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Freedom to insult

By Dave Smith - posted Thursday, 9 March 2006

In September 2005, 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed were published in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten daily newspaper and then reprinted in a Norwegian magazine in January 2006. The cartoons included a portrayal of the prophet wearing a time-bomb shaped turban and as a wild-eyed, knife-wielding bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.

The cartoons sparked an uproar in the Muslim world, where images of the prophet are considered blasphemous. Public protests have been held, embassies have been closed, and there has been some violence. Meanwhile, the Danish Government has refused to apologise, saying that Islam has an argument with the newspaper, not with it, and that the government cannot restrict the freedom of the press. Western free speech advocates have flocked to support the Danish position.

So, it would appear that we in the West have finally proven our moral and cultural superiority over our Islamic brethren in the East. Our communities might be disintegrating. Our kids are running amok with sex and drugs. We are over-stressed and over-worked. Our debts are mounting up while our families are breaking down but at least now we have shown our great superiority in one central area: we uphold the right to ridicule the beliefs of others!


Against the objections of Islamic worshippers worldwide, Western governments (and a fresh group of until-recently-dormant social activists) have upheld the right to produce cartoons that defame religion because such productions embrace what is at the heart of all freedom-loving democracies - the right to free speech and a free press.

What a load of rubbish!

I am not convinced that eradication of all censorship is a sign of a progressive society, nor that it indicates real “freedom”. Either way though, it is just plainly false to suggest that the Western press is free to publish whatever it will.

In some very progressive Western democracies it is against the law to deny that the Holocaust happened. Is this a curtailment of free speech? I guess so, but it’s also an attempt to stem anti-Semitism and to show respect to a generation of human beings who suffered enormously. Maybe that’s more important.

When I was at university studying social work, I still remember being sickened by some of the “progressive” lecturers who took great pride in explicitly discussing the great variety of sexual practices going on in our community. What sickened me was not so much the content of the discussion, but rather the pretension of the speakers. They thought themselves more liberated than those of us who considered some of the topics to be inappropriate for public discussion.

The truth is these people had their boundaries too. They would laugh and joke and speak very explicitly about heterosexual and homosexual practices, bestiality and necrophilia, and loved to give the impression that nothing was off limits for discussion. Yet, it just wasn’t true. They stopped short on discussing pedophilia in such detail - thanks be to God. There was no laughing or joking in that area, and no explicit discussion.


We all have boundaries. We all recognise that some things just shouldn’t be the subject of humour. We all exercise discretion in what we talk about, laugh about and joke about. We just draw the boundaries at different points.

And so we find out - surprise, surprise - that our Islamic neighbours draw the boundaries of acceptable humour more conservatively than we do in the West. They do not appreciate jokes about the prophet Mohammed. For that matter, they wouldn’t appreciate jokes about Jesus either, whom they also consider to be a prophet.

We in the West are at a different point culturally. We have become hardened to religious humour that targets our cherished beliefs. Things that would have appalled our parents and which might have had our grandparents taking up arms nowadays are just considered part of the landscape. Does this mean that we are more advanced? I wouldn’t say that.

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Article edited by Natalie Rose.
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This article was first published on Father David Smith's web site.

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About the Author

Father Dave Smith is Parish Priest, professional boxer, human-rights activist and father of four. He was part of the Mussalaha (reconciliation) delegation to Syria in May 2013. Join Dave's mailing list via his main website - - and read his updates on Syria on

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