, is any kind of spirit. Perhaps its one of the reasons I find its fascia so plastic. There are no founding principles, unlike say, the American Declaration of Independence. Everything done in the name of "national interest" has something to do with economic gain. Wait, isn't that more like a business company rather than a country? Why is Singapore suddenly sprouting a casino despite its long-lasting conservative stand on such issues in the past? That's right. Purely for attracting business. Throw money at her and she'll do anything for you. To hell with principles. I think 'whore' adequately describes such a character. I honestly don't give a flying shit how many academic scholars you churn out every year. And I think I can safely say I'm not alone in seeing past the materialism and fake.


Alex Au is a truly exceptional author and sociopolitical commentator who is also a significant activist. He should be like the Martin Luther King for the oppressed people of Singapore. Really.

And in case you are reading this bottom-line and still wondering what a Danish flag looks like, here it is.

Apparently burning modern flags made of polyester is dangerous. Pfft...As if that would stop a good ol' flag burning session.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home
"Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." - George W. Bush (March 24, 2004)

Recent Bastard Posts
Bastard-coated Bastards
Fetus Spears
Darth Vader
Sinner's Ark
Seditious Bastards
Brand New Malaysia
e pur si muove
I Really Don't Know
Mr Wang Bakes Good Karma
The Police State
Matrix Singapore
The Reader's Eye
Singapore Rebel (the blog)
Singapore Rebel (the film)
Xeno Boy
Yawning Bread
Retardation of the West
The Knight Shift
Melanie "Mad Cow" Phillips
Pentagonlies (cool conspiracy theory video!)
Sorry Everybody
System of a Down
Wake Up & Smell the Fascism
Pink Dome
Take the Political Test
Vox Day
Game of the Month

"I'm jacking your wheelbarrel bitch!"
Archived Bastardisation

Powered by Blogger