When the Secretary-General of the United Nations makes official mention of your newspaper, its either very good or very bad. For the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, its very, VERY bad.
The paper is being protected by security guards and several of its cartoonists have gone into hiding after the newspaper published a series of twelve cartoons about the prophet Muhammad (see them all here – scroll down). According to Islam it is blasphemous to make images of the prophet. In response, Muslim fundamentalists have threatened to bomb the paper’s offices and kill the cartoonists. Around the world, Danish embassies are being picketed, and as of an hour ago, at least one (in Syria) had been set on fire (see CNN report here).
The Danish government has expressed regret, but refused to become involved, citing freedom of expression. The paper itself has apologised. But the Muslim world rages!
Freedom of speech is curtailed in many countries, normally protected against prejudicial or hate speech. As the “clash of civilizations” intensifies around the world, its amazing that a small Danish newspaper can spark an international incident. (Imagine if the Christians of the world did the same thing every time “Jesus” or “Christ” was said in a movie!?!). Yet, in this small world in which we live, it is now incumbent on all public voices to be circumspect about what they say. It is about RESPECT. It is about cultural understanding and diversity.
It reminds me of a story my friend and colleague, Keith Coats, likes to tell.
- A few years ago, he was standing in a crowd of people waiting for a lift (elevator). When the lift arrived, a Zulu friend who was with him stepped forward and into the lift ahead of everyone else. From behind Keith, a large forearm and hand leaned forward, literally grabbed this man by the neck and yanked him backwards. A gruff voice intoned menacingly, “Where are you manners? Ladies first!”. The hand belonged to a white Afrikaner.
This is just one instance of a clash of cultures that happens daily in Africa. People of European descent usually let women and children go ahead through doorways and entrances. It is considered respectful to let women go first. But, in Africa, where danger and death may lurk through a darkened door, it is the men who go first to ensure that the room on the other side is safe. It is considered cowardice to let women go first.
When Keith later questioned his friend, and asked how he was able to so gracefully deal with the rudeness of what had happened, his friend gave an extremely wise answer. Those who know the most, and are most aware of the cultural differences need to be the most gracious. It is those that know the most that need to be prepared to give up their own culture in deference to others.
It seems to me that people on both sides of the current issue of the cartoons needed to be more culturally aware, and sensitive to others.
Of course, there will be debates about the preciousness of religion and of sensitivities required. There will be arguments about freedom of speech and democratic processes of debate. There will be shouting about appropriate responses. There will fatwah’s and jihads. There will be death.
AND, this is not going to be the last time that this happens in an increasingly globalising world!!