Martin Hirst
in Brisbane writes:

If there’s one thing we can take
from the debate raging about the right of newspapers to publish
cartoons lampooning Muhammad it’s that the free speech defence has more
holes in it than a sieve.

While freedom to criticise and ridicule religion is an aspect of free
speech, the furore has brought into sharp relief the many contradictions and exceptions
to the rule.
Here are just three examples of occasions when some of the same voices
that are now claiming a right to ridicule Islam’s holiest icon have
supported limits to freedom of expression:

  • The jailing of holocaust denier David Irving
  • The decision by Google, Yahoo, Disney and News
    Corporation to appease the Chinese regime by agreeing to censor their own content
  • An incident last month in which an ABC presenter made an off-hand
    comment about the Howard Government’s culpability in the David Hicks
    scandal and was reprimanded after an intervention by a senior Minister.

In fact in the present
debate the free speech defence has become a coward’s castle because
those seeking to defend the cartoons have also tried to argue they are
only a joke. It doesn’t wash. The cartoons in question were not an innocent
joke – they were a calculated insult designed to reinforce the idea that Islam
equals terrorism.

A recent survey of
English teenagers, reported in the Australian press this week, reaches the
unsurprising conclusion that they are prejudiced against people of Middle
Eastern appearance and think that Muslims are dirty terrorists. When this is
the daily media diet, you could expect nothing less.

It’s not really
surprising that poor, dispossessed Muslims in many nations are angry and upset
about the circulation of the offending jokes. They are protesting as much
against the arrogance of the Western media as they are against the religious
insult.

Peter Fray

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