Danish cartoons cause outrage amongst Muslims

The Danish publish a religious cartoon satirizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad, the Muslims begin shouting about it, it becomes big news and gets published in even more publications, and the United States jumps in and stirs things up even more. What a crazy world…

The saga began on September 30, 2005 when a series of comics depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad was published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Immediately, Danish Muslim organizations publicly protested which, in our current day and time, made big news which further fueled the fire as newspapers all across Denmark began reprinting the cartoons.

Ironically, the Danish project began as a means to demonstrate the right of freedom of speech. Several months earlier, a 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 including removal of the arms of the artist or even death. Jyllands-Posten editor, Flemming Rose, commissioned 12 cartoonists to draw caricatures of Muhammad to highlight this strange incident before the public.

Flemming Rose believes that the violence that began erupting in February 2006 was not by coincidence. Flemming 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.

Freedom of speech in Denmark was propagated via a new democratic constitution in 1849 and parliamentarism in 1901 drawn together with other liberties, including freedom of religion. These freedoms have been defended vigorously ever since. Freedom of speech was abandoned temporarily only during the German occupation of Denmark during World War II.

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”. An investigation into the blasphemous cartoons was initiated in late 2005. 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 that, “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.”

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 Western civilians to comprehend, is the severity to which the Muslim followers took this issue. 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 sanction against Denmark.

Taking it a step further, 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 lecturer 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 severity of the Muslim world’s reaction to religious quandaries such as this.

Westerners are not altogether immune to religious quandaries either. Western cartoons depicting Jesus are quite common, especially in edgy publications such as Hustler Magazine, and do provoke an outcry from the public. But it stops there. In Brussels, a young Muslim immigrant attempt to incite discord by publishing a poster portraying the Virgin Mary with exposed breasts. Some minor complaints erupted from the Catholic Church but nothing more came of it. Freedom of speech means persons can voice their opinion however they see fit, even if it offends some.

Meanwhile, Middle Eastern countries are blaming Western countries for the propagating the problem while Western countries are turning the blame right back at them. 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 believes the blame belongs on the other foot. “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,” Moustapha said.

That the United States may have ulterior motives for highlighting this incident is not without question. In late 2005, the United States began pumping 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 into 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 other side of the coin, 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. Statements such as these add further fuel for America’s ongoing hard line stance with Iran.

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.”

In the end, both sides have taken advantage of the situation. The United States is using the outrageousness of the Muslims response to the cartoons as a propaganda strike 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…

%d bloggers like this: