Impact of Freedom of Religion on Press Freedom Since 2000
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Published: Fri, 23 Feb 2018
The British Council (2004) describes the vital role played by the media in maintaining a democratic culture, as well as freedom of expression that is interwoven through not only the political system but also public consciousness. Ideally, the media facilitates constructive political debate, and is the vehicle through which individuals in a democracy communicate with one another. To serve its purpose, the media must record events objectively and comprehensively, regardless of external censorship pressures. However, in recent years there have been a number of significant challenges to freedom of expression made by religious individuals and organisations, a situation which is exacerbated by the globalisation of society and the media.
Increasing globalisation has created an unprecedented level of cross-cultural interaction, one of the side effects of which has been to propel the issue of free speech to the centre of public debate (Binderup 2007). One unfortunate consequence of this growing cultural diversity has been increased intimidation and harassment of those who exercise freedom of expression against religious groups. According to Lipman (2006):
A conflict exists between free expression and cultural sensitivity, confounded in this case by the manipulations of various factions, political parties, and nations seeking personal advantage—and stirred by the existence of ongoing armed conflicts in the Middle East and acts of terror elsewhere (p. 5).
As such, freedom of expression is threatened by a complicated matrix of interwoven interests encompassing not only religion but various political power struggles, as well as socioeconomic factors. Binderup (2007) emphasises that this tendency has been amplified by media globalisation.
To put the current phenomenon in context, this paper touches upon the history of media and religious conflict, as well as legislation that affects freedom of both expression and religion. This is followed by an analysis of the importance of the media in promoting and maintaining democracy, as well as recent instances of censorship in response to religious complaint. Next, two cases which illustrate the intensity of the debate over free speech are examined: the reaction to the Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad and the Church of Scientology’s aggressive response to its critics. Additionally, a brief analysis of recent conflicts between freedom of expression and other religious interests is presented, after which conclusions are drawn as to whether the rise of religious fundamentalism has affected the way in which journalists have reported the news in recent years.
Binderup (2007) emphasises that clashes between freedom of expression and freedom of religion are not a new phenomenon. Before the uproar over the Danish cartoons, author Salman Rushdie’s life was threatened, his translators stabbed and his publisher in Norway shot over his novel The Satanic Verses, which includes a loose fictionalised account of the life of Muhammad. When the dust settled, 22 people had been killed and many more injured by rioters, and democratic relations between Iran and the West had been compromised (Levy 1993). Filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by Muslim radicals for making a movie about women’s oppression under Islam (Binderup 2007). Additionally, the suggestion by a Nigerian newspaper that Muhammad may have chosen Miss World contestants for his wives sparked riots that led to the deaths of 200 people (‘Muhammad cartoons: a timeline’ 2006).
Binderup (2007) notes that Muslims aren’t the only religious group that has threatened freedom of expression. Christians have expressed their outrage over movies such as ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ and ‘The Life of Brian’, and Sikhs have aggressively opposed ‘Bethzi’, a play by Gurpreet Bhatti, which features rape and murder in a temple. Such conflicts have sparked a discourse regarding the value of free speech—and whether or not freedom of expression should be subject to limitations.
The History of Media and Religious Conflict
Conflict between religion and the press is not new. Although the church was initially enthusiastic about the invention of the printing press as religious materials could be more easily and widely disseminated, with the schism between Protestants and Catholics came the use of the press to demonise one side or the other (Winston 2005). Levy (1993) details a long history of prosecutions under England’s blasphemy laws, noting that ‘[t]he term “blasphemy” was commonly used to make odious the holders of opinions that a community rejected as offensive’ (p. 347).
Specific blasphemy cases underscore the real reasons for the aggressive persecution of dissenters. The trial of William Hone in the early 1900s for parodying aspects of Christianity such as the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer was based on the fact that he had circulated materials that ‘were calculated to weaken the awe and reverence felt for Christianity’ (p. 349). Officials were particularly upset that Hone’s inexpensive offering was accessible to the lower classes, fearing that ‘[t]he “ignorant and uninformed” could not be expected to obey the law if they lost that awe and reverence’ (p. 349).
