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Dissecting the Danish Cartoon Controversy By: Salim Mansur
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 26, 2006

The furor in the winter of 2006 over cartoon drawings of Muhammad that appeared in Denmark was a repeat of the fury unleashed by Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses first published in 1988.  Now, as then, Muslims, or a great many of them worldwide, expressed outrage over the irreverent drawings of the prophet of Islam published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, as they did with the fictional depiction of the prophet in Rushdie’s novel.  Now, as then, Muslim outrage was part spontaneous and part organized, and in varying measures seized upon by religious leaders, dictators, political opportunists, demagogues and rascals of all stripes, turned into a witch’s brew and released into public space to go rampaging as demonstration of Muslim rage against those who profane what Muslims revere as sacred.  Then, in February 1989, the dying Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran’s Islamic Republic declared in a fatwa, non-binding religious ruling, the offending author of The Satanic Verses and those associated with its publication and distribution should be killed.  Governments were intimidated as was the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in India, a non-Muslim majority state, and fearing public unrest Gandhi banned publication and distribution of the novel in the country of the author’s birth.  During this period a mob attacked the USIS office in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and huge public demonstrations with ritualistic burning of Rushdie’s novel were orchestrated from the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, to the streets of Bradford, England.  Similarly now, mobs raged across the streets of Cairo, Tehran, Kabul and other such cities, and the mob in Damascus torched the Danish and Norwegian embassies and set fire to the Danish consulate in Beirut.

How should we explain such furor over cartoons, or works of fiction, that so readily seize Muslim sensitivities, and then spill over into the streets with appalling consequences?  What is to be made of the cartoon controversy, and the earlier controversy surrounding Rushdie’s novel?  And what is the implication, if any, of such conduct on the part of Muslims for the West?


Before proceeding any further I need to clear a definitional problem that persists in confounding discussions of issues relating to the Muslim world.  Here is how Bernard Lewis described the problem pertaining to the word Islam:


…the word itself is commonly used with two related but distinct meanings, as the equivalents both of Christianity and of Christendom.  In the one sense it denotes a religion, a system of belief and worship; in the other, the civilization that grew up and flourished under the aegis of that religion.[1]


Marshall Hodgson of the University of Chicago suggested in his study of Arab-Muslim history, The Venture of Islam, the use of the word “Islamdom”, analogous to Christendom, to avoid the confusion which results from conflating religion and civilization in the singular usage of the word “Islam.”  Hodgson’s suggestion has not been followed, and confusion remains perhaps because “Islamdom” does not sound right, or the traditional use of “Islam” with its ambiguity prevails as a matter of long standing habit, or the deference shown to the insistence of Muslim traditionalists and fundamentalists alike that Islam allows for no separation of religion and politics.  I will restrict the use of Islam to mean civilization, as Lewis indicated, that emerged first among the Arabs and spread to other lands and peoples following the success of Muhammad in converting pagan Arabs from idolatry to monotheism in the first third of the seventh century in the Christian era.


In explaining events of such magnitude as the Danish cartoon controversy one needs to account for both proximate and underlying causes.  The proximate cause was the cartoons published in a not well-known newspaper were shown by Muslim activists residing in Denmark to Arab leaders and among them was the religious leader Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian linked to the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Qatar with his own television program on al-Jazeerah broadcast across the Middle East.  This media savvy religious leader issued a fatwa demanding retraction and public apology by Jyllands-Posten that was echoed in the demand of the member states of the Organization of Islamic Countries during a December 2005 meeting of Muslim leaders in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The cartoons were published on September 30, 2005; some twelve weeks later, by early January 2006 the issue had stirred Muslim opinion and Muslim rage became a concern in capitals around the world.  In between as autumn turned into winter riots erupted in the suburbs of Paris as immigrant youths, mostly African Blacks and North African Arabs, went on rampage torching cars and France burned providing a glimmer of what a London weekly magazine described as the “Eurabian nightmare.”[2]  On January 30, 2006 Jyllands-Posten posted on its website an apology to Muslims for causing them pain, but the matter by then was no longer a local affair as Muslim countries initiated boycott of Danish products, and non-Muslims wondered where to draw the line between religious-cultural sensitivities and protecting values of an open secular-liberal democracy.


