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Gary Younge
On the offensive

Remember the "clash of civilisations" that took place just over a year ago when Muslims called for an apology over the printing of those cartoons of Muhammed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten? Remember the high-minded talk of freedom of speech against those who hate western values; the last rites read for multiculturalism?

Hold those thoughts as we head to a spectacle that desecrates every principle any self-respecting Islamic fundamentalist holds dear and yet provides some much-needed nuance for those who hide behind the Enlightenment to throw rocks with the Islamophobes.

Let's go to a women's university basketball game in the US and listen to the words of a shock jock commentator.

For those who missed it the radio, host Don Imus recently described the mostly-black Rutger's women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" and their game against Tennessee as a match between the "jigaboos and the wannabes".

Imus has previous in this regard. Nine years ago, when Gwen Ifill, the black PBS reporter who mediated the 2004 vice-presidential debate, was covering the White House for the New York Times he said. "Isn't the Times wonderful? It lets the cleaning lady cover the White House."

This time his remarks sparked a furore that his apology has done little to assuage. Calls for his resignation keep growing and have provided sufficient pressure that he was suspended for two weeks, yesterday, by MSNBC.

Now the situations with Imus and Jyllands Posten, are analogous but by no means identical. There is no extreme-right, nativist party that openly espouses racist views in the US with double-digit support; Imus' indecorous remarks did not refer to a sacred prophet; there is no war being waged against African Americans that is claiming thousands of lives a week; racially motivated crimes have not doubled in the US in the last year; Imus is unlikely to receive an award for his defence of freedom next year.

Nor, to my knowledge, have there been isolated threats of violence by African Americans against Imus or MSNBC. There have been no attacks on embassies and boycotts of American goods elsewhere in the black diaspora; or withdrawal of diplomatic relations from the US.

But then most of this escalation took place several months after the cartoons were originally published. Who knows how out of hand things might have been if Imus had taken four months to apologise, as Jyllands-Posten did, if other radio hosts had believed it was their duty to rebroadcast his comments in defence of free speech, or if people had started telling African Americans that the price for remaining in the US is to accept his comments without even peaceful protest.

Either way this much is clear: most people understand that African Americans have the right to be offended. They can grasp that just because Imus has the right to say what he did, does not mean he was right to say what he did. Most people know that freedom of speech does not equate to an obligation to offend. This is not understood as a clash of civilisations but as a struggle for civility.

In calling for Imus' resignation it is generally understood that African Americans are not posing a threat to democratic values but exercising their democratic rights. Regardless of what one thinks about their demands or his comments, no one is claiming that those who object to them and organise peacefully to give that objection force are not undermining our way of life.

Clearly there is a line - albeit ill-defined, constantly shifting and continually debated - about what are acceptable standards of public discourse when it comes to cultural, racial and religious sensitivities.

What is equally clear is that in Europe, Muslims live on the wrong side of that line. Two years before they published the cartoons of Mohammed Jyllands-Posten received a series of unsolicited cartoons offering a light-hearted take on the resurrection of Christ. The cartoonist received an email from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, saying: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry. Therefore I will not use them."

So while Imus's resignation attracts little hysteria, Jyllands-Posten's cultural editor, Flemming Rose, is still picking up awards.

"He has stood up for freedom of speech in a way that has not been seen by many, either in Denmark or abroad," the president of the Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard, told the Guardian last month after awarding Rose the Sappho prize for "a journalist who combines excellence in his work with courage and a refusal to compromise".

Hedergaard went on to slam the British press for failing to support Rose by republishing the cartoons. "They have not understood what the whole thing was about," he added. "It shows a sign of decay (in the British media). It is wrong to make special consideration for particular groups."

That depends on who the particular groups are, how much power they have and how special the consideration that they are asking for truly is.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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