On learning of the charges against him, Hone withdrew his parodies, claiming that they had been intended not to mock religion, but rather to insult his Majesty’s Ministers. Hone was acquitted, which illustrates the fact that political figures were considered worthy of mockery, while religion was untouchable. However, Hone’s case led to the adoption of resolutions that favoured not only press freedom but also jury trial and, significantly, ‘the right to parody religion’ (p. 352). Thus, the Hone case marked a significant watershed in the movement toward democratic freedom of expression.
However, during that era, people continued to be imprisoned for blasphemy, including those who sold Hone’s parodies (Levy 1993).
According to Levy (1993), prosecutions for blasphemy continued throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. Ironically, as with more current cases, attempts by the state to suppress freedom of speech on behalf of religion only served to draw attention to the very works that had invoked religious ire, as well as generating public debate regarding freedom of speech. One of the more influential voices in this debate was James Mill, who advocated for ‘the freedom to publish political opinions’ (p. 375).
Mill repudiated distinctions as to what constituted ‘decent’ and ‘indecent’ (i.e., ‘calculated to inflame’) discussions regarding politics or religion, emphasising that ‘unless all opinions were entitled to the same freedom, the only opinions that would enjoy freedom were those that were sanctioned, popular, or inoffensive’ (p. 375). His son John Stuart Mill took up the cause as well, suggesting that because proponents of Christianity attacked and reviled others’ religions, theirs should be open to the same sorts of attacks in the interests of fairness.
Levy (1993) notes that “Deist opinions also had a salutary effect of helping to keep the clergy intellectually honest’ (p. 377). While the churches of two different religions might work to censor one another, they are also inclined to engage in ‘mutual indulgences’ that promote the interests of both (p. 377). Such tendencies can be seen in modern times when those of various religions work together to censor media stories or other forms of expression that are offensive to one group or the other.
Blasphemy laws were carried over to the New World by English colonists. Such laws persisted because attacks on Christianity were thought to strike ‘at the root of moral obligation’ and to weaken social ties (Levy 1993, p. 403). As a result, prosecutions under highly subjective blasphemy laws also occurred in the United States and Canada. The last North American blasphemy case was in 1968; however, due to expanded First Amendment freedoms, the state appellate court held that the blasphemy statue was unconstitutional. However, although blasphemy laws were officially discontinued, they ‘slept undisturbed in old judicial opinions’, which ensured the banning of various creative works that were offensive to Christians (Levy 1993, p. 536).
When the mass media emerged, publishers realised that controversial religious stories drew a large readership. At the same time, as journalists became increasingly independent, religious institutions lost control of press coverage relating to their faith and felt that their authority was threatened (Hoover 1998). However, there is evidence that religious groups continued to protect their interests fiercely. In 1940, addressing journalism students, the Denver Post’s Lawrence Martin said:
In times past, newspapers got into so many scrapes over these religious squabbles that most editors drew in their horns and actually barred from their columns any but the most harmless and noncontroversial items about churches or religious topics. Even today you will find most editors refusing to print letters from readers on religion, for fear of inciting a riot (Hoover 1998, p. 21).
As a result, ‘[t]he approach to religion in the period before 1980 was . . . one that included a good bit of deference to religious leaders and institutions’ (Hoover 1998, p. 23).
After 1980, the media became more willing to offend religious sensibilities in order to provide comprehensive coverage of events related to religion. However, the corresponding rise in fundamentalist religion has generated a backlash against the press as well as various creative works that has culminated in a number of serious incidents, most notably the recent rioting in response to Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a negative light.
Freedom of the Press and Democratic Values
Free expression is required if we are to have open discussion over such issues a birth control or abortion, and such open discussions are critical aspects of democracy. When blasphemy laws could no longer be enforced, debate arose as to ‘whether Parliament should enact a new statute to punish public insult to feelings of all religious believers’; at the time, concern for freedom of speech took precedence, given that ‘[t]he range of topics capable of causing offense to the feelings of some religious group’ were so broad that almost anything could be censored (Levy 1993, p. 553). However, talk of enacting such a statute has been revived in response to the Danish cartoon crisis.
