Cartoon controversy: Stupid cartoons, even stupider reaction

Aren’t some Muslims dying somewhere?

I’m quite troubled over the cartoon controversy in Denmark, not because of the cartoons themselves, which I agree are offensive, but rather, because of the absurd overreaction of Muslims worldwide. We haven’t learned from the Rushdie affair – this is yet another instance where we’ve gone out of our way to make ourselves look stupid.

For anyone living under a rock, here’s what happened. Four months ago, on September 30th, 2005, a Danish newspaper called Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in ways that many Muslims deemed sacrilegious. The newspaper claimed – quite foolishly, I think – that the cartoons were “part of an ongoing public debate on freedom of expression” in Denmark. There were a few protests by Muslims and meetings with the Prime Minister of Denmark, but things came to a head on January 10th, 2006, when two Norwegian papers published similar cartoons that were then circulated in the Middle East. Since then, the response has been stupendous:

There were street demonstrations and flag-burnings in the Middle East. Libya joined Saudi Arabia in withdrawing its ambassador from Copenhagen. Islamic governments and organisations, including the Muslim Council of Britain, issued denunciations and a boycott of Danish goods took hold across the Muslim world.

The Danish Government warned its citizens about travelling to Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, and withdrew aid workers from the Gaza Strip.

Last night EU foreign ministers issued a statement in support of Denmark, and the European Commission threatened to report any government backing the boycott to the World Trade Organisation.

By yesterday governments across the Arab world were responding to public outrage. Libya closed its embassy in Denmark and the Egyptian parliament demanded that its Government follow suit. The Kuwaiti and Jordanian governments called for explanations from their Danish ambassadors. President Lahoud of Lebanon condemned the cartoons, saying his country “cannot accept any insult to any religion”. The Justice Minister of the United Arab Emirates said: “This is cultural terrorism, not freedom of expression.” In Gaza, gunmen briefly occupied the EU office in Gaza and warned Danes and Norwegians to stay away. Palestinians in the West Bank burnt Danish flags. The Islamic groups Hamas and Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demanded an apology.

Supermarkets in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen all removed Danish produce from their shelves. Arla Foods, a Danish company with annual sales of about $430 million in the Middle East, said that the boycott was almost total and suspended production in Saudi Arabia.

Those up in arms don’t seem to understand that the newspaper is not government owned or produced. It is an independent newspaper, and as such the guarantee of freedom of expression allows it to do what it did. It may be in bad taste and it may be insensitive, but the newspaper has a point: freedom of expression allows individuals to express themselves in ways that may upset or offend others. Yes, that freedom is to be balanced with freedom of religion, but even so, adherents of any faith cannot expect that they will never be offended. That is the price we pay for the freedoms we enjoy. Some may claim this is a good time to bring out those old blasphemy laws, but I disagree. In fact, I would argue there are no justifiable grounds for blasphemy laws in liberal democracies.

In any case, why these Arab countries would see fit to demand that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen apologize is beyond me. If one wanted to protest the publication of those cartoons, one could always cancel one’s subscription to the newspaper. But to boycott products from the country? Burn Danish flags? Remove ambassadors to express one’s displeasure? Those sorts of responses are just nonsensical. The government is not to be blamed for the idiocy of a private newspaper.

Why are we so exciteable anyway? Why even care what a newspaper thinks? The cartoons, horrendous though they may be, need not affect a Muslim’s impression of the Prophet, for our tradition clearly shows him to be a man imbued with dignity, morality and goodness. The Prophet was ridiculed from the moment he started receiving revelation in Mecca more than 1400 years ago. The mockery – even the threats on his life – are well documented in the Quran and hadith literature. A few cartoons will do little to harm him – or us.

Some might argue that Islam bars any depiction of the Prophet. Even so, we Muslims cannot force other people to appreciate the Prophet the way we do. We live, for the most part, in free societies, and there are countless opportunities to share with others our own vision of the Prophet and to convince others that he is a man to be honoured and dignified. We can do so by living like the Prophet did, by behaving and speaking in the noble manner of the Prophet himself, and by showing ourselves to be the rightful followers of this blessed man.

The over-the-top reaction just shows me how much excess energy and strength the ummah retains worldwide. Frankly I wonder if Muslims are not doing a greater disservice to the Prophet when we close our eyes to the suffering and oppression in the rest of the world. There are bigger problems to tackle than the publication of 12 silly cartoons. Now, if we could only put our efforts to better purposes…

Safiyyah Ally, a first-year Ph.D student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, is the host of “Let the Quran Speak,” a television show that airs Saturdays at 4:00 pm on VISION-TV.

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