WASHINGTON (ANS) -- Riots throughout the Middle East in response to cartoons published in a Danish newspaper increase the climate of intimidation slowly suffocating free speech rights, one terror consultant believes.
A dozen cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Poste in September, then reprinted by a Norwegian newspaper last month, launched a violent wave of recent protests against the two countries throughout the Middle East.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a Washington D.C.-based counterterrorism consultant, says the rationale behind the publication of the cartoons is misunderstood. "A lot of people don't understand the context, including the U.S. State Department and Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary," he suggests. "There's a very real pattern of people criticizing Islam being threatened and physically assaulted, so there is a resulting self-censorship."
The newspapers were not attempting to bash Islam, but to affirm free speech rights, he believes. "This was not an Islamophobic outburst," Gartenstein-Ross says. "The Dutch [should read: Danish - RNB] newspaper wanted to test this article of self-censorship in order to reaffirm the primacy of free speech."
Europeans have been going down the wrong path, according to Gartenstein-Ross, by asking if self-censorship might be an acceptable accommodation to maintain social peace. Religious vilification laws, which make the slander of a religion punishable as a crime, have been passed in several European countries. A number of other countries are considering such laws in hopes they will produce social harmony.
"Religious vilification laws are part of the problem," Gartenstein-Ross believes. "It sends a signal to Muslims that criticism of a religion can be punished through the legal system," he notes. "We don't want the state to be the arbiter of acceptable religious discourse."
"Christians who engage in apologetics will be silenced," he predicts. "This is happening in both Europe and the U.S."
Gartenstein-Ross cites the example of Pastor Daniel Scot, convicted of violating Victoria, Australia's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act passed in 2002. Scot fled his native Pakistan in 1987 after they adopted a far-reaching blasphemy law, which prohibited any speech that directly or indirectly defiled the Prophet Muhammad.
Believing Australia would allow him more freedom of expression, Scot engaged in a series of lectures exploring the differences between Christianity and Islam, where he pointedly criticized Islam's treatment of women and jihad movements. "Whether you agree with his points about the status of women or jihad, they were all legitimate arguments appropriate for religious debate," Gartenstein-Ross notes. "These were within the bounds of apologetics." But Scot was convicted---his case is currently under appeal.
In France, actress Bridgette Bardot was fined in 2004 for her outspoken comments against the "Islamization of France" and the "underground and dangerous infiltration of Islam." Noted Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci will go on trial in June over charges she defamed Islam in her book "The Force of Reason."
While religious vilification laws may dampen religious dialogue, threats of violence may produce an even greater self-censoring effect. Author Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding after the publication of his book "The Satanic Verses" led to a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, requiring Rushdie`s execution for blasphemy against Islam. Last year, Khomeini`s fatwa against Rushdie was reaffirmed by Iran`s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
After the fatwa, Rushdie's Japanese translator was stabbed and killed in Tokyo, and his Italian translator was beaten and stabbed in Milan. Rushdie's Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was shot in an attack outside his home in Oslo.
In 1993 Rushdie's Turkish translator, Azia Nesin, was attacked by a mob who gathered around the Madimak Hotel in Sivas, Turkey, where he was staying. The crowd set fire to the hotel and 37 died as a result, but Nesin managed to escape.
Last October, actor Omar Sharif---a Muslim convert---was threatened with death after he played St. Peter in an Italian television film and made positive comments about the role. An al Qaeda web posting said: "Omar Sharif has stated that he has embraced the crusader idolatry...I give you this advice, brothers, you must kill him."
Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004 on a street in Amsterdam after he directed the film "Submission," which criticized the treatment of women in Muslim families. Islamic radical Mohammed Bouyeri shot Van Gogh eight times before slitting his throat with a kitchen knife and stabbing him in the chest.
The murderer was born in Amsterdam, well-educated and appeared to be well-integrated into Dutch society, but he also had terrorist ties with the Dutch Hofstad terror network.
Gartenstein-Ross does not expect riots in the U.S. because the Muslim population is smaller and better integrated socially, but he does expect more terror attacks. "There is less chance of dramatic attacks like 911, but there is a greater chance of attacks like the ones in Britain on July 7," he says.
"We must dramatically reassert the importance of free speech and the notion that in a society with vibrant free speech no religion can be above insult.