Germany asks if Islam impedes on freedom of speech
A decision by the German publisher Droste not to print a murder mystery about an honour killing because it contained passages insulting Islam has raised questions in Germany about religion impeding on freedom of speech.
Droste publishers said they would have published the book, entitled “To Whom Honour is Due”, had author Gabriele Brinkmann softened the tone in some sections In one, for example, an angry character tells another to dispose of a Koran using a crude phrase we would not reproduce here. “The author was not prepared to change the derogatory passages, which would have been a condition for the publication,” Droste said in a statement on its website.
(Photo: The Merkez Mosque in Duisburg, Aug 21, 2009, Reuters/Ina Fassbender)
Little did they realise what a stir this decision would cause in Germany, which is sensitive to any compromise on freedom of speech and where security fears over Islamists have blocked several artistic ventures in recent years. “For me, it is about the principle. That is why I went public about this. I won’t hurry to be obedient and carry out self censorship,” Brinkmann told German media. “Justified fear or cowardice?” asked the headline in the daily Hamburger Abendblatt.
Droste insists it is not worried about releasing books dealing with controversial themes, but refuse to publish books which insult peoples’ faith — whether Islam, Christianity or other religions. But Brinkmann points out that her book was a work of fiction, and it was clear that the opinions expressed by fictive characters were neither her own nor those of the publishers.
Furthermore, it is questionable if the company would have similary toned down any insults of Christianity, a religion that is regularly parodied and demonised in popular culture. Why not? Perhaps because insults against Christianity probably wouldn’t have carried the same security risks. Monty Python’s comedy The Life of Brian and Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code both provoked outrage among sections of the Christian community, but not death threats or violence.
Publisher Felix Droste himself admitted that he was concerned about a security risk that could arise to the company if it published the book, in light of the riots that broke out in several Islamic countries after cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper sparked outrage among Muslims.
How real is the risk? Should artists, producers and publishers seek to anticipate any risk by avoiding any criticism or parody of Islam? And regardless of security, to what extent should a society respect the religious sensitivities of one group if they begin to impede on its basic freedom of speech of all others?