Complicating matters is that supposedly democratic governments may grant special favour to religious organisations in exchange for their support. To explain the reason for the special status accorded to religion under the law, it was posited by John Search that:
. . . state religion was adopted not because it was true but because it was politically useful. All government rested on popular consent . . . and nothing could be more helpful to the government than to have the cooperation of the clergy, who could sway the religious feelings of the people and thus dispose them to favor the government . . . It must therefore be protected, not just from invasion of its established rights, but from censure, because censure might make it disesteemed, and disesteem might impair its stability, and thereby that of the government with it (Levy 1993, p. 427).
There is some support for this argument in the fact that in recent years, leaders such as Tony Blair and George W. Bush both claim to be very religious and have both spoken out against offending religious sensibilities. Also, it is well known that professing atheism or agnosticism is political suicide.
The European Convention on Human Rights
The European Convention on Human Rights was established by the European Council in 1950. Article 9 of the Convention covers the specifics of religious freedom:
1 Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2 Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Notably, the Article talks about freedom to worship and practice, but does not mention freedom from discourse that the religious individual may find offensive. This is an important distinction given that religious individuals often argue that their right to freedom of religion is violated by offensive artistic expressions or commentary.
Article 10 deals with the specifics of freedom of expression, and this article specifies the right to impart ideas and information without censorship:
1 Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers . . . .
2 The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Article 10 does mention that freedom of speech could potentially be restricted for a number of reasons, including preventing disorder and defamation, and ensuring public safety. This leaves room for interpretation in that material considered offensive could be theoretically be censored if it is deemed likely to provoke violent protests. Additionally, what constitutes a threat to ‘morals’ is open to subjective interpretation.
Human Rights Act 1998
The Human Rights Act of 1998 has two sections which have direct bearing on the conflicts between freedom of expression and freedom of religion: Section 12 (‘Freedom of Expression’) and 13 (‘Freedom of thought, conscience and religion’). Whilst Section 13 does not provide much detail as to what constitutes freedom of religion, Section 12 contains subsections which reflect directly on the debate regarding freedom of expression.
Subsection (3), which states that ‘[n]o such relief is to be granted so as to restrain publication before trial unless the court is satisfied that the applicant is likely to establish that publication should not be allowed’, indicates that material cannot be censored in advance of its publication, and that the burden of proving that the material should not be published is on the applicant rather than the publisher.
Subsection (4) of the Act indicates that questions of freedom of expression should defer to the European Convention on Human Rights, and should also pay attention to ‘(a) the extent to which—(i) the material has, or is about to, become available to the public; or (ii) it is, or would be, in the public interest for the material to be published’. This has particular relevance for a number of cases in which sharing knowledge of the criminal dealings of certain religious organisations or individuals is in the best interests of the public. Also, with rapid dissemination of even censored information via the Internet, there is little that is not likely to become available to the public in the Information Age.
British Libel Laws
British libel laws are relevant to any discussion of the clash between freedom of expression and religious freedom in that at times they have been used to persecute individuals who have published materials linking religious organisations to criminal activities such as terrorism. Sturcke (2006) notes that the goal of British libel laws is to ‘balance the right of free speech against protection for the reputation of an individual from unjustified attack’ (¶ 1). However, given that religious groups generally take issue with any questioning of the tenets of their faith, any publication that disagrees with the fundamental aspects of a religion is open to attack (Edwards 2006), and whenever possible, religious organisations and individuals will make use of British libel laws to do so. According to Sturcke (2006) because those accused of libel must often spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to defend themselves, as well as damages and court costs if they lose the case, many newspapers will not bother to fight them, even when their cases are strong.
The Meaning of Freedom of Religion
In Vocabularies of Public Life, Robert Wuthnow emphasises that ‘[o]ur freedom depends on being able to contribute to the public debate over collective values’ (Hoover 1998, p. 45). Here Wuthnow refers to more than just freedom of expression, encompassing the entire spectrum of democratic freedoms, among which freedom of religion is included.
