Cartoon controversy

After a year in which at least 63 journalists were killed in the course of their work around the world, English PEN deplores the extreme reaction to the publication in Denmark last September of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Whilst acknowledging the grave offence that any depiction of the prophet must cause to devout Muslims, English PEN would stress that the cartoons themselves did not threaten anyone with violence. In contrast, cartoonists and editors across Europe and the Middle East have now been issued with death threats for nothing worse than drawing pictures and publishing news stories.

On January 31, English PEN celebrated the triumph of its campaign to amend the British Government’s proposed law against Incitement to Religious Hatred. The Bill in its final, amended, form, outlaws threatening language, whilst allowing satire, ridicule, abuse and insult as a necessary part of the democratic give and take. English PEN believes that this strikes a fair balance between freedom of expression and respect for religious and individual sensitivities.

English PEN supports the rights of believers to practise and explore their faith and would welcome dialogue with members of any faith who would like to debate the balance between freedom of expression and religion. We maintain that free speech is not a privilege to be extended only to those whose views we share.

PEN itself represents a wide range of opinion on this subject, as the following comments from leading PEN members demonstrate…

Hari Kunzru said:

‘The Jyllands Posten cartoons, while purporting to be a gesture supporting the notion of free speech, are shot through with latent racism. Not the kind of intense racism that leads to lynchings, but the soft kind, the kind that lots of middle-class people express to one another at dinner parties when they think nobody from an ethnic minority is there to hear. They’re full of hook-nosed bearded figures and big-eyed veiled lovelies – stereotypes straight out of 30’s Hollywood B-movies. I found several of them offensive, not because I believe that one shouldn’t represent the Prophet Mohammed but because they’re nasty and small-minded. They come from a position of ignorance rather than enlightenment. That said, the right to freedom of speech takes priority over the wish not to be offended and people should be able to make silly, parochial statements without fearing for their safety.’

Alastair Niven, President of English PEN, said:

‘I have lived in Denmark and admire its tradition of tolerance and open discussion. The Danish cartoons, however, were published deliberately to provoke. Knowing the possibility of violent protest, their appearance in print was irresponsible. There are plenty of ways of defending free expression without knowingly endangering lives. It is difficult for people without deeply held religious convictions of their own to understand the pain and grief that believers feel when God and His prophets are knowingly insulted. Probably some of the outrage now being expressed around the world is being whipped up for political reasons, but we show a failure of imagination in ourselves if we simply profess our own secular incomprehension. All writers and artists self-censor to some degree – they do that every time they revise a sentence because they feel it is overstated or yields to the temptations of purple language. Clearly now, however, they face difficult decisions as to how far they can go to depict characters, situations and ideas which might cause someone else offence. If it makes us all that much more scrupulous about how other people’s deeply held convictions are portrayed then maybe something good will come out of this turmoil.’

Carole Seymour-Jones, Chair of the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee, said:

‘Free expression is the rock upon which democracy stands, and to the imprisoned and persecuted writers for whom English PEN campaigns this fundamental human right justifies the sacrifice of liberty and life. The Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN, therefore, cannot condone any dilution of writers’ freedoms. As Voltaire said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The peaceful exercise of freedom of expression over the years has cast a searchlight into the dark corners of history, exposing tyranny and oppression, often through the use of satire and cartoon. Cartoonists such as Gilray, Hogarth, Vicky and Low would have been shocked to be told that they must avoid any offence, controversy or provocation in their work. To argue for socially responsible cartoons and thus curtail the freedom to offend or insult is a dangerous step on the road to self-censorship. However, mutual respect and sensitivity to the deeply held beliefs of people across the cultural divide are also called for in order to permit constructive and rational debate to take place around these issues, rather than allowing them to be hi-jacked by extremists.’

Fay Weldon said:

‘The most worrying thing about these orchestrated demonstrations is that they work. European and US publishers and editors, since the Rushdie affair, have been nervous of accepting any writing which might possibly lead to trouble. Things were loosening up a little – so now this. For brave writers around the world this is a disaster, and prisons round the world – beginning to empty, had you noticed? – will fill up again. And less brave writers round the world will be intimidated into silence. If only perforce, because their publishers and editors will be too. We are very good at self-censoring as it is.’

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