The reason for Muslim outrage was explained by Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  Ramadan is based in Geneva, Switzerland and has been an adviser to the British home secretary on matters relating to Islam and Muslims.  He wrote in the English newspaper The Guardian,


In Islam, representations of all prophets are strictly forbidden.  It is both a matter of the fundamental respect due to them and a principle of faith requiring that, in order to avoid any idolatrous temptations, God and the prophets never be represented.  Hence, to represent a prophet is a grave transgression.[3]


What Ramadan did not, and could not, provide was scriptural authority for his position.  This is because there is no injunction against images or representation in the Quran for supporting such prohibition.  Ramadan’s view and that of the religious leaders mostly belonging to the dominant-majority Sunni sect in Islam represented a traditional consensus on the matter.  This consensus was reached in the early years of the post-Prophetic period when Islam became an empire and Arabs came in contact with Jews and Christians in the Levant and, as Islam acknowledges Moses’s Decalogue, the early theologians and jurists of the expanding empire adopted Jewish prohibition against graven image as part of their heritage.  The only prohibition as an absolute principle of Islam, which makes it most strictly monotheistic, is not to join anything  as equal to God or ascribe to Him any partner (Quran 6:152).


In the first recorded biography of the prophet, compiled and narrated by Ibn Ishaq (704-767) and available in English translation by Alfred Guillaume as The Life of Muhammad, there is the following anecdote from the incidents surrounding the conquest of Mecca in the year 630, or on the 8th year of the Islamic calendar:


When the apostle prayed the noon prayer on the day of the conquest he ordered that all the idols which were round the Ka`ba should be collected and burned with fire and broken up… Quraysh had put pictures in the Ka`ba including two of Jesus son of Mary and Mary (on both of whom be peace!)… The apostle ordered that the pictures should be erased except those of Jesus and Mary.[4]


Ibn Ishaq was born 75 years after the death of the prophet in Medina, the city where the prophet lived the last ten years of his life and is buried.  He acquired his knowledge about the prophet from the second generation of traditionists who either witnessed the prophet themselves or learned about him from those who were with him.   All subsequent historians of Islam, the most famous from the classical period being Abu Ja`far Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari (839-923), were indebted to Ibn Ishaq even as partisan hacks in the context of widening schisms and fratricidal warfare among Arabs sullied his name.  But Ibn Ishaq’s authority given his proximity to the prophet is greater than that of any Tariq Ramadan or Sheikh al-Qaradawi and their likes in the Muslim world, and his anecdote provides us with a deeper understanding of Islam’s prohibition than the politics of those who unleash mobs in quest of their own ambitions. We find preserved in museums within the Muslim world, in Topkapi, Istanbul and in Bukhara and Samarkand, Uzbekistan, portraiture paintings done during the middle age depicting Muhammad in various situations, while depictions of other Biblical prophets were common, and portraits of Ali ibn Abi Talib (cousin and son-in-law of the prophet, fourth caliph of Islam and the first Imam of the Shiites) including his sons Hasan and Husayn (the second and third Shiite Imams) are readily found in present day Iran.


Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, following the official apology of his newspaper explained to his readers his views on the matter of the cartoons he had published in a column as follows:


Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn’t intend to.  But what does “respect” mean?  When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes.  I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place.  But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission.  And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.[5]


Respect or submission – the former may not be demanded and the latter can only be a result of compulsion – are the two polar elements involved in the furor unleashed by Muslims over the Danish cartoons.  Ramadan’s view was the more polished expression of Muslim position that has elicited empathy among non-Muslim multiculturalists in the West.  It spoke to that segment of educated opinion which has come to believe that though secular-democracy must maintain a clear line of separation between religion and politics, especially when that religion happens to be Christianity, it should accommodate in public sphere the prohibitions and sacred symbols belonging to non-Christian traditions, while making allowance for religious-based personal laws within immigrant communities.  It sought submission in the guise of respect without showing any deference to the fact that secular-democracy has also evolved over time on a foundation of principles that is near-absolute to the extent permissible within the bounds of a written constitution as, for instance, in Canada, France and the United States.