‘The meaning of the term “freedom of religion” includes the freedom to believe in religion, and the freedom not to believe in religion’ (M.E. Sharpe Inc. 2006, p. 10). However, only the first aspect of this freedom tends to be invoked in an attempt to exercise censorship. A review of the literature turns up no lawsuits in which atheists have sued religious individuals for referring to them as sinners or blasphemers. Overall, when giving voice to concerns as to whether free speech should be limited in order to avoid offending religious sensibilities, there is no public discourse regarding whether religious people should be free to express opinions that offend atheists and agnostics. As such, arguments that posit the need to protect against offensiveness are without merit, given that to fairly enforce such laws would also require that religious individuals be restricted in their own public discourse so as not to offend the non-religious (Levy 1993).
If proponents of a (minority or majority) religious culture are allowed to state publicly that atheist sinners will ‘burn in Hell’, then surely in respect for fairness and equality we must—other things being equal—allow the atheist critic to make fun of the religious views (Binderup 2007, p. 414).
Some would take this argument even further. According to Edwards (2006), ‘by allowing any superstition to have a role in determining the theoretical legal limits of free speech we are inadvertently crafting a doctrine for unscientific, irrational bullies’ (34).
Recent Challenges to Freedom of Expression
Babbin (2008) describes other recent challenges to free speech, including the lawsuit against Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld. Ehrenfeld’s book, Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed, and How to Stop It, accuses Salim bin Mahfouz, who once headed the Saudi National Commercial Bank, and members of his family of funding terrorist activities. Although Ehrenfeld, an American, wrote and published her book in the United States, because a small number of copies were sold in Britain via the Internet, bin Mahfouz was able to use British courts to sue the author for libel.
Given that British libel laws put the burden of proof on the author (the opposite of the situation in the U.S.), Ehrenfeld must prove that her allegations are true, rather than bin Mahfouz proving that they are false. Bin Mahfouz won a large judgment against the author, as well as a demand that she no longer publish anything against him in England or Wales. This case has ramifications for books and news reports on religious issues as well.
According to Sturcke (2006), if material is ‘published in the public interest’, it is theoretically immune from libel charges (¶ 5). However, libel laws are phrased in such a way as to leave great scope for interpretation. This makes them similar to the old blasphemy laws, which were ‘so vague that the very issue in any prosecution is whether the crime has been committed’ at all, and as such, the prejudices of judges and juries shape the verdict (Levy 1993, p. 574).
Babbin (2008) notes that in a similar case, Robert O. Collins and J. Millard Burr’s book Alms for Jihad, a well-researched expose which documents not only contributions made by Islamic charities to terrorist activities but also bin Mahfouz’s support of these activities, was ordered removed from libraries and bookstores by British courts, which further demanded that all unsold copies be destroyed. In North America, by contrast, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recommended that libraries not acquiesce to Cambridge publisher’s request to destroy or return the book. As a result, although most publishers have avoided the book, many North American libraries carry copies of it, and there are plans to republish it in the U.S. where bin Mahfouz will not be able to use libel laws to suppress it (Albanese & Pinkowski 2007).
Canadian laws also leave room for the abuse of the right to freedom of expression. Babbin (2008) details a third case, that of Mark Steyn, author of America Alone. This book asserts that Islam is not only a religion but also a political project, and prone to violence as well. Canadian magazine Macleans echoed this stance, and both Steyn and the magazine were subjected to a complaint made by three Muslim law students who used the Canadian Human Rights Commission to their advantage. As a result, the magazine will suffer fines and additional sanctions, and will likely be ordered not to publish anything else that might offend Muslims. A case will probably be brought against Steyn as well, and he may suffer fines and additional penalties under Canadian law for exercising his right to free speech. Cases such as this underscore the restrictions placed on freedom of the press by religious interests.
