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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On freedom of speech

The Swedish newspaper Metro is today breaking the news that the group of three men who were arrested in Sweden on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, were planning to assassinate the artist Lars Vilks.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Vilks, he is a provocative conceptual artist and author with a Ph.D. in Art History (actually, a better translation would be Art Theory) who most famously portrayed the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a dog in a series of drawings exhibited in 2007.

More recently (May of 2010), he gave a talk at Uppsala University during which he screened Iranian artist Sooreh Hera's Allah ho gaybar - in which two men wearing masks depicting Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali are shown in various "sexually provocative positions," according to Wikipedia.

As a result of his Muhammad drawings, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (now captured) placed a bounty on Vilks' head in 2007 and the artist has since lived under constant threat. Last year, a Swedish member of the Somali terrorist network Al-Shabaab also declared a death threat against Vilks. There have been several attempts at his life, and the spectacle at Uppsala University was interrupted when several angry members of the audience stormed the stage.

I have made my position on Vilks' Muhammad drawings and the Danish Muhammad cartoons clear elsewhere (link to an article in Swedish). There is a long tradition of ridiculing and belittling the Muslim prophet in Christian polemics, and widespread prejudice toward and stereotypes of Muslims in today's Europe, and I find this deeply troubling and unfortunate. Vilks' and Jyllandsposten's provocations are part of a broader pattern, and it is no coincidence that Vilks is featured prominently on Islamophobic blogs like Gates of Vienna.

However, in this particular post I want to focus exclusively on freedom of speech. And more precisely, I would like to reaffirm the right of an artist or writer to express him/herself freely - within the bounds of the law - without having to fear violent retribution. This freedom extends to the right to offend, even if people like myself disapprove of the contents.

To be sure, an artist making deeply offensive and provocative statements or drawings - even ones that, like several of the Muhammad cartoons, verge on racism (as long as it stops short of constituting hate speech or the Swedish legal equivalent: agitation against an ethnic group/people) - such an artist should expect vigorous debate and harsh criticism, and perhaps even such 'retaliation' as consumer boycots. But (s)he should not have to suffer through violent attacks against his/her person or the threat thereof.

There is much more to say on these issues - and I have said some of it elsewhere - but there is also a need for critics of Western and European Islamophobia to stand up and clearly express our support for the principle of freedom of speech. That is what I am doing now.

Freedom of speech is a basic and essential cornerstone of a free, open, and democratic society. In such societies, people of all faiths, persuasions, and ethnicities can ideally coexist and express their differences, whether as groups or as individuals, if granted the right of free expression. Thanks to this right they can vocally express their divergent views of what their society should look like, criticize the powers and policies that be as well as criticize, for example, the peddlers of Islamophobia. If this foundation is attacked, however, it constitutes an attack on democracy as such, for without the former the latter means nothing.

There are limits to this freedom of speech (shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, as the classic example goes) but those limits are not the subject of this post. Here I simply want to reaffirm my strong belief that as long as speech stays within those legal limits, it must be allowed and the speaker must be free from violence or the threat thereof.

All violence and threats against Lars Vilks must be strongly denounced and should cease immediately. There are better ways of expressing one's disapproval, preferably by using one's right to free speech.

UPDATE: I added the last paragraph after re-reading my original post, just to underline my position on the issue that prompted this post in the first place.
Vilks var terrormål - - Senaste nytt | Expressen - Nyheter Sport Ekonomi Nöje

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