Seeing Freedom’s Light, Finally?

Back not so long ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, this weblog took up a brief examination of behavior on the part of the authorities which seemed to belie the commitment to freedom of expression which supposedly was what had been assaulted by the three Parisian killers, and for which – there can be no doubt – those many thousands of citizens marched in the streets of Paris (and other French cities, indeed other cities throughout the world) on Sunday, 11 January. Indeed, when it soon came to the gumshoes hitting the pavement there turned out not to be much loyalty to free expression, but rather to the enforcement of a quite lopsided expression regime under which it is quite OK to mock Islam, but beyond the pale – indeed, arrestable – to mock or denigrate those who mock Islam or to express any sort of sympathy or understanding for why those killers acted as they did.

This much was clear quite soon in France, but unfortunately the same syndrome was also evident in Denmark, where some 23-year-old guy (among others) who expressed approval of the Paris killings was arrested when the authorities found out, and his apartment thoroughly searched.

Now, as of last weekend, we saw the same variety of Charlie Hebdo terror strike Denmark itself, with the shootings at the public debate over blasphemy and the arts, followed by an assault at Copenhagen’s historic Grand Synagogue, that in the end left a total of two innocents dead and many wounded. And as sure as mushrooms pop up out of the ground after a rainstorm, there followed commentators ready to praise the “sacrifice” of gunman Omar al-Hussein:

You see that the name of the Facebook account and its associated photo-avatar has been obscured, but the accompanying Jyllands-Posten article tells us most of what we’d like to know: 26 years old; head of a family; of Palestinian origin; and he doesn’t even live in Copenhagen but rather near Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, located on the Jutland peninsula. He’s identified simply as “AK,” and if he doesn’t win any style-points for originality, he at least is multi-lingual: you see that this Facebook update has not only Je suis Omar but also Vi er alle Omar (Danish for “We are all Omar” – I’d beg to differ) as well as Allah yerhamak (properly: الله يرحمك) or “God bless you.”

Off to the slammer with him, right? Not so fast, as we see from a follow-up piece in Berlingske Tidende entitled “Young man feels himself misunderstood after terror-post.” The one thing this AK has gained so far from his multilingual opinion was an interview with the Danish private television broadcaster TV2 to explain himself:

I did not support his actions. I wished for a man – and a Muslim brother of mine – to rest in peace in his death. I thought that I could just as well use the words [that I did] instead of RIP. I didn’t think this would cause any harm. This is something that I meant – but clearly it is not something all Denmark has understood.

Still, he is not out of the woods yet. The East Jutland legal authorities (i.e. for the Aarhus area) are still considering whether or not to charge him. Meanwhile, his employer has called him in for a meeting today for a “status update.”

Meanwhile, though, at least some Danish public intellectuals are starting to wake up:

That’s Danish for “Why ‘freedom of expression, but …’?” As commentator Mads Kastrup points out, that was exactly the issue that the cruelly interrupted debate at Krudttønden was trying to address when shots started coming through the doors and windows: it’s always “freedom of expression, but“! Always some exception! But why? The best quote here comes from journalist Dag Holmstad:

There is no “but” when we are talking about freedom of expression. If the first thing we do is put conditions on what people say “for the sake of peace” we have lost out to totalitarian, limiting religious forces. Should Salman Rushdie have demurred – for the sake of peace – in writing and having published The Satanic Verses? Instead, as a free, modern democratic society we should insist – in the words of Jens Stoltenberg [the Norwegian Secretary-General of NATO] – upon more openness and more democracy, and that means more freedom of expression.

It was Denmark, after all, which helped to set off this debate in the first place with the publication of the Mohammed cartoons back in 2005, holding firm after that led to threats, riots and even considerable loss of business for Danish firms among Middle Eastern customers. So far as I can track, that “misunderstood” AK in Aarhus remains a free man (although perhaps no longer with the employment he used to have). But why did it have to take the spilling of Danish blood to remind Danes about what freedom of expression truly means?

Let me pass on here a bit of serendipity: while writing this post I was at the same time listening to one of the Internet’s many excellent “classic rock” stations, and suddenly I found myself listening to “Fooling Yourself” by the band Styx, first released on their Grand Illusion album of 1977 and with these lyrics:

You see the world through your cynical eyes
You’re a troubled young man I can tell
You’ve got it all in the palm of your hand
But your hand’s wet with sweat
And your head needs a rest
And you’re fooling yourself if you don’t believe it
You’re kidding yourself if you don’t believe it.
Why must you be such an angry young man
When your future looks quite bright to me?
And how can there be such a sinister plan
That could hide such a lamb
Such a caring young man
And you’re fooling yourself if you don’t believe it
You’re killing yourself if you don’t believe it
Get up (get up!), get back on your feet
You’re the one they can’t beat and you know it
Come on (come on!), let’s see what you’ve got
Just take your best shot and don’t blow it.

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