The counter-position to Ramadan was framed by Ibn Warraq, a pseudonym of the author of Why I Am Not A Muslim, born in India, raised in Pakistan and settled in the United States.  Ibn Warraq reminded the West of John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty.  Mill wrote as if anticipating the West’s dilemma over Danish cartoons: “Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.  Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain.”[6] Firmly staking his position on Mill and the enlightenment tradition that gave birth to secular-liberal democracy, Ibn Warraq observed,


The cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten raise the most important question of our times: freedom of expression.  Are we in the west going to cave into pressure from societies with a medieval mindset, or are we going to defend our most precious freedom – freedom of expression, a freedom for which thousands of people sacrificed their lives?[7]

Danish cartoons, as did Salman Rushdie’s novel, unwittingly placed on edge two contrasting views held by two contrary civilizations, one modern and the other pre-modern, in collision.  The irony in this situation is the view of the adherents of pre-modern civilization, demanding submission to its taboos by adherents of the modern civilization, emanates as much from within the boundaries of the modern civilization as it rages across its own pre-modern terrain. This is why there exists a degree of uncertainty in any answer to the question posed by Ibn Warraq.


The underlying causes in understanding the controversy surrounding Danish cartoons, or Rushdie affair, are more complex than explaining the proximate cause, since Muslim rage is symptomatic of a terrible malady within Islam.  It reflects the irreparable breakdown of the civilization’s centre that held together its constituent parts which at one time in history was co-equal, if not briefly superior, to Christendom.  The question why did Islam, once dynamic and creative, stall, retreat, and then collapse from the pressures brought about by an expansive and far more creative West, has fascinated for sometime historians and philosophers both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  A recent speculation is to be found in Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong?  Among Muslim thinkers there have been many of as diverse background as Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938) born in India, Malik Bennabi (1903-73) from Algeria, or Fatima Mernissi (b. 1940) from Morocco, who have reflected upon the causes of Islam’s decline.  But there is none among Muslims who meditated about the apparent cycle of civilization’s rise and fall as did Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406). He wrote with a keen sense of Islam’s disintegration as Arab-Muslim power around the Mediterranean crumbled and Christendom in Europe, seen from the perspective of its advance in Spain at the expense of Arabs, began to edge ahead of Islam.  In his book Al-Muqaddimah he proposed a pattern might be discerned from the study of history revealing the character of a people and the nature of society they construct or bring to ruin.


The causes for the decline of civilization are primarily internal.  And when the collapse occurs, recalling W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’, “anarchy is loosed upon the world.”  Yeats meant by anarchy more than mere disorder, as did Ibn Khaldun some seven centuries earlier.  In Yeats’s poem when things fall apart the centre can no longer hold the caged beast which preys upon civilization, and when this beast is let loosed, as Ibn Khaldun witnessed, night descends on common humanity until some other power can slay the beast or return it to its cage.


The beast within Islam has been prowling for a very long time.  Islam as religion was also a civilizing force in Arabia as it brought for a while some discipline to its native population, the Bedouins of the desert.  But the Bedouins are, Ibn Khaldun wrote, “a savage nation, fully accustomed to savagery and the things that cause it… Such a natural disposition is the negation and antithesis of civilization.  All the customary activities of the Bedouins lead to wandering and movement. This is the antithesis and negation of stationariness, which produces civilization.”[8]  Ibn Khaldun unconstrained by political correctness observed how the Bedouins, if they were not caged by superior civilizing power, got loosed and preyed upon civilization to its ruins. He wrote,


It is noteworthy how civilization always collapsed in places the Bedouins took over and conquered, and how such settlements were depopulated and laid in ruin. The Yemen where Bedouins live is in ruins, except for a few cities.  Persian civilization in the Arab Iraq is likewise completely ruined.  The same applies to contemporary Syria.[9]


Bedouin is a state of mind, a psychology of a people, if we abstract from Ibn Khaldun’s sociology, and not merely a description of an ethnic group.  This state of mind thrives on anarchy, seeks anarchy where it is non-existent, and celebrates anarchy for the feast it is in preying upon the decaying corpse of civilization.  This state of mind cannot build for it has not the capacity to be stationery, as Ibn Khaldun observed, and make investment in energy and resources required for sedentary living as prerequisite for the making of civilization.  Hence, this state of mind relishes in bringing ruin where order prevails.  History, Ibn Khaldun concluded, is driven by the tension between the forces of civilization and the forces of its ruin, and this for him constituted the cycle of history.


