When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (JP) commissioned 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad last September, few foresaw the furor that would occur six months later. After all, the controversy was relatively quiet for 4 months, with only muted protests from that country’s Muslim community. Even the EU and UN complained two months ago, with barely an international mention. But the decision since to republish the cartoons in French, German, Norwegian papers sparked a worldwide outcry. Muslims abhor images of the Prophet (take heed, Jack), lest they be worshipped (which begs the question of how anyone would identify him), but it was images of him with a bomb for a turban that pushed things over the edge. The anger appeared to grow with the geographical distance from Denmark, with Danish and British Muslims pleading for calm to death threats in the Middle East and a storming of the Danish embassy in Indonesia. “I am urging them to calm down and take stock of their own lives,” said Imam Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain (a small protest by supporters of Omar Bakri Muhammad was also vilified). “We should all remain within the law and not be provoked by hot-heads on both sides.” Muslims worldwide called for a boycott of Danish goods, which was noted for its near total effectiveness. In the Muslim blogosphere, reactions varied wildly from support to revulsion. Syria and Saudi Arabia recalled their ambassadors while Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali Sistani said militant Islamists were partly to blame for distorting the image of Islam. Interestingly, the two countries primarily involved in the Iraq war, the UK and the US, both sided with Muslims (though the US probably enjoyed taking a jab at Old Europe’s coalition of the unwilling). “There is freedom of speech, but there is not an obligation to be gratuitously inflammatory,” said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, commending UK papers for not getting involved. “Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable,” concurred US State Department press officer Janelle Hironimus. For newspapers, the issue was only one of free speech, though the decision to publish the cartoons was taken in a Europe rife with blasphemy laws against Christianity and still sensitive to accusations of anti-Semitism. Though JP has since apologised, the conflict appears to lie between other newspapers wishing to promote free speech (or publicity) and Muslims who (rightly) see themselves unfairly targeted, with governments on all sides caught in the middle. Indeed many newspapers pointed out the efficacy (if overwrought) of Muslim protests to silence critics and scare governments compared to other faiths (an online petition containing 26,000 signatures against derogatory paintings of Hindu deities has accomplished little). Outside of voicing its concern, the Danish government said there was little (legally) that it could do – even if blasphemy laws were amended to include Muslims. “A Danish government can never apologise on behalf of a free and independent newspaper,” said Prime Minster Anders Fogh Rasmussen after meeting Muslim ambassadors. “Neither the Danish government nor the Danish nation as such can be held responsible.” The row will likely fade, as the furor over Quran desecration in Guantanamo eventually did, but the repercussions from those caught in the crossfire have yet to be discovered. Offense may not survive in a vacuum, as Norman Finkelstein has pointed out in his books regarding the (mis)use of the Holocaust. In that regard, Muslims may wish to consider ways to draw the air from the literary echo chamber of those who wish to offend us.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.