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February 05, 2006

Muslim Cartoons, Jyllands Posten and the Terror at Home
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Embassy_ablaze Until this weekend I classed the Muslim cartoon fracas as an interesting story I didn't have time to follow.   But with the outrage yielding some of the most violent attacks the Middle East has seen lately (outside of Iraq, that is) - namely the sacking of the Danish consulate in Beirut and of the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus - the protesters have gotten what they clearly are after: a closer look from the Western media.

The story is labyrinthine and goes something like this:  A Danish children's book author penned a tale about the Mohammed and couldn't find an illustrator willing to buck a supposed Muslim prohibition on images of the prophet (think Salman Rushdie and Theo Van Gogh).   

Hearing that story, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands Posten challenged a group of cartoonists to interpret Mohammad.  They came up with images including one in which his turban was a bomb with the lit wick.  The paper published these back in September, and the uproar has mounted steadily fueled by a variety of half-apologies wrapped within defenses of freedom of speech.   Several European papers reprinted the images last week, whereas American papers for the most part have not.  The images themselves and a detailed chronology of the affair are available at Wikipedia.   I also recommend this Guardian piece for a good overview.

So, what the hell's really going on?  It's hard to remember the last time anyone got seriously mad at the Scandinavians.  After all, the Danish are among the west's most generous aid donors (however, those funds have been cut back in the last few years under a right-wing government).  Denmark was part of the original coalition in the Iraq war and has about 500 men in serving in Iraq.

The issues are complex.  There's no question that Jyllands-Posten and other newspapers had the right to publish the images.   For those that republished them knowing their incendiary impact, thorny questions of balancing newsworthiness with sensitivity arise:  Egyptian papers routinely publish offensive anti-Semitic images; yet it might be legitimate for another paper to republish some of these in a story about the Egyptian media's hostility to Jews.   

While attributing the acts of an independent newspaper to the Danish government betrays a lack of understanding of how a free press works, Copenhagen may have waited way too long to respond to overtures from Muslim leaders, thus opening the way for escalation.

For those trying to take a step back and interpret, at least two things are worth talking about.

One is the rise of virulent Muslim extremism in Europe, fueling violent outbreaks that seem to be coming more and more frequently - the train attacks in Spain, the London subway bombings, the French riots last summer.   

The tension goes deep, with some Europeans feeling that to completely accommodate Muslims in their midst would be to surrender the enlightened, secular ideals on which Europe was built (thus the French headscarf kerfuffle a few years back).   But the longer Europe goes without forging a broad two-way accommodation with its growing immigrant populations, the worse the extremism and resentment will get. 

These days many European Muslims face the 21st century dilemma of whether to become a jihadi or a dentist.   Their governments need to take urgent steps to tip those scales  - improving education, extending economic opportunity, protecting civil rights, forging close alliances with pragmatic Muslim leaders - or find themselves hostage to terrorist attacks at home that will shred the very ideals they believe they are defending. 

Unfortunately Denmark ’s moving in the wrong direction, enforcing required Danish lessons and stricter marriage and citizenship laws.   Europe needs to mount a full court press that's part civil rights era-style reconciliation/integration between majority and minority groups, part War on Poverty-style efforts to combat Muslim unemployment, economic deprivation and social isolation, and part War on Terror-type efforts to identify and crack-down on violent radicals.  And they need to do it soon. 

This battle of ideas (which will wind up being at least as much a battle of experience - namely what is the experience of young Muslims who wind up deciding whether to apply to a Bin Laden training camp on the Afghan border or the Royal College of Dentistry) waged within Europe could turn out to be as important to combating terror as any United States efforts at rapprochement in the Middle East.

The second observation relates to something I wrote about once before here:   Shibley Telhami's concept of the "prism of pain" (forgive me, Prof. Telhami, lest I distort your prism) through which groups and sub-cultures view the world.  The most painful event or phenomenon becomes the lens through which all else is viewed:  for the Jews, the Holocaust; for African-Americans, slavery; for black South Africans, apartheid; for Muslims, Western incursions and insults.

