Copenhagen - About ten years ago, a Swedish photographer held an exhibition entitled "Ecce Homo", a collection of provocative photos portraying Jesus as a homosexual. The reaction from some conservative church clerics was swift and strong: "This is barbarian, not biblical" read one of the newspaper headlines, and a heated discussion followed.
The photographer said the series was inspired by the deaths of many of her homosexual friends by AIDS, and by church publications that claimed the disease was God's punishment. The collection of "offensive" art was not created to hurt others, but rather to provoke dialogue and enlighten the public about AIDS and homosexuality, the artist said.
Homosexuals in Sweden were eventually allowed to have civil marriages and request their partnership be blessed in a church, while AIDS patients can now speak openly about their disease.
Similarly, the Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammad were indeed a provocation, and in turn, the media focused primarily on the responses from ultra-conservative Muslims, many of them self-taught Muslim clerics. The debate between those on both sides seeking to sensationalise the issue was not constructive.
A more productive approach would have been to explore the context under which this event occurred, especially in light of recent events like the arrest of those allegedly plotting to kill the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard. And the next step would have been to address the frustration of marginalised Muslims who feel unable to voice their anger and disappointment through the proper channels, such as the media or government.
Before the 1980s, Danish society did not make distinctions among immigrant groups. More recently, however, nationality and religious belief have been increasingly used to identify newcomers, perhaps as these individuals have begun to assert their identity in their new homeland to a greater extent than in the past. In the years leading up to the cartoon controversy, major immigrant communities from Pakistan and the Middle East were collectively referred to as "Muslims"; their country of origin was of no interest, and they were thus differentiated from other new Danes.
After 9/11 and following President Bush's efforts against Al Qaeda, the Danish government became one of the most dedicated allies supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon thereafter, Muslims felt besieged in major Danish newspapers and by the ruling government, which introduced harsher immigration laws. This was not directly a result of the global crackdown on terrorism, but rather the culmination of many years of discussion on immigration, which coincided with 9/11 and further marginalised the Muslim minority in Denmark. The cartoon controversy could have been the impetus for state-wide dialogue on these important issues but instead became a missed opportunity.
The cartoons were perceived to be a brutal intellectual and emotional attack on the hearts of already marginalised Danish Muslims. Ultra-conservative Muslims around the world used this incident to promote their own agendas.
The violent reactions that followed in some Muslim countries may have been appeased had the Danish prime minister chosen the path of dialogue, instead of refusing to meet with the delegation of ambassadors from various Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps engaging in discussion at that time could have prevented the controversy from spreading, reduced the violence that ensued, and resulted in a constructive intercultural conversation.
A few years before the provocative cartoons were published, a Danish company began selling summer sandals with a depiction of the Virgin Mary. This led to strong protests in Denmark and the shoes were soon taken off the market. This time society censored itself to avoid offence and further protests.
It took several initiatives by domestic and international groups to calm the post-cartoon atmosphere, allowing for some positive gains. The publications of the cartoons ultimately led to animated and vivid debates in Denmark, and a growing interest in Islam among the Danish population. The eyes of the Danish people were opened to the issues surrounding Muslims and the immigrant population. Furthermore, mainstream Muslims within the Danish community were convinced of their need to enter politics, not only to speak for Muslims, but also to educate others about Muslims in their new homeland.
When access is blocked to media or political channels through which people can vent their frustrations, disenfranchised individuals sometimes make their opinions known through violent or destructive means. Rather than highlighting the sensational incidents, media could focus instead on filling this gap, providing a rational forum for discussion on controversial events or art.
The right to freely express oneself does not always have to mean making use of that right. Dialogue alone can lead to some interesting and challenging discussions between censors and their targets, inspiring deeper thought and possibly greater understanding. However, occasionally we also need the avant-garde – those who provoke us and force us to reflect and think through their art, their writing and/or their music – to spark constructive debate in healthy forums, at a time when change and growth are desperately needed for intercultural understanding.
* Marie Korpe is the executive director of Freemuse (Freedom of Musical Expression, www.freemuse.org). This article is part of a series on freedom of expression written for the Common Ground News Service.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 19 February 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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