Flemming Rose: UCT was right

Mervyn E. Bennun says the university's decision to disinvite the Danish journalist was taken within the context of our Bill of Rights

Freedom of Expression and UCT

The decision by the Executive of the University of Cape Town to rescind the invitation to Flemming Rose, the editor of the Danish periodical Jyllands Posten, to deliver the annual TB Davie lecture in August 2016 stops an egregiously ill-advised event from occurring. Organised by UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee, Flemming Rose should never have been invited in the first place.

Flemming Rose has written that he ‘was trying to cover a story about self-censorship and fear among writers, artists, museums, publishers, comedians and other people in cultural life in Denmark and Western Europe.......: Were people in cultural life in Western Europe exercising self-censorship?........To find out, we approached cartoonists and invited them to draw the Prophet Muhammad as they saw him.’ He made it clear that he was well aware that it is considered to be highly blasphemous in Islamic tradition to depict Muhammad visually. The cartoons which resulted from his ‘experiment’ were duly published in Jyllands Posten, one in particular depicting Mohammed with a bomb in his turban.

In the accompanying editorial, Flemming Rose wrote:

‘Modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. ... we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him’.

Hearken to the typical bully, who denies having done wrong and blames the victims for their own hurt: ‘it never happened, it’s their own fault, and they deserved it anyway’. It will be noted that Flemming Rose disregarded the possibility that ignoring the Islamic bar to picturing Mohammed might be viewed as a display of his own intolerance.

In particular, depicting Mohammed with a bomb in his turban carries the unambiguous message that Islam is a violent religion and that all Moslems can be confidently regarded as terrorists.

Professor Peter Hervik, the professor of Migration Studies at Aalborg University, was of the view that the entire project lacked validity and sound journalistic basis and demonstrated that the newspaper’s ‘desire to provoke and insult Danish Muslims exceeded the wish to test the self-censorship of Danish cartoonists’. Had Flemming Rose been a member of any reputable university, he would have first been obliged to prepare a detailed protocol for his proposed experiment and to obtain permission for it from the university’s research ethics committee. It is hard to imagine that this would have been granted.

Whatever might be Danish law and custom, the decision by the University of Cape Town’s executive was explicitly taken in the context of the Bill of Rights in South Africa’s Constitution. This establishes a right to freedom of expression subject to the limitations, set out in sec. 16(2) of the Bill of Rights, that this does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

Flemming Rose has made his views clear and has revealed himself to be as much an authority, and as welcome an exponent, as Penny Sparrow on South Africa’s Bill of Rights. His sole value to a discussion on the freedom of expression in South Africa is to illustrate its abuse.

I am Jewish by Jewish customary law. I am as opposed to Zionism as I am to apartheid, and committed to supporting the cause of Palestinians.

If the decision by Flemming Rose to publish the Jyllands Posten cartoons is unobjectionable and qualifies him to be an authority in defence of freedom of expression, then provided one wraps it up as an ‘experiment’ what’s to stop an invitation to cartoonists to depict how they see Jews? Notwithstanding that I am also an atheist, I would be outraged – and I hope that others would be also – if someone were to make a cartoon insulting to Jews by a satirical invocation and depiction of the tefillin and tallit in purported sympathy with the Palestinians. Would it be a legitimate exercise of freedom of expression if Jews were also depicted as Christ Killers (whence “Kikes”)? If Christians were the subject of the experiment, would they just have to bite the bullet if cartoonists used as their tropes the disgusting names for Gentiles in the Jewish and Moslem calendar of insults? How about an ‘experiment’ depicting members of the LGBTI community – think of the offensive terms used to describe them. Was Penny Sparrow’s mistake that she failed to explain that she was conducting an ‘experiment’ to see how others would react if she referred to ‘monkeys’?

How odd we South Africans are: we forbid anyone to utter the word, but carefully preserve it in our vocabulary by printing it as ‘k*****’. This could be presented as an experiment conducted by newspaper editors to see how long it will take before a genuinely puzzled reader writes a letter asking what it means.

The case against terrorism is so overwhelming that there is no need to resort to insults such as the Jyllands Posten cartoons. In South Africa, we would simply shame ourselves and foul the freedoms we stand for by trying to legitimise Flemming Rose’s worthless ‘experiment’ by providing a platform for him to explain himself.

Hold the line, UCT. We should have pride in both the limitations we have imposed on ourselves, as well as the freedoms asserted, by the Bill of Rights. They both show strength and confidence, not weakness.