The row about the Prophet Muhammad cartoons has by now hopefully run its course, at least in South Africa.

After intensive discussions between editors and Muslim leaders, apologies have been made, boycott calls and interdicts withdrawn. But the episode has raised questions that remain with us.
Underlying much of the debate has been the central question of whether freedom of expression has limits.  Given the charged atmosphere, it’s no wonder that the discussion has been sharply polarised. 

David Unterhalter argues in the Sunday Times that “at the heart of free speech is the right to say things that others find offensive”.  No belief system can claim exemption from mockery, he argues:  freedoms are all or nothing.

This kind of absolutist view is seductive because it is clear and principled.  And it is certainly correct in a legal context.  The only exceptions allowed by the constitution involve hate speech – statements which are intended to incite people to harm others – and it is highly doubtful that these cartoons fall in this category.

Freedom of speech is a central and precious right, and the constitution rightly draws the limits very widely.  The law must be cautious about what it prohibits. 

But the law cannot provide a full answer. We can accept that cartoons of this kind don’t break the law, but still wonder whether they should be published.  It is the difference between the legal “may” and the ethical “should”.

There is no question the Danish cartoons are offensive on several grounds.  First, they breach an Islamic bar on representation of Muhammad.  Second, they make fun of the deepest beliefs of Muslims. Third, they feed racist stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. 

Having identified them as offensive does not settle the question either. It can be perfectly reasonable, even necessary, to cause offence.  As M&G staffer Nic Dawes pointed out to me, major advances in history like the work of Galileo were initially deeply offensive to some.  (It is probably safe to say that the Danish cartoons are not in the same category.)
Some would say that newspapers have a positive duty to be controversial.  It would be a sad day if the M&G steered clear of anything that somebody somewhere might find offensive.

Making these kinds of decisions is not easy, whether it’s about a disturbing image of a dead body, the words of a racist song or a blasphemous cartoon. It always involves weighing up the potential offence against the journalistic purpose.

Context matters.  The original publication of the cartoons in the Danish Jylands-Posten – and even more clearly their republication in France and Germany – was driven by a desire to assert one dangerous oversimplification against another: “Western freedoms” against “Muslim fundamentalism”.  

Roger Köppel, the editor of Germany’s Die Welt, told The Guardian: “It is at the core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire. We also know that moral double standards sometimes guide certain reactions in the Arab world. If we start to stop using our right to the freedom of expression within our legal boundaries then we start to develop an appeasement mentality.”

This kind of “clash of civilisations’ rhetoric shows that the cartoons come with substantial political baggage.   Fighting the good fight for freedom of thought is undoubtedly an excellent thing. But doing so by stereotyping Muslims as terrorists and insulting their beliefs is not particularly honourable – it simply feeds prejudice.

As Gary Younge remarks in The Guardian: “The right to freedom of speech equates to neither an obligation to offend nor a duty to be insensitive.”

The M&G’s case was quite different. A single, restrained reproduction was run next to a straight news report about the row.  There is merit in the argument that readers needed to see what all the fuss was about, and that M&G readers are generally a tolerant and sophisticated lot. This is not a newspaper that can be accused of having an Islamophobic agenda.

Nevertheless, the religious feelings around images of the prophet run particularly deep, and should have weighed more heavily than the explanatory value of showing cartoons that could have been described in words. I did not agree with the decision to run the cartoon, but the paper has now apologised, and that has put the matter to rest.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that some of the reactions were, as last week’s editorial said, thuggish. Embassies were burnt, newspaper delivery trucks held up at gunpoint, the family of editor Ferial Haffajee put under pressure.

And the court ruling that pre-emptively blocked newspapers from doing something they had not intended to do was very disturbing. As others have said, it amounted to pre-publication censorship and significantly undermines media freedom. Newspapers must be allowed to take their own editorial decisions.

Where has this affair left us, as we chart the difficult waters where offence has to be weighed against journalistic purpose? 

While it is right to be sensitive to fundamental religious beliefs, this cannot be allowed to chill public discussion of so important a part of the modern world as Islam, particularly its political forms. To borrow from Dawes, there can be no “bar on satirising the professed religious motivation of Al Qaeda”, for instance, even if there are attempts to close down criticism on the grounds of religious sensitivities. 

We don’t have to be insulting; but we do need to be able to hold a vigorous debate.

* This piece first appeared as The Ombud column in the Mail&Guardian of 17 Feb 2006