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The right to ridicule a religion

 ALLMÄNT/ÖREBRO Publicerad: 2007-08-28 13:38

Det här är en engelsk översättning av den ledarartikel som publicerades i samband med den teckning av Muhammed som har orsakat protester bland muslimer både i Sverige och i Iran.

• Translation from Swedish
NA Sunday 19 August 2007
Leader column: Lars Ströman, editorial writer

• In brief
Artist Lars Vilks has made three drawings which ridicule the prophet Mohammed.
The right to freedom of religion and the right to blaspheme go together.
• Caption
Three art galleries have declined to display Lars Vilks’ drawings of Mohammed. We publish one of them here, with the permission of the artist.

Artist Lars Vilks has made three drawings ridiculing the prophet Mohammed. The prophet is portrayed as a “roundabout dog”.
So far three art exhibitions have declined to publish his pictures. The Art Association in Tällerud said no. Then the school Gerlesborgsskolan in the county of Bohuslän said no. Now the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm has also said no.
This is unacceptable self-censorship. A liberal society must be able to do two things at the same time. On the one hand, it must be able to defend Muslims’ right to freedom of religion and their right to build mosques. However, on the other hand, it is also permissible to ridicule Islam’s most foremost symbols – just like all other religions’ symbols. There is no opposition between these two goals. In fact, it is even the case that they presuppose each other.

Therefore it is quite logical that the Muslim newspaper Minaret, together with the association Secular Muslims in Sweden, is planning an exhibition displaying Lars Vilks’ drawings.
Religion is a more sensitive area than politics. Religious belief is more personal and therefore if a religious symbol is violated or ridiculed, this can be felt to be a personal insult. This does not only apply to Muslims.
In 1979, the Monty Python team made the film “Life of Brian”. It is not about Jesus but about Brian, a young man who was born and who lived contemporarily with the founder of Christianity. “Life of Brian” was forbidden in Norway under the law forbidding blaspheme. In the USA, there were voices calling for the film to be forbidden. John Cleese pointed out that God no doubt can take care of himself. I am a practicing Christian myself and I think “Life of Brian” is a very funny film.
The background to Lars Vilks having problems getting his drawings exhibited is the so-called caricature crisis which Denmark was subjected to in January 2006.
There were riots outside embassies in Muslim countries. The dairy giant Arla’s sales in the Muslim world plummeted. There were diplomatic consequences.

On the surface, the issue was the newspaper Jyllands-Posten publishing a series of caricatures of Mohammed. Of course it was correct of Denmark to assert its freedom of the press.
But the caricatures were rotten. They had similarities to anti-Semitic drawings done by pro-Nazi drawers during the 1930s and 1940s. For a number of years now, xenophobic forces in Danish politics have had too much space to manoeuvre. For instance, the sister party of the Swedish Democrat party has gained direct influence. For many Muslims in Denmark, the drawings in Jyllands-Posten were an expression of increased intolerance.
It is somewhat more difficult to see through the political game that has been going on in the countries where embassy buildings were subjected to riots. But it would seem to be the case that the riots – at least in some instances – were not as spontaneous as it would appear. It could have been a way of directing attention towards an external enemy.
The Danish government was not able to do two things at the same time. Right from the start, the government should have said that the caricatures in Jyllands-Posten were poor and of bad taste, while at the same time making it clear that in a democracy, it is permissible to make caricatures that are rude and of bad taste.
Now, some really lousy caricatures published in Denmark, have resulted in one art gallery after another refusing to display Lars Vilks’ three drawings. People are afraid that something unpleasant is going to happen.
“I think the drawings are good. But there is also a sense of fear here at the local heritage centre that it will lead to problems and conflict,” says Märtha Wennerström, responsible for the art exhibition in Tällberg (SvD 21/7).
So art galleries are allowing themselves to be frightened by a diffuse threat. They are giving the message that it is easy to be frightened into silence.

The right to freedom of religion and the right to blaspheme religions go together. They presuppose one another.
What happens if a fundamentalist Muslim wants to express his faith through pictorial art? Quite clearly, it will be easy to persuade art galleries that the pictures are unsuitable, that they may lead to conflict. So the restriction of Lars Vilks’ possibilities to express himself may also negatively affect Muslims’ right to express themselves.

Lars Ströman

epost: lars.stroman@na.se • telefon: 019-155029

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