Warning: this article contains images which followers of Islam may find offensive.
Cartoon Depicting Prophet Muhammad Angers Muslims
It is fascinating to me how mindless drivel can spin itself into a significant worldwide event. Such an event took place last year (2005). The Danish publish a religious cartoon satirizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad, Muslims begin shouting about it, it becomes big news and is published in even more publications, and the United States jumps in and stirs things up even more. Meanwhile, Westerners, who especially value freedom of religion, scratch their heads wondering how someone can get so offended by criticism of their religion that they physically attack them.
Danish newspaper publishes offensive cartoons
The saga began on September 30, 2005 when a series of comics depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad were published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Immediately, Danish Muslim organizations publicly protested which of course, made the evening news and further fueled the fire as newspapers all across Denmark began picking up and reprinting the offensive cartoons.
Ironically, the Danish project began as a means to demonstrate the right of freedom of speech. Several months earlier, Danish author Kare Bluitgen had run into problems finding artists willing to depict Muhammad in a children’s book she was writing. Artists that she approached had cited concerns that drawing the prophet ran contrary to one of the religions’ basic tenants – allowing pictures of the prophet could lead to idolatry. The breaking of this religious tenant imposed severe punishments within some Muslim sects including removal of the arms of the artist or even death. As a result, Jyllands-Posten editor, Flemming Rose, commissioned 12 cartoonists to draw caricatures of Muhammad to highlight the enigma before the public. This of course, resulted in a public spectacle which eventually led to violence. (Note: Flemming Rose believes that the violence that began in February 2006 was not coincidence and claims that a group of Danish Muslims leaders traveled to the Middle East to fan the fire and incite the Muslim extremist into taking violent action.)
The importance of freedom of speech to the Danish
Freedom of speech in Denmark propagated via a new democratic constitution in 1849 and has been defended vigorously ever since (freedom of speech was abandoned temporarily only during the German occupation of Denmark during World War II). However, Section 140 of the Danish Criminal Code prohibits any person from “publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in Denmark”. Thus, an investigation into the blasphemous cartoons was initiated in late 2005. Surprisingly, on January 6, 2006, the Regional Public Prosecutor in Viborg decided to discontinue the investigation as he found no basis for concluding that the cartoons constituted a criminal offence. He stated:
“In assessing what constitutes an offence, the right to freedom of speech must be taken into consideration. That while the right to freedom of speech must be exercised with the obligatory respect for other human rights, including the right to protection against discrimination, insult and degradation, no apparent violation of the law had occurred.”
Muslim reaction puzzles Westerners
That the cartoons are culturally offensive is quite clear and easy to comprehend even for persons of the Christian faith. Many Muslims consider any depiction of the prophet to be sacrilegious. Likewise, degrading pictures of Jesus would cause a public outcry too. What’s difficult Westerners to comprehend however, is the level of violence which some Muslim followers are willing to take in reaction to what they perceive as an insult to their religious beliefs. Death threats against the cartoonists prompted them to quickly steal away into hiding. The foreign ministries of eleven Islamic nations formally demanded action from the Danish government (which refused conceding that freedom of speech was guaranteed for all its citizens). Libya closed its Danish embassy after the Danish government refused to censure the newspaper or demand an apology. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League have demanded that the United Nations impose international sanctions against Denmark. These reactions are so counter to Westerners’ culture of freedom, we cannot even articulate a appropriate response to the Muslims’ concerns.
Violent Islamic protests broke out in Syria resulting in the burning of the Danish and Norwegian embassies. Deaths have been reported during fierce riots all over the world. Meanwhile, Westerners scratch their heads in disbelief. Recalling incidents such as the 2004 beating of a professor by five assailants who opposed the lecturer’s reading of the Quran to non-Muslims, Westerners (who foster an extremely zealous support for freedoms) have a difficult time comprehending the intensity of the Muslim world’s reaction to religious quandaries such as this. It simply makes no sense to us.
Political power plays
Meanwhile, political powers take advantage of the volatile situation. Middle Eastern countries are blaming Western countries for fueling the fire while Western countries are turning the blame right back in their faces. United States’ Condoleezza Rice pointed the finger at Syria and Iran.
“Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes, and the world ought to call them on it.”
Syria’s ambassador to the United States (Moustapha) believes the blame belongs to the West.
“We in Syria believe anti-Western sentiments are being fueled by two major things: the situation in Iraq and the situation in the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza.”
That the United States may have ulterior motives for highlighting this incident is not without question. In late 2005, the United States began spewing rhetoric regarding the evils of Iran into the stream of mass media. With the onset of the February 2006 violence, the United States is continuing its aggressive stance regarding Iran (and Syria), possibly in an attempt to sway public opinion during the twilight of a more concrete (or physical) attack against the Iranian government. The U.S. points out that the violence seen in Damascus and Tehran “is qualitatively different than we’ve seen in other places” and have hinted that the governments of Iran and Syria have been deeply involved in a propaganda campaign. “Burning two embassies in Damascus doesn’t happen without the knowledge of the Syrian government,” Rice’s spokesman Sean McCormack said, adding that in Iran, where embassies have also been targeted, attacks could not have happened without the knowledge or assistance of the Iranian government. They point out that the violence did not take place until several months after the September 2005 publication of the cartoons.
In another unusual twist, the Middle Eastern governments where the United States has gained the most control over – Iraq and Afghanistan – have taken a milder approach to their condemnation of the situation. “It’s an incredibly emotive issue. This is something that really upset Afghans,” said Joanna Nathan, senior Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research institute. “But it is also being used to agitate and motivate the crowds by those against the government and foreign forces” in Afghanistan. Earlier, members of the Ulama Council — Afghanistan’s top Islamic organization — went on radio and television Wednesday to appeal for calm. “Islam says it’s alright to demonstrate but not to resort to violence. This must stop,” said senior cleric Mohammed Usman, a council member. “We condemn the cartoons but this does not justify violence. These rioters are defaming the name of Islam.”
Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said he didn’t agree with publishing the cartoons. However, he said he also disagreed with extremists using the cartoons to stir up violence “against the Western interests and actually against the good reputation of Islam as a religion, of Muslims as a people, as a peaceful people, and people believing in freedom of speech.”
On the flip side, Iran’s radical and sometimes irrational supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Tuesday that publication of the caricatures was an Israeli conspiracy motivated by anger over the victory of the militant Hamas group in last month’s Palestinian elections. “The West condemns any denial of the Jewish Holocaust, but it permits the insult of Islamic sanctities,” Khamenei said. Not unexpectedly, bizarre statements such as these add further fuel for America’s ongoing hard line stance with Iran.
Why Muslims care
The Qur’an, Islam’s holiest book, condemns idolatry, but has no direct condemnations of graphic art. Views regarding pictorial representation within the Muslim communities have varied from group to group, and from time to time. Shi’a Muslims have been generally tolerant of pictorial representation of human figures while Sunni Muslims typically condemn such depictions. Moreover, the Sunni Ottomans were not only tolerant but even patrons of the miniaturists’ art. Many Ottoman miniatures depict Muhammad; they usually show Muhammad’s face covered with a veil or as a featureless void emanating light.
Most contemporary Muslims believe that ordinary portraits and photos, films and illustrations, are permissible. Only some Salafi and Islamist interpretations of Sunni Islam still condemn pictorial representations of any kind. Offensive satirical pictures are a somewhat different case — disrespect to Islam or to Muhammad is still widely considered blasphemous or sacrilegious.
According to the BBC:
“It is the satirical intent of the cartoonists, and the association of the Prophet with terrorism, that is so offensive to the vast majority of Muslims.”
The end result – not good…
In the end, both sides have taken advantage of a sad situation. The United States is using the outrageousness of the radical Muslims response to the cartoons as a propaganda point against Iran. Radical Muslim groups are using the incident to incite violence and emotionalism in the Muslim community, most likely in preparation for additional terrorists’ attacks. In the end, history has proven that both sides will ultimately lose…
The Cartoons that spurred the uproar
The following are the cartoons that instigated the Muslim’s passionate response. It’s important to note that the majority of these cartoons are simply not understood by Westerners – neither the context nor the participants in the drawings are familiar to our culture. Thus, in most cases we do not find them to be “funny”, but rather puzzling.
Muhammad standing on a cloud, greeting dead suicide bombers with “Stop Stop vi er løbet tør for Jomfruer!” (“Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!”), an allusion to the promised reward to martyrs. Not sure how offensive this is to Muslims but Westerners are hard pressed to find this one offensive (and even consider it the funniest of the 12 cartoons).
Journalist Kåre Bluitgen, wearing a turban with the proverbial orange dropping into it, with the inscription “Publicity stunt”. In his hand is a child’s stick drawing of Muhammad. The proverb “an orange in the turban” is a Danish expression meaning “a stroke of luck”. I have no idea where the odd expression comes from.
Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb. This drawing is considered the most controversial of the twelve by Muslims and invokes the most intense emotions in Westerners.
Two angry Muslims charge forward with sabres and bombs, while Muhammad addresses them with: “Rolig, venner, når alt kommer til alt er det jo bare en tegning lavet af en vantro sønderjyde” (loosely, “Relax guys, it’s just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander”. “South Jutland” as a reference would, for a Dane, connote the feeling of something like the middle of nowhere).
An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women “Profet! Med kuk og knald i låget som holder kvinder under åget!”. In English the poem could be read as: “Prophet, you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke” Westerners of course, perceive women of the Muslim community as repressed. Other than that, we have no idea what this cartoon is attempting to communicate to the reader.
A police line-up of seven people wearing turbans, with the witness saying: “Hm… jeg kan ikke lige genkende ham” (“Hm… I can’t really recognise him”). Not all people in the line-up are immediately identifiable. They are: (1) A generic Hippie, (2) politician Pia Kjærsgaard, (3) possibly Jesus, (4) possibly Buddha, (5) possibly Muhammad, (6) possibly Moses, and (7) journalist Kåre Bluitgen, carrying a sign saying: “Kåres PR, ring og få et tilbud” (“Kåre’s public relations, call and get an offer”). Westerners recognize most of the historical figures in the picture but find nothing whatsoever funny, offensive, or ironic about their depiction in the cartoon.
A nervous caricaturist, shakily drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder. This one we all think is funny.
An Arab-looking boy in front of a blackboard, pointing to the Farsi chalkings, which translate into “The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs”. The boy is labelled “Mohammed, Valby school, 7.A”, implying that this is a second-generation immigrant to Denmark rather than the founder of Islam. On his shirt is written “Fremtiden” (the future). Westerners have no idea what this cartoon is referring to but do see the depiction of the boy as potentially racist.
Drawing shows Muhammad prepared for battle, with a short sabre in one hand and a black bar censoring his eyes. He is flanked by two women in niqaabs, having only their wide open eyes visible. This one makes some sense to Westerners but nothing we find funny nor offensive.
The Islamic star and crescent partially symbolizing the face of Muhammad; his right eye is the star, the crescent surrounds his beard and face. Westerners have no idea what this means.
Muhammad standing in a gentle pose with a halo in the shape of a crescent moon. The middle part of the crescent is obscured, revealing only the edges which resemble horns. This one we understand, find somewhat offensive, but still protected under the rights of free speech.
Muhammad as a simple wanderer, in the desert, at sunset. There is a donkey in the background. We’re not at all clear on the meaning of this one…