Over 200 members of the U of T community crowded in to the Debates Room at Hart House Thursday to listen and contribute to the panel discussion on the Danish cartoon scandal, which has continued to dominate headlines around the world over the past weeks.
“The question I want to address is ‘How did we get from an offensive cartoon in a northern European country to the brink of civil war in Lebanon?’” said Jens Hanssen, to open the discussion.
Hanssen, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean history at U of T, was joined by fellow panelists Haroon Siddiqui, editor emeritus of the Toronto Star, Amir Hassanpour, associate professor from the U of T’s department of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, and Wayne Sumner, professor from U of T’s department of philosophy. The event was organized by U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.
Professor Sumner reminded the audience that freedom of speech and the press are not without limits. He noted that free speech is a valid defence as long as the material in question is neither obscene nor hateful. In this case, the cartoons were neither, but that does not pardon those who printed them, he said.
“The Danish government and newspaper are impregnable within the free speech fortress, but not in other places,” said Sumner. “[The papers that ran the cartoons] are not guilty of abusing rights, but of exercising appallingly bad judgment.…It’s disrespectful to [the Danish Muslim] minority in quite a boorish way.”
Hanssen argued that the main source of outrage wasn’t the mere depiction of Muhammad, but the cartoon of a Muslim wearing a turban as a bomb, because it carried with it the idea that all Muslims are terrorists.
Siddiqui drew attention to what he termed “double standards” in Europe. “Why is it all right to be Islamophobic but not anti-Semitic?” he asked.
The audience was invited to respond to the panellists’ statements. Siddiqui received the most response from the audience. One audience member declared that he agreed with most of what the panelists had said. “But with you,” he said, pointing to Siddiqui, “I agree only about 85 per cent.”
“Hey, that’s pretty good,” chuckled Siddiqui.
Nouman Ashraf, who coordinated and moderated the event, said he organized the event for just this reason-so that people could feel free to agree or disagree, but ultimately be heard.
“I felt it important to create a safe space where our various communities on campus could hear a range of perspectives on this issue,” he said.