Tuesday, July 26, 2016

TB Davie Memorial lecture: Flemming Rose should have faced music on Muhammad cartoons

Unlike the anarchic freedom of speech as expounded by Rose on the Muhammad cartoons, our constitution draws a line in the sand with regards to respect and ridicule

THE decision by the University of Cape Town (UCT) to stop former Jyllends Posten cultural editor, Flemming Rose, from delivering the 2016 TB Davie Memorial Lecture scratches at the scars of the Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005, and opens up all the old questions of the freedom of speech in South Africa.

Invited by UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) last year, Rose is said to be disappointed at the cancellation of his lecture. The cancellation was prompted by UCT’s fears of an inappropriate response from a sector of the Muslim community, and the volatile situation at local university campuses.

The TB Davie Memorial lecture is traditionally one of UCT’s main academic events, its stated purpose to celebrate academic liberty and freedom of speech. Previous guests have been celebrated intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and the Palestinian scholar, Edward Said, famed for his work on Orientalism.

The AFC had initially refused to rescind Rose’s invitation, but vice-chancellor Max Price, on behalf of the university’s executive, had informed the AFC that it would not be permitted to bring Rose onto campus. Stating that public order on South African campuses was in a “fragile state”, Price had said that it had been felt that Rose would retard, rather than advance, academic freedom.

Price had added in a letter that academic freedom was not unlimited, explaining that its exercise depended on a careful assessment of when such limits might pertain, “in line with the directives of our Constitution.”

And whilst to all intents and purposes the AFC, acting in the best interests of academia, had started out with a pertinent question on religious tolerance, and whilst the UCT authorities were forced to confront the question given today’s climate at universities, the whole process has to be interrogated as the main stakeholder – the Muslim community – was only consulted when UCT was reviewing the situation.

It has to be remembered that the Jyllends Posten cartoon feature became a very painful issue for Muslims when the Danish newspaper published twelve editorial cartoons on 30 September 2005 of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.

The newspaper’s explanation that it was attempting to contribute to Islamic critique and self-censorship had not gone down well in the international Muslim community, which regards iconic or caricaturistic depictions of Muhammad as blasphemy – no matter the context. The Jyllends Posten cartoons were seen as yet another post 9/11 provocation.

Muslim groups in Denmark had petitioned unsuccessfully – losing a judicial appeal – and the issue had led to protests, some of them unfortunately violent with 200 fatalities, in the world’s capitals. It also led to trade boycotts of Denmark with eleven Muslim ambassadors requesting a meeting with then Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

In South Africa the Gauteng and Durban-based Jami’at ul-Ulama was granted a court interdict preventing local newspapers from publishing the cartoons. The gagging order was seen as a moment of pre-emptive overkill by the South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) and some of our country’s editors.

At the time Rose had said that modern, secular society was rejected by some Muslims and that they demanded “a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings”.

He had gone on to say that this was incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one had to put up with ridicule. It was not attractive, and it did not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that was of minor consideration in the present context. He had said we were on a slippery slope if no-one could tell where self-censorship ended.

Jyllends Posten eventually issued an apology, regretting if it had caused any hurt, but maintaining it had a right to publish the cartoons.

In our local context, Rose – hailing from an almost belligerently secular society – would meet with stiff challenge on his assumptions. Our constitution – secular but framed within a believing community – considers all faiths equal, and special, in terms of their freedoms and the right to practice with dignity.

The question is not just Islam, but the standpoints of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, African traditionalists, Rastas and any other traditional belief.   

It is highly significant that the Prophet Muhammad was equally sensitive to these questions of identity over 1,400 years ago, when he specifically forbade his followers to harm churches and synagogues as well as rabbis and priests – which has led to mainstream Sunni scholars condemning even the burning of flags.  

In other words, unlike the anarchic freedom of speech as expounded by Rose, our constitution draws a line in the sand with regards to respect and ridicule. There are actually limits; gross insult draws us into the domain of hate speech, a nasty territory that often engenders institutional discrimination, retributive anger and violence.

These are things Jyllends Posten did not understand all those years ago, and what led to the disaster of the cartoon saga in a case of catastrophically unintended global consequences.

The tragedy today is that the impression has been created, again unintentionally, that the local Muslim community would have had a violent, or inappropriate, response to the appearance of the former Jyllends Posten cultural editor on a UCT platform. That is far from the truth. Cape Town’s Muslim community is vociferous, yes, but violent? No.

It is a pity that Flemming Rose was not allowed to be part of a panel debate with Islamic and other experts where some of these matters could have been discussed. He would have learnt that modern, secular society is not spurned by Muslims – just some of its darker aspects such as corruption and xenophobia that the rest of humanity questions too.

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