The cartoons have unmistakably clouded the prism of Muslims around the world (protests are surfacing in Pakistan and Indonesia, as well as Europe and the Middle East).   But its also clear that the prism itself is thickening and distorting to the point where a printed caricature can trigger violent protests around the world (the way a rumor about a Koran flushed down the toilet did last Spring).  The depth of the "pain" felt by Muslims (to generalize grossly) as a result of of felt offenses by the West has deepened in recent years and specifically since the start of the Iraq war.  Almost anything now risks being distorted and, at the same time, the Muslim prism is getting harder to penetrate, making it more difficult for the west and Muslims to communicate and see eye to eye.   

One reason for targeting Scandinavian diplomatic facilities may simply be that they can:  American installations have been fortified to the tune of billions.   These incidents are more evidence that Karen Hughes and Iraqi elections aside, relations between the West and the Muslim world are moving in the wrong direction.


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» Fallout on Danish cartoons continues from The Glittering Eye
The fallout on the cartoons of Mohammed published first in a Danish newspaper in September and now in newspapers all over the world continues It was one of those unpredictable Lebanese Sunday mornings. The ski slopes in the mountains overlooking Bei... [Read More]

» freedom and responsibility from Al-Muhajabah's Islamic Blogs
Now things are really getting out of control: Mohamed cartoons provoke bomb threats against Danish newspaper. No, no, and no... [Read More]

» Open cartoon thread from Daniel W. Drezner
Readers may have noticed that I haven't posted on the whole cartoon business. To be honest, I didn't think it was that big a deal. Clearly, some Muslims disagree. So, comment away. Click here or here for useful timelines. A... [Read More]

» Open cartoon thread from Daniel W. Drezner
Readers may have noticed that I haven't posted on the whole cartoon business. To be honest, I didn't think it was that big a deal. Clearly, some Muslims disagree. So, comment away. Click here or here for useful timelines. A... [Read More]


There is a world of diference between [the Holocaust, slavery, apartheid], and [Western incursions and insults]. It is sad that you would consider them equal. I don't always agree with your veiws but I usually think they are intelligent and well written. This is not.

The efforts at accommodation Suzanne proposes the Europeans take vis-a-vis Muslim immigrants have no chance whatsoever of being implemented. The political climate in Europe right now does not allow for a war on poverty on behalf of have nots (the electorate is made up mostly of those who are afraid of losing what they have; they are in no mood to give up a piece of the economic and cultural pie, nor does the economic model favored in Europe produce an ever expanding economic pie as it does here in the US such that a win win solution is conceivable).

It is far more likely that the growing unease of majorities in many European countries will coalesce into new political formations and revitalize old ones. In this sense Pim Fortyn is a prophecy. The cultural confrontation is likely to grow in the coming years.

The possibility that progressives will be able to well electorally in this context is growing dimmer by the day.

The wisest thing politically would be to stand up unequivocably in defense of the right to criticize the belief system of Muslims who promise a life of ease in paradise surrounded by voluptuous virgins to those who slaughter civilians at random in the name of jihad. One of the cartoons does that very pointedly. The trouble with the cartoon is not that it is offensive, but that it is offensive because it expresses a truth.

Do I expect progressives to demonstrate political wisdom in the current context? Are progressives able to take the pulse of the electorate and find a way to transform the electorate's fears and hopes into a convincing political platform? That, of course, is what you need to do if you want to win elections and have a mandate to do something afterwards.

I want to answer in the affirmative, but I see precious little evidence around me for thinking that progressives are ready for prime time either in Europe, Australia, Canada, or here. The electorates tend to agree.

The old ways of appealing to the electorate will not work in a context of escalating cultural, political, and military confrontation.

It's time to connect the dots. Rushdie, Fortyn, Theo van Gogh: who's next?

Forgive me but I found this piece, and more importantly the condemnation's by the US and UK against the cartoons, just disgusting. What should happen is every newspaper should publish one of the cartoons every day untill the very last call for violence ends.

Someone puts Christ on a cross in jar of urine in a museum and yet there is no violence much less a call for the "artist" to be killed. The reason for this is one basis of civilization- tolerance.

It can not be accepted that one group gets to define what is acceptable or not, for itself, and to then respond with violence and for the offending party to be killed. Hamas stated this week that the real problem was Rushdie was still alive and if he'd been gotten then nobody would have dared drawn those cartoons.

Should one be killed for saying your mother wears combat boots? How about the prophet wears combat boots? Or the prophet has no sense of humor? Or drawing any of that? Getting across the idea that your outrage or offense does not justify violence, much less murder, should be a part of western civilization's top ten list of things to teach those who reject modernity.

