Testing theboundaries offreedom of expression [Archives:2006/917/Viewpoint]

January 2 2006

For us in Yemen, freedom of expression has been a haunting issue for many, especially journalists. The right to have a say and the right to manifest one's beliefs, so long as these liberties fall within ethical and moral boundaries, is an eternal quest. However, some more developed countries already enjoying such freedoms seem to be less responsible about them. It's like they have forgotten how hard it is to avail such freedoms and now are testing new boundaries.

I am saying this with regard to the Danish daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which last September published 12 caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, depicting him as a stereotypical Islamic terrorist. Although the paper apologized for any offence caused, it said it was testing the boundaries of expression about Islam. “Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want, within the framework of the law, exists and must endure – unconditionally!” the newspaper stated.

Are there any boundaries to freedom of expression? Can one defame any cult or ethnic group based on their beliefs and demean the group's ideology? What is the basis of freedom of expression and does this freedom come with certain responsibilities?

This assault resulted in a backlash from normal citizens in the Muslim world, as well as from governments. Eleven Muslim ambassadors, who were refused a meeting with the Danish prime minister, clearly voiced their resentment regarding the newspaper's act and to the Danish government's lack of action. However, just as Denmark has freedom of the press, Muslims have freedom to buy or not to buy. Hence, the Danish products were boycotted in Saudi Arabia – which also recalled its ambassador from Denmark – and the boycott spread to other Muslim countries. Consequently, the Confederation of Danish Industries now has appealed to Jyllands-Posten to print an apology for having commissioned the drawings.

Islamic tradition bars any depiction of the prophet Mohammed (may peace be upon him), even respectful ones, out of concern that such images could lead to idolatry. In fact, our religion and our culture prevent depiction of any prophets (may peace be upon them) in any way. As developing countries, we are struggling to avail the freedom of expression claimed by the more developed world, but in the process, let us keep in mind that such freedom comes with responsibility, accountability and respect to others.