Turban Satire, a Bombed Joke and the SRFS Syndrome

Let me start with a quotation which summarises my position on freedom of speech: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Who else could have said this than George Orwell? There is a corollary to this rule: either you believe in freedom of speech, or you do not believe in it. Yes, it is like having faith in God and maybe that is what makes the current issue over Danish cartoons so volatile. There is no comfortable in-between. A restrained freedom of speech is just what it looks like: a concession. In this case we can only speak of a tolerance toward the freedom of speech we like.

There are different degrees of toleration and the factors which influence it are varied. They range from a dogmatic appeal to impose a certain interpretation of the Shari’a, the necessity of maintaining a harmonious society, simply to avoid overt conflict, to control the way people think, for the primary benefit of newspaper editors, or to stop your mother-in-law from complaining. In any case, when freedom of speech is limited or unidirectional it is no longer freedom of speech. But today people are affected by something worse than limitation on freedom of speech. I call this the SRFS syndrome. It appears that caricature-fighting Muslim protesters, freedom-fighting cartoonists, freedom-fighting reporters, freedom-fighting editors of newspapers, and freedom-fighting politicians are all affected by it.

To show the symptoms of the SRFS syndrome, we must start from the beginning, which takes us back to Denmark. On August 8, 2005, Kaj Wilhelmsen, a presenter for Radio Holger said “There are only two possible reactions if you want to stop this bomb terrorism – either you expel all Muslims from Western Europe, so they cannot plant bombs, or you exterminate the fanatical Muslims, which would mean killing a substantial part of Muslim migrants.” Although the Danish police thought to charge the presenter, nothing actually happened and he was only banned from broadcasting for three months. His response was to move his radio program to the Internet, where licenses are not required. In this case freedom of speech was granted and nobody in Europe erupted with designated comments or suggested that words are dangerous weapons, or Denmark was going Nazi. Although nobody decided to follow the blond, blue eyed Danish anchorman, someone did decide to freedom-fight the freedom to be respected for one’s own religious beliefs. So the marriage of secular Europeans and Muslim migrants was rocked on a cartoonist’s palette resulting in protests by Muslims worldwide more explosive than anyone could have imagined. “Freedom of speech,” claimed the European press and politicians. “Blasphemy,” said Muslims and some other religious leaders.

Keen evidence of SRFS is highlighted in an overlooked piece of news. On February 2, 2006, the leader of the BNP (British National Party ) Nick Griffin and Mark Collet were cleared of two racial hatred charges. In public speeches Mr Griffin had called Islam a “wicked vicious faith” and Mr Collett said “let’s show these ethnics the door in 2004.” Such sentiments were forgiven because after all the British say they value a total freedom of speech. The BNP view on their freedom of hate speech was known long before the Danish cartoons were created.

Would I be wrong in thinking that the freedom of speech blessing from his peers that Nick Griffin received is not likely to be extended to the controversial British imam Abu Hamza or the protesters that may soon be arrested because of their “offensive” placards shown while demonstrating Saturday outside the Danish embassy? Should this not be diagnosed as another case of the mysterious SRFS?

Today one of the most famous of those protesters is the postmodern Omar Khayam . Being a Muslim and a follower of Muhammad, he decided to dress as Jyllands-Posten’s cartoonists suggested Muslim should do (indeed, Muslim should follow the Prophet example!). With a care free sense of humour, he dressed as a suicide-bomber while protesting at the demonstration outside the Danish embassy. But a funny thing happened on the way to the protest forum. Nobody laughed at Omar Khayam’s parody of Jyllands-Posten’s caricature. On the contrary, the guy had to issue an apology, covered world-wide:

“Khayam read out his apology outside his Bedford home.

‘I found the pictures deeply offensive as a Muslim and I felt the Danish newspaper had been provocative and controversial, deeply offensive and insensitive.

Just because we have the right of free speech and a free media, it does not mean we may say and do as we please and not take into account the effect it will have on others.

I understand it was wrong, unjustified and insensitive of me to protest in this way.

But by me dressing the way I did, I did just that, exactly the same as the Danish newspaper, if not worse.’

He said his method of protest had offended many people, especially the families of the July bombing victims.

‘This was not my intention.

What happened in July was a tragedy and un-Islamic.

I do not condone these murderous acts, do not support terrorism or extremism and would like to apologise unreservedly and wholeheartedly to the families of the victims.’

He added: ‘I understand it was wrong, unjustified and insensitive of me to protest in this way.’

Asif Nadim, from a Bedford mosque, said the Muslim community distanced itself from Khayam’s actions and supported his apology.

‘Looking at this from an Islamic point of view, this was totally un-Islamic.

‘We distance ourselves from the act that he has actually caused and the pain that he has caused for the families of the victims of the London bombings.’”

He said Khayam was ‘very, very ashamed’ of his actions and hoped that it would be the end of the matter.”

The same full apology was not given by the editors of Jyllands-Posten, who covered their newsprint with the absolute self rightenousness of freedom of speech. Of course the protest joke of Omar Khayam is under investigation and he will probably be charged soon. It is alright in Europe to draw a bomb in the turban of the prophet Muhammad, but not to express personal frustration by dressing up in parody for a protest march. It also seems to ruffle few feathers that Arabs are routinely portrayed as nothing but suicide bombers in cartoons.

If you are worried that you may be suffering from this viral outbreak, here is a simple SRFS test that can taken to discover if you have the symptoms:

A) Do you find Omar Khayam’s behaviour offensive and repulsive? Yes 2 points, No 1 point.
B) If you were part of the jury judging this case, would you consider him guilty of inciting hatred? Yes 2 points, No 1 point
C) Are Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons a heroic action to save western freedom of speech? Yes 2 points, No 1 point
D) Should BNP be excused for their xenophobic and Islamophobia ideas? Yes 2 points, No 1 point

If your total is 6 or more you are infected by the syndrome of SRFS Schizophrenic-Right of Freedom of Speech. There is no known cure other than admitting your own prejudice and inconsistency. As a doctor I suggest you buy a newspaper and turn to the cartoon section or just look in any mirror. Then start laughing and don’t stop until you realize that freedom of speech is laughable unless it can also make fun of you.

Gabriele Marranci

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