On a Monday afternoon ten days ago I sat down with Tariq Ramadan to debate the Danish cartoons. The debate was moderated by Danish journalist and editor Martin Krasnik and took place in Mr. Ramadan’s office in northwest London. Mr. Ramadan asserted that he had advised his followers in Denmark ”to ignore the provocation” by Jyllands-Posten, i.e. publication of 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. The debate went on for almost two hours, and Mr. Krasnik is writing a feature story for a magazine that will be published next year.
I think the principal disagreement was clarified during an exchange about the famous cartoon depicting the Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. Ramadan insisted that this cartoon was saying that the prophet was a terrorist. I replied that to me and the author of the cartoon it was about Muslims committing terrorist acts in the name of Islam and the Prophet. Ramadan rejected this interpretation and called on me not to ignore the perception of the cartoon by millions of Muslims.
”Thank you,” I said, ”you have just proven my point, that in a multicultural democracy one has from time to time to accept offense, because different groups, different believers and non-believers, will have different understandings of what can be said and published and what can not.”
In this case many Muslims had a different reading of the cartoon than the cartoonist himself.
Ramadan criticised me for being too legalistic and too focused on principles in stead of paying attention to the fact that we have to live side by side, and therefore have to be sensitive to the sensibilities of one another.
I answered that especially in a multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious society you need principles and laws to establish a common framework within which people can express themselves. If you have to avoid offending anyone every time you speak you will limit freedom dramatically (but maybe that is the intention of Mr. Ramadan and his followers?), and, in fact, in Denmark for a long time it was taboo to discuss cultural differences and criticise practices in Islam oppressing women, homosexuals or other minorities. This taboo gave rise to a nationalist party, and it is a fact that the number of refugees and immigrants in Denmark that experience discrimination according to a recent poll has decreased from 37 pct. in 2001 to 27 pct. in 2007.