Last September, Danish author Kåre Bluitgen was set to publish a book on the Muslim prophet Muhammad, but there was just one catch: he couldn’t find an illustrator. Artistic representations of the human form are forbidden in Islam, and pictures of Muhammad are especially taboo — so three artists turned down Bluitgen’s offer to illustrate the book for fear that they would pay with their lives for doing so. Frants Iver Gundelach, president of the Danish Writers Union, decried this as a threat to free speech — and the largest newspaper in Denmark, Jyllands-Posten, responded. They approached forty artists asking for depictions of Muhammad and received in response twelve cartoons of the Prophet — several playing on the violence committed by Muslims in the name of Islam around the world today.
Danish Imam Raed Hlayhel was the first to react. “This type of democracy is worthless for Muslims,” he fumed. “Muslims will never accept this kind of humiliation. The article has insulted every Muslim in the world. We demand an apology!” Jyllands-Posten refused. Editor-in-chief Carsten Juste refused: “We live in a democracy. That’s why we can use all the journalistic methods we want to. Satire is accepted in this country, and you can make caricatures. Religion shouldn’t set any barriers on that sort of expression. This doesn’t mean that we wish to insult any Muslims.” Cultural editor Flemming Rose concurred: “Religious feelings,” he observed, “cannot demand special treatment in a secular society. In a democracy one must from time to time accept criticism or becoming a laughingstock.”
Certainly Christians have had to learn this lesson: in the United Kingdom, the secretary of an organization called Christians Against Ridicule complained in 2003 that “over the last seven days alone we have witnessed the ridicule of the Nativity in a new advert for Mr Kipling cakes, the ridicule of the Lord’s Prayer on Harry Hill’s TV Burp, the ridicule of a proud Christian family on ITV’s Holiday Nightmare and the opening of a blasphemous play at London’s Old Vic Theatre — Stephen Berkoff’s Messiah….Rarely a day goes by today without underhand and insidious mockery of the Christian faith.” Christians Against Ridicule, however, issued no death threats at that point or any other; some Muslims in Denmark after the cartoons were published were not quite so sanguine. Jyllands-Posten had to hire security guards to protect its staff as threats came in by phone and email.
Muslim anger was not limited to threat-issuing thugs. In late October ambassadors to Denmark from eleven Muslim countries asked Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen for a meeting about what they called the “smear campaign” against Muslims in the Danish press. Rasmussen declined: “This is a matter of principle. I won’t meet with them because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so.” He added: “I will never accept that respect for a religious stance leads to the curtailment of criticism, humour and satire in the press.” The matter, he said, was beyond his authority: “As prime minister I have no tool whatsoever to take actions against the media and I don’t want that kind of tool.”
As far as one of the ambassadors, Egypt’s, was concerned, that was the wrong answer. Egyptian officials withdrew from a dialogue they had been conducting with their Danish counterparts about human rights and discrimination. Egyptian Embassy Councillor Mohab Nasr Mostafa Mahdy added: “The Egyptian ambassador in Denmark has said that the case no longer rests with the embassy. It is now being treated at an international level. As far as I have been informed by my government, the cartoon case has already been placed on the agenda for the Islamic Conference Organization’s extraordinary summit in the beginning of December.”
Meanwhile, in Denmark in early November thousands of Muslims marched in demonstrations against the cartoons. Two of the cartoonists, fearing for their lives, went into hiding. The Pakistani Jamaaat-e-Islami party offered five thousand kroner to anyone who killed one of the cartoonists. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), with a membership of 56 Muslim nations, protested to the Danish government. Last week business establishments closed to protest the cartoons — in Kashmir. The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad, was reportedly “anguished” by the cartoons, and asked India’s Prime Minister to complain to the Danish government. And last Saturday the most respected authority in the Sunni Muslim world, Mohammad Sayed Tantawi, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, declared that the cartoons had “trespassed all limits of objective criticism into insults and contempt of the religious beliefs of more than one billion Muslims around the world, including thousands in Denmark. Al-Azhar intends to protest these anti-Prophet cartoons with the UN’s concerned committees and human rights groups around the world.”
The UN was happy to take the case. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, wrote to the OIC: “I understand your attitude to the images that appeared in the newspaper. I find alarming any behaviors that disregard the beliefs of others. This kind of thing is unacceptable.” She announced that investigations for racism and “Islamophobia” would commence forthwith.
While solicitous of Muslim belief, Arbour did not seem concerned about the beliefs of the Danes. Yet Jyllands-Posten had well articulated its position as founded upon core principles of the Western world: “We must quietly point out here that the drawings illustrated an article on the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world. Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure — unconditionally!” Juste added: “If we apologize, we go against the freedom of speech that generations before us have struggled to win.”
That freedom is imperiled internationally more today than it has been in recent memory. As it grows into an international cause célèbre, the cartoon controversy indicates the gulf between the Islamic world and the post-Christian West in matters of freedom of speech and expression. And it may yet turn out that as the West continues to pay homage to its idols of tolerance, multiculturalism, and pluralism, it will give up those hard-won freedoms voluntarily.
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