Exploiting Religion for Political Gain: Freedom of Speech or Disrespectful Opportunism?

By Frederik Seidelin

Twelve years ago, in September 2005, the Danish conservative newspaper Jyllands-Posten published ‘Muhammad’s face’, an article whose alleged purpose was to discuss the issue of Danish media’s self-censorship with respect to Islam. The article was illustrated by 12 cartoons commissioned by the editor to portray Islam. A few of the cartoons seemed to criticise not Islam but the newspaper itself—such as the one above, by Lars Refn, which depicts 13-year-old Mohammed from a Copenhagen suburb, whose T-shirt reads ‘the future’ in Danish, in front of a blackboard which reads ‘Jyllands-Posten’s journalists are a bunch of reactionary rabble rousers’ in Persian. However, most of the cartoons depicted Muhammad to synecdochically portray Islam as a violent and misogynistic religion.

Partly due to the aniconist tradition of Islam but also because of the perception of Islamophobia in the West, the newspaper article had broad political ramifications. A delegation of 11 ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries asked to meet with the Danish Prime Minister, whose response in effect snubbed the ambassadors. Uproar from Muslim communities in Denmark and abroad led to other newspapers printing the cartoons, ostensibly to defend free speech. These events resulted in a lengthy consumer boycott across the Middle East, especially of Danish products.

With periodical reprintings—perhaps most notably by Charlie Hebdo in 2015, which precipitated the appalling attack on their offices—the cartoons remain a potent politicised symbol across the political spectrum. For some, the backlash of 2005 only confirms the need to criticise self-censorship and political correctness. For others, however, the cartoons’ ostensible defence of the inviolable nature of free speech does not justify the offence caused by the cartoons.

Recently, the cartoons excited these polar opposites once again in Danish public debate. The Danish Minister for Integration, Inger Støjberg, showed that the background image on her tablet is Kurt Westergaard’s cartoon, the one which arguably caused most controversy. According to her Facebook post, she uses this picture ‘because I love Denmark. I simply love the foundation of liberties which has been laid down by generations before us and on which our country is founded.’ Støjberg’s post became the proverbial straw for Birthe Rønn Hornbech, one-time Minister for Integration and Støjberg’s fellow party-member, who launched a severe broadside on Støjberg, decrying the illiberal tone of their party and of Danish politics more broadly.

Is it fair to characterise Støjberg’s alleged defence of free speech as illiberal? Rønn Hornbech herself suggests that Støjberg’s sole object seems to be to cause offence. Indeed, the intention to cause offence violates basic principles of tactful communication, particularly Geoffrey Leech’s politeness principle. It could certainly be suggested that Støjberg shows that she does not afford Muslims the respect that underpins normal democratic debate. Moreover, because she is a government minister, her use of the cartoon is not innocent. She may have the legal right to add fuel to the fire, but does a minister have the moral right to ridicule other people’s religion in public?

The spat between Støjberg and Rønn Hornbech points to the broader issue of exploiting religion for political gain. Religion has assumed a pivotal role in the modern political struggle between conservatism, populism, and the politics of fear on the one hand; and tolerance, pluralism, and hope on the other. Indeed, since the 1990s, conservatives across Europe and the West have mobilised Christian sentiment for Islamophobic political gain. Did Støjberg simply defend free speech, or was the design of her post in fact to pander to a conservative voter base who oppose Muslim immigration out of fear and prejudice?

Image credit: “The Pupil Mohammed” by Lars Refn