Spencer (2008) details another case, that of Geert Wilders movie ‘Fitna’, which has drawn headlines recently. ‘Fitna’, which links passages from the Qur’an to acts of terrorism and oppression, was hosted by LiveLeak.com but pulled shortly thereafter in response to serious threats. Various Muslim leaders condemned the film as a racist incitement to intolerance and unrest, but LiveLeak eventually restored the link. The film is certainly one-sided, and portrays fundamentalist extremists rather than moderate Muslims, as well as positing a future dystopia in which extreme cruelty and oppression are the norm as a result of Islam’s proliferation. However, whether or not one views the creation of such a film as a bad idea, the ‘Fitna’ saga illustrates the limits now placed on freedom of expression in that both individuals and publishers of material can be threatened to the point where they must engage in censorship. ‘In short, we have apparently repealed centuries of intellectual progress in the hopeless pursuit of social harmony’ (Edwards 2006, p. 34).
Dangers of Restricting Freedom of Speech
Whilst freedom of speech may be taken for granted in some countries, ‘[t]he larger part of humanity faces sharp rebuke, incarceration, and even death for saying or printing that which offends some in their society’ and ‘[w]ithout the right to be critical of religion we are in a hopeless situation where we must kowtow to the demands of any religious extremist and any perception of offense’ (Lipman 2006, p. 5). Of course, with freedom of speech, there are many things said that probably shouldn’t be. However, according to Binderup (2007):
It may be true that free speech generates a lot of noise and tends to give too much airtime to false views or irrelevant truths. However, the objection overlooks that free speech also allows for the occasional very important, but unpopular truth to reach the public ear and become the focus of an open public debate. In particular, the unpopular truths that those in power in various positions do not want disclosed.
First and foremost these are truths about corruption or ineptitude in the government, but also truths about serious problems or injustices in society that various other powerful agents in society do not like to see revealed—be it the majority of the population as a whole or some powerful elite like the media establishment, those at the top of the economic hierarchy, or perhaps a powerful elite within a cultural minority (pp. 408-409).
DaÇlier and Schneider (2007) further this argument, stating that ‘any effort to suppress criticism amounts to a curtailment of freedom’ (p. 127). As such, by publishing criticism, the press acts as a key defender of freedom.
Whilst supporting freedom of speech, Edwards (2006) stresses the need to maintain civility and respect in debate, and points to the insufficient maturity and sophistication evident in media coverage of certain religious issues. However, he also notes that while John Stuart Mill argued the need for ‘unfettered contestability of ideas’ due to the ‘fallability of human knowledge’, people ‘who believe in “absolute truth”, revealed by God’ are not inclined to accept that human knowledge may be fallible, and herein lies the source of the conflict between free public discourse and religious sensibilities (p. 32).
Levy (1993) emphasises that ‘Liberals too often behave like Chicken Little, giving the impression that one case of suppression means the sky is falling and Shakespeare will be next’ (p. 576). He suggests that there is some value in prosecuting based on works that constitute hate literature in their entirety, and those which are ‘intended to outrage and injure’ if, ‘taken as a whole’, they are ‘without redeeming social values’ (p. 476). But this begs the question of who has the power to decide which works have social value and which have no purpose other than to incite hostility.
Case Studies: The Danish Cartoons and the Church of Scientology
The members of two religions have been particularly ferocious in responding to what they perceive as attacks on their faith in recent years: Islam and the Church of Scientology. Muslims have engaged in everything from peaceful protest to threats and violence to suppress media stories and artistic expressions that offend their faith, and Scientologists have used the legal system to attack and censor their critics. Incidents involving these two groups have been selected for analysis in order to answer the question of whether conflict with religion has affected the way in which the media reports the news.
The Danish Cartoons
Islam, the faith to which more than one billion Muslims adhere, has a number of strict rules, one of which is that the prophet Muhammad must never be depicted. In 2006, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published 12 cartoons that depicted Mohammad, setting off a firestorm of protest and violence as Muslims responded ferociously to what they perceived as an insult to their religion, burning Danish flags, the Danish Embassy and various Western businesses such as Pizza Hut and McDonalds (Smalls 2006).
