The events of the past week have had an Alice-in-Wonderland quality. Across the world, mobs have screamed for vengeance, burned effigies and flags, stormed military facilities and torched embassies — and over what?
A handful of cartoons.
It is grotesque. It is surreal. It would be comical if it the perpetrators were not in earnest.
But in earnest they are — deadly earnest.
ORIGIN OF OUTRAGE
The storm began to brew Sept. 30, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a dozen cartoons depicting Islam’s most revered figure, the prophet Muhammad. The paper had called for artists to submit the drawings after learning that an author writing a children’s biography of Muhammad had been unable to find an illustrator. All those to whom he’d pitched the project declined for fear of offending Muslims who consider depictions of the prophet to be forbidden.
Flemming Rose, the paper’s cultural editor, wanted to test the extent to which self-censorship has permeated the artistic milieu of Denmark, one of Europe’s most urbane and tolerant countries. He sought submissions from 25 artists, of whom 12 responded.
The cartoons Jyllands-Posten ran are really pretty tame stuff. The harshest of them shows Muhammad wearing a round black turban with a burning fuse attached, suggesting a terrorist bomb. But they raised the ire of Danish Muslim clerics, who protested their publication.
Their remonstrations having fallen on deaf ears in a culture that guards the right of free expression, they took their cause to their coreligionists abroad. Led by the cleric Ahmed Abu Laban, a group of Danish imams and activists toured the Mideast late last year to “internationalize” their protest, distributing a 43-page booklet (later obtained by the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet) showing alleged examples of Danish outrages against Muslims, including the Jyllands-Posten cartoons and three much more offensive images they claimed had been received as anonymous hate mail by Muslims who had spoken out against the cartoons’ publication.
Abu Laban’s campaign flew under the radar of the Western media, but was wellreceived in the Muslim world. According to a Nov. 18 story in IslamOnline.net, his delegation scheduled visits to Egypt, to meet with Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa and Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, Grand Imam of the prestigious Islamic educational institution Al-Azhar, and to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to meet with the well-known Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusef Al-Qaradawi.
To Islam.Online, Abu Laban scoffed at the Jyllands-Posten editor’s assertion of the paper’s right to publish the cartoons.
“This is not a case of freedom of expression,” he declared.
Following these meetings, Tantawi announced Dec. 10 that Al-Azhar would take the issue to the U.N. Egypt’s foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit showed around a copy of Abu Laban’s booklet at a 57-nation meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Mecca in December, where it caused a stir. The Danish imams then sent a second delegation to the Mideast, which visited Lebanon and Syria and appeared on Al-Anar, the satellite television network of the terrorist group Hezbollah.
After Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons were reprinted in a Norwegian magazine Jan. 10, the International Union for Muslim Scholars, led by Al-Qaradawi, threatened a boycott of “Danish and Norwegian products and activities.” Two weeks later Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark and Saudi clerics began pushing the boycott. Presently Danish products began vanishing from stores in the region.
On Jan. 30, European Union offices in Gaza were surrounded by armed Palestinians threatening violence over the cartoons. The Danish Red Cross withdrew two employees from the territory.
On Jan. 31, in attempt to cool the furor, Jyllands-Posten published an apology to Muslims. In response came a bomb threat that forced the evacuation of the paper’s building.
On Feb. 1, the French newspaper France Soir reprinted the cartoons, declaring that “no religious dogma can impose itself on a democratic and secular society.” The next day France Soir’s Egyptian owner fired the paper’s managing editor.
On Feb. 3, Muslim radicals in London, many with their faces masked, staged a demonstration at the Danish Embassy carrying signs with blood-curdling slogans: “Be prepared for the REAL holocaust!” “Europe you will pay. Your 9/11 is on its way!!” “Behead those who insult Islam” — and, as though in summation, “Freedom go to hell.”
On Feb. 4, the storm truly broke, as mobs in Damascus stormed the Danish and Norwegian embassies and set them afire. The next day a mob in Beirut burned Denmark’s consulate, and on Monday, rioters in Tehran torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies. In Afghanistan, four people died Wednesday as police fired upon demonstrators trying to storm a U.S. military base, and 300 Palestinians overpowered police and attacked an international observer post in the West Bank city of Hebron.
So it has gone, from Bosnia to Indonesia — one enraged mob after another, all protesting the publication of a few cartoons. And it can hardly be said that this is the work of a few “radicals” or “Islamists,” given that the entire wave of protests was touched off by the most senior clerics and educational institutions in the Muslim world — as well as officials of several governments.
IT WON’T STOP WITH DRAWINGS
This is not just some transient brouhaha that will be forgotten by the next news cycle. It is a clear challenge to the Western world, which gives primacy to human rights (including free expression), by the Muslim world, which seeks absolute primacy for and deference to religious faith. The question is whether the West is prepared to stand up for its values — which, be it said, are in this case emphatically liberal values.
For where will all of this end? The cartoons at issue make the kind of political and social points that are clearly meant to be protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two cartoons — the turban-bomb one and another depicting Muhammad turning away a queue of suicide bombers at the gates of paradise and saying “Stop! Stop! We ran out of virgins!” — allude to the terrorism of the radical Islamic enemy that has claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people throughout the world, both before and after the 9/11 atrocity. Another shows a European cartoonist drawing a picture of Muhammad in the dark, hiding it with his hand and sweating in fear. Are such expressions now to be taboo in deference to Muslim sensitivities?
If Muslims can suppress such criticism by protesting, threatening and rioting, we can hardly expect them to stop at graphic images. Should the Western world accede to demands that their prophet not be criticized in artwork we will presently find them demanding that he not be criticized in print. We will find that any disparaging of Muhammad’s piratical raids on his enemies, his history of warmaking or his practice of polygamy will prompt the appearance of a screaming mob at the offender’s door. We will find, as the Quran demands in Sura 9:29, that as unbelievers we will be fought until we “feel (our)selves subdued.”
The response by the American news media to this fundamental challenge has thus far been anything but encouraging. CNN, in every story covering it, has included the line, “CNN has chosen not to show the cartoons out of respect for Islam.” The network showed no such respect for Christianity on March 27, 2000, however, when it showed British artist Chris Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which incorporated elephant dung and images of female genitalia, in a story about a Brooklyn museum’s dispute with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani had complained that the artwork desecrated a figure sacred to millions of Catholics.
According to Editor & Publisher, only three newspapers in the United States have shown the controversial Muhammad images. The rest have demurred. The New York Times has called that a “reasonable choice . . . especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe,” an assertion to which this correspondent takes vehement exception. But if readers cannot be shown the drawings that touched off this crisis, they can be directed to where they may be seen on the Internet. View them at either of the following links: