Now that Baby New Year is taking over again from Father Time, the observant celebrant might notice something new. In addition to the traditional top hat and diaper, and besides the 2006 banner across his chest, Baby New Year has something else in his kit: a gag. That's because 2006 is shaping up to be the "Year of Speaking Dangerously."
This isn't to suggest that 2005 was a banner year for freedom of speech. But the reaction, tepid at best, to significantly outrageous cases of speech repression during this past year, from Bangladesh to Paris, indicates only one thing: 2006 will be worse.
Take our old friend (making his third appearance in this column) Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, the Afghan editor sentenced in October to two years hard labor. His crime, you may recall, was "blasphemy" -- i.e., publishing articles that criticized Islamic law. The magazine he edited questioned the death penalty for converting from Islam; amputation and whippings for certain crimes; and relegating women to legal inferiority. Given that such viewpoints promised to make Islamic reform a topic of debate in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Mr. Nasab's incarceration should have created one of those international incidents you read about, or at least a journalistic cause celebre.
But no. In virtual global silence -- not a healthy atmosphere for free speech -- Mr. Nasab was left to the non-tender mercies of a Kabul prosecutor seeking the death penalty for those "un-Islamic" articles.
And now? Here's an update from The Washington Post: "After refusing for three months to retract his statements, Nasab told an appeals court this week that he was sorry for printing stories that asserted that women should be given equal status to men in court, questioned the use of physical punishments for crimes and suggested converts from Islam should not face execution."
In other words, he was sorry for calling for equality of the sexes. He was sorry for calling for a more humane concept of punishment. He was sorry for calling for freedom of conscience. I'm sorry he was sorry. But having apologized in a Kabul courtroom, Mr. Nasab is now a free man. Or as free as a man can be "under the watch of the government" -- as the senior judge in the case told Reuters -- "to make sure he does not repeat what he has written."
That's one way to gag a journalist, not to mention his peers. Already, an Afghan human rights proponent told the Post, journalists are saying they "have to be very, very careful in the way that they talk."
Which is probably nothing our troops in Afghanistan thought they were fighting for. But no one in the West seems too broken up about it. Then again, maybe no one really cares whether freedom of expression is an attribute of 21st-century civilization after all. The flip side of the Nasab story -- flip side of the globe, anyhow -- makes this clear.
The last time we checked in with "Jyllands-Posten," the Danish newspaper that ran 12 rather tame cartoons of Muhammad to prove that an Islamic religious injunction against depicting the Islamic prophet didn't apply in a sovereign Western nation, it was bearing up under Islamic street protests and bomb threats, diplomatic attack, and a likely U.N. human rights commission investigation. And so was Denmark. Danes had been warned away from Pakistan, where bounties were placed on the cartoonists' heads; Kashmir was the scene of anti-Dane rioting; and Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was under intense pressure to apologize for, and/or meddle with Denmark's freedom of the press. Amazingly - inspirationally -- in this age of the about-face, neither the newspaper nor the prime minister has apologized for upholding free speech.
Now, the cartoons have drawn fire from both the Council of Europe and the European Union. The U.N. human rights commission has actually demanded "an official explanation," directing the Danish government to respond to the question, "Do the caricatures insult or discredit?" (This, frankly, presents Denmark with rather a meager choice.) Also, 22 former Danish diplomats have rapped the prime minister for not meeting Muslim diplomats who demanded to discuss the cartoons. As a spokesman for the prime minister explained, "It doesn't serve any purpose to enter into a dialogue to stop the democratic process."
Well said, Denmark, and thanks for keeping the light of liberty burning. What's needed is dialogue to jumpstart the democratic process, particularly when it comes to, well, dialogue. Ideas. Analysis. Even cartoons. The question is, who, in 2006, will speak up for free speech?