Dog Days For Freedom of Speech

Swedish artist Lars Vilks was forced to go into hiding on Monday after receiving death threats from the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Swedish police searched Vilks's house for explosives before he was allowed to pick up a few items, leave his home and move to an unknown location.

Vilks has been at the center of a Swedish cartoon crisis ever since several art institutions in August refused to display his drawings depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a dog. In an effort to trigger a debate about censorship, a local newspaper published the drawings, and a storm of controversy ensued.

"It's a little hard, but that's the way it has to be. I can come here every now and then, but I cannot stay overnight. the Swedish intelligence service takes this very seriously, I have to respect that," Vilks told the media.

Vilks returned to Sweden Sunday after having taught a class of art students in Kassel, Germany. Today he is going to appear on a panel in Stockholm debating Islam and secular society, where he won't be the only one onstage with a bounty on his head. Mina Ahadi, leader of the Council of ex-Muslims in Germany, is also under police protection due to several threats to her life after she dared to publicly break with Islam and declare herself an non-believer. Ahadi, a refugee from Iran, is on the front lines in the European debate about freedom of religion - particularly the right to say no to religion.

Mr. Vilks has an exhibition scheduled in New York in November, but worries that the exhibition may be in danger of cancellation due to security concerns.

So far, Sweden's prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has distanced himself from the threats against Vilks and the editor of the local newspaper. He will not say if he believes it was right or wrong of Vilks to draw the Prophet Mohammed as a dog.

"It's not for me to judge decisions by artists and publishers. We enjoy the right to free speech and that includes the right to express oneself through images. But at the same time I feel responsible for keeping Sweden together, responsible for the fact that in Sweden we have 400,000 Muslims that think that their right to free speech also must be secured, and that we express our willingness to have a dialogue," said prime minister Reinfeldt.

In a parallel development, prosecutors revealed in a trial in Denmark that a young man, part of a group accused of planning a terrorist attack in Copenhagen, planned to kill one the 12 Danish cartoonists that back in 2005 drew the cartoons of Mohammed which were posted in Jyllands-Posten.

February 6, 2006 he wrote on the Al Qaeda affiliated website www.alfirdaws.org under the headline "Help me kill thos who offended the Prophet":

"I am looking for fastkilling poison. I'll do it myself, and Allah will witness what I say."

During interogation, the 22 year old said that he had become angry with the Jyllands-Posten and wanted to find the scoundrel who had created the cartoons and kill him. In court he denied having any serious plans to follow through on his threat.

Swedish media have reported that the European Council for Fatwa and Research, presided over by the Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, plans to issue a fatwa condemning the death threats against Mr. Vilks and Ulf Johansson, the editor of the local newspaper Nerikes Allehanda that published the drawings of Mohammed as a dog.

A closer reading of the fatwa that most Swedish has ignored - apart from the condemnation of the death threats - indicates that the council is demanding dramatic limitations on free speech in Europe.

Here is the full text of the fatwa that has been obtained by the newspaper Expressen:

1. We condemn the caricatures and see them as an insult to the Muslim religion, but also as an insult to all people's religion.

(I cannot see why offending Muslims should be an offense to every believer. This is a clumsy way to build coalitions across faith lines.)

2. We believe in a free press and work to widen the limits of free speech. But offending that which is sacred to other people is not part of freedom of speech, it is a violation of human rights.

(This is a classical example of the kind of argument we saw during the cartoon crisis in Denmark: "We support free speech, but..." No, you don't. The right to offend is crucial to the right to free speech. As Orwell said: Free speech only means something when it includes the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.)

3. We think that the caricatures contradict our effort towards positive integration among different European societies, of which Islam is part.

(No, you are wrong again: the caricatures are a sign of integration of Muslims into the Swedish tradition of caricature, it's an act of inclusion, not exclusion, and it will benefit the process of integration.)

4. We think that the caricatures are undermining our effort to create a dialogue between religions.

(No, it's not. The caricatures stresses the fact that Swedish society isn't asking less or more of Muslims, but exactly the same as of adherents of every other religion, i.e. equal treatment, and that is the best possible situation for constructive dialogue.)

5. We call on European governments to protect Muslims and other believers against offending their religion.

(This is an outright call for cancelling the achievements of the European Enlightenment and criminalizing criticism of religion, one of the very foundations of our civilization).

6. We ask religious and human rights groups to discourage people from offending religions and what is sacred.

7. We distance ourselves from all acts of violence including murder, because as in the case of offending other groups this contradicts the teachings of Islam.

(This organization's leader al-Qaradawi is on the record condoning stoning of adulterous women and suicide bombers in Palestine. How does this fit your words?)

8. We call on European legislative assemblies to pass laws criminalizing offense of any religion and what is sacred.

9. We ask all Muslims in Europe to be prudent and defend what is sacred to them through existing democratic laws and we condemn everything that has to do with violence and criminal acts.

10. We stand by our goal to help European Muslims to contribute to the wealth and prosperity of their countries and we insist that the crazy caricature shall not stop this important process.