But what is most remarkable about Ibn Khaldun’s writings is that he conceived the idea of civilization in the singular.  On reflection, however, this is not surprising. Ibn Khaldun was a Muslim, and he plumbed deeply into the message of the Quran even as he read Greek philosophers.  The central message of Islam is the concept of unity, tauhid, that all of creation bears the stamp of a single author, of God being unique and supreme. From this axiom Ibn Khaldun did not require a philosophical leap to see that behind and beyond diversity and plurality of cultures is to be found the essence of human enterprise in history, its self-discovery of its common origin and its singular destiny.  Thus in Ibn Khaldun’s majestic speculation history of mankind is a movement from ignorance to knowledge, and knowledge in its most elevated sense is a common, shared resource of humanity.  In civilization knowledge is of the higher sort, of knowledge organized, progressively cultivated and transmitted among people who commonly appreciate arts and sciences. 


Islam before its decline began possessed plasticity to adapt what it borrowed from others – Persians, Hindus, Jews, Chinese, Greeks and Romans – and innovate as it improved upon the borrowings before transmitting them to others.  By the time Napoleon made his entrance into the Middle East arriving in Egypt in 1798, or some decades earlier Robert Clive set in motion the conquest of India by defeating the massed army of Nawab Siraj-ud-Dowla of Bengal at the battle of Plassey in 1757, Islam’s plasticity had hardened and Muslims as a people were ready to be colonized and ruled by Europeans.  Ibn Khaldun had seen the beginning phase of Islam’s cycle of decay, and he understood, as Yeats would under somewhat similar circumstances several centuries later, that the decline of civilization meant the caged beast would be let loosed unless held in check by the power of the rising new civilization.  And, indeed, this is what occurred.


As Europe’s star rose in civilization’s firmament, European power expanded into Asia and Africa and kept the beast caged within Islam’s boundaries.  But when Europe reached its peak as civilizing order in the early decade of the last century exporting its enlightenment values and new political arrangements based on ideas of nationalism and democracy, the cycle of decline set in.  Europe emasculated itself in two world wars, and with the civilization’s ebb tide gaining momentum it began to retreat from Asia and Africa, more particularly from the lands of Islam, with unseemly haste.  The post-colonial order Europe left behind among Muslims in the second-half of the twentieth century was mostly a pathetic caricature of European culture.  Nowhere this caricature was more evident than in the post-Ottoman Turkey of Mustafa Kemal.  Ottoman rulers of Islam once terrified Europeans, then when decay set their realm was dismissively referred to as the “sick man of Europe.”  Following the defeat of 1918 a truncated country of Turks emerged on the Anatolian peninsula with a tiny grasp of Europe remaining in its fist, and it has displayed ever since a divided identity of being neither any more Ottoman nor sufficiently European to be recognized by other Muslims as a model of a reformed and democratic Muslim country.


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[1] B. Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 3.


[2] “Eurabian nightmare, The Spectator (London, U.K.), 12 November 2005.


[3] Tariq Ramadan, “Cartoon conflicts,” in The Guardian (UK), Monday 6 February 2006.


[4] A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad.  A translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 552.


[5] Flemming Rose, “Why I published the cartoons,” reprinted in National Post (Toronto), Thursday, February 23, 2006.


[6] J.S. Mill, On Liberty (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1978; reprint) p. 81.


[7] Ibn Warraq, “Democracy in a cartoon,” in Spiegel Online February 3, 2006.


[8] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah An Introduction to History.  Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal.  Abridged and Edited by N.J. Dawood.  (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 118.


[9] Ibid., p. 119.

Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

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