Muslims believed that the cartoons, one of which depicts Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, equate the Muslim faith with terrorism (Ghosh 2006).This sparked a debate as to the limits of free speech, which, ironically, had been the original intention of the cartoons’ publisher. To show solidarity with the Danish newspaper, a number of papers in Europe and North America also published the cartoons ‘because their right to publish was being called into question’ (‘Cartoon wars’ 2006, ¶ 8).
Muslims put forth the argument that the cartoons were disrespectful to their religion, perceiving them as an expression of intolerance and racism in Europe (DaÇlier & Schneider 2007). Binderup (2007) asserts that the cartoons ‘were explicitly intended as fair criticism, not as a gratuitous attack on a disadvantaged minority group’ (409), though this may be debatable, given that Jyllands-Posten previously refused to print a number of cartoons that ridiculed Jesus out of fear of offending Christians (Modood et al. 2006). Interestingly, the BBC took the opposite strategy, screening ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’, which was highly offensive to Christians, whilst refusing to show the Danish cartoons (‘BBC’s dilemma over cartoons’ 2006).
The cartoons originated as a protest designed to spark debate. Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor, noting an increasing tendency toward media self-censorship throughout Europe due to intimidation by Muslims, asked a number of illustrators to draw cartoons on the subject of Muhammad and Islam. Of the 12 who responded, several produced pictures that were offensive to Muslims (Ammitzbøll & Vidino 2007). In response, Muslim organizations launched a series of lawsuits against Jyllans-Posten, first seeking criminal charges based on blasphemy and racism and then filing a defamation lawsuit against the newspaper (‘Muhammad cartoons: a timeline’ 2006).
According to Binderup (2007), ‘the cartoons did cause upheaval and riots in some Asian and African countries resulting in 139 deaths, but this only happened after they had been deliberately taken out of the Danish context to a global Muslim audience by a group of radical Islamic imams from Denmark’ (p. 410), which is much the same as what happened with Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses (Levy 1993). As a result, the lives of those at Jyllands-Posten and the 12 cartoonists were threatened (Ammitzbøll & Vidino 2007). Meanwhile, Tony Blair and George W. Bush condemned the cartoons as offensive, and many viewed them as signs of racial vilification, thus sympathising with the protesters (Modood et al. 2006).
Lipman (2006) draws attention to the hypocrisy of Muslims protesting insults made by a free press when they regularly refer ‘to the West as the “great Satan”’ in their media, as well as publishing anti-Semitic caricatures (p. 5). Lipman also notes that the protests ensured the cartoons had a far wider viewership than they otherwise would have. As a result of the protests, publishers in numerous other countries reprinted the cartoons to assert their right to freedom of the press, while radical Islamists continued to protest, carrying signs that said ‘Free speech go to hell’ and ‘Slay those who insult Islam’ (Modood et al. 2007).
Responding to recent freedom of speech issues such as the Danish cartoon controversy, Babbin (2008) asserts that ‘Muslims—individually and in pressure groups—are using British libel laws and Canadian human rights laws to limit what is said about Islam, terrorists and the people in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who are funding groups such as al Qaeda’ (¶ 2). Edwards (2006) furthers this argument with reference to some alarming statements made by Islamic leaders with regard to the curtailment of free speech, advocating for ‘legally-binding United Nations resolutions [designed] to prevent defamation of religions and prophets and to render all acts whatsoever defaming Islam as “offensive acts” and subject to punishment’ (Edwards 2006, p. 34). In other words, Muslim leaders are attempting to institute international anti-blasphemy laws. Additionally, the President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Dr. Ameer Ali, has stated that ‘no one [has] the right to offend anyone in the media’, which Edwards (2006) emphasises ‘could easily lend support to the prohibition of practically anything, so long as somebody, somewhere, claims to be offended’ (p. 35).
Freedom of the press in the case of the Danish cartoons also suffered as a result of complex political situations. Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George Bush were hesitant to criticise the violent response of the Muslims to the Danish cartoons, given the situations i
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