It was shamefull hearing the US State Dept condeming those European newspapers. Bravo Europe. Buy Danish.

Lane Brody

Bernie, I think you're missing the point somewhat. It's not whether Western anti-Islamic feeling is objectively comparable to the holocaust, but rather that it's the thing that Muslims in the middle east relate all their experiences to, their focusing lens, in the same way that Jews use the holocaust or many post-9/11 Americans use terrorism. Every action is considered relative to a group's "prism"; many middle-easterners' opinions of the US are only considered relative to the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, which I believe was Mr. Telhami's original point.

Lane, what DoS actually said was, to my mind, not a condemnation of the papers, but actually a very good response (I can't believe I wrote that about State):

QUESTION: Yes? Can you say anything about a U.S. response or a U.S. reaction to this uproar in Europe over the Prophet Muhammad pictures? Do you have any reaction to it? Are you concerned that the violence is going to spread and make everything just --
MR. MCCORMACK: I haven't seen any -- first of all, this is matter of fact. I haven't seen it. I have seen a lot of protests. I've seen a great deal of distress expressed by Muslims across the globe. The Muslims around the world have expressed the fact that they are outraged and that they take great offense at the images that were printed in the Danish newspaper, as well as in other newspapers around the world.
Our response is to say that while we certainly don't agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views. For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so. That said, there are other aspects to democracy, our democracy -- democracies around the world -- and that is to promote understanding, to promote respect for minority rights, to try to appreciate the differences that may exist among us.
We believe, for example in our country, that people from different religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, national backgrounds add to our strength as a country. And it is important to recognize and appreciate those differences. And it is also important to protect the rights of individuals and the media to express a point of view concerning various subjects. So while we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images, we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view. We may -- like I said, we may not agree with those points of view, we may condemn those points of view but we respect and emphasize the importance that those individuals have the right to express those points of view.
For example -- and on the particular cartoon that was published -- I know the Prime Minister of Denmark has talked about his, I know that the newspaper that originally printed it has apologized, so they have addressed this particular issue. So we would urge all parties to exercise the maximum degree of understanding, the maximum degree of tolerance when they talk about this issue. And we would urge dialogue, not violence. And that also those that might take offense at these images that have been published, when they see similar views or images that could be perceived as anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic, that they speak out with equal vigor against those images.
QUESTION: That the Muslims speak out with equal vigor when they see -- that's what you're asking?
MR. MCCORMACK: We would -- we believe that it is an important principle that peoples around the world encourage dialogue, not violence; dialogue, not misunderstanding and that when you see an image that is offensive to another particular group, to speak out against that. Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief. We have to remember and respect the deeply held beliefs of those who have different beliefs from us. But it is important that we also support the rights of individuals to express their freely held views

Suzanne, could you please explore your objections to the Danish naturalization system a little more? The requirements (language, residence, allegiance) seem pretty commonsensical to me. This is particularly true in the case of an ethnic state like Denmark whose population even today is more homogeneous than was that of the United States in 1800 or the British Colonies in 1700 (when the Colonies had substantial African, French, Dutch, Swedish, German, Portuguese, and other constituents).

In particular compare it to the French experience. I think a language requirement facilitates integration into a society rather than discouraging it. Please explain your thoughts on this subject.

And, of course, neither France nor Denmark (nor Japan) have birthright citizenship.

Lets not forget the destruction of the Buddist statues in Afganistan.Not a wimber of protest from so called resonable Islamic leaders about that atrocity.I keep seeing that intellectual giant in the White house reapeating "Islam is a religion of peace!" over and over again ya think he really believes it?

Being offended does not entitle one to violence. While the response by State does seem reasonable on the surface it goes way too far in giving any justification for violence. There is none. On a scale of one to ten drawing an offensive picture rates about a 1 while killing someone in retaliation for a cartoon rates about an 8. They do not equate.

The only response should be we are sorry you are offended. People offend and are offended on a daily basis in a free society hence the word free. We try to teach our children by the age of 3 or 4 that if someone calls them names they may not hit them. You may not kill anyone that calls you names or draws cartoons you do not like. We like to call this tolerance.

In return when you burn our flags or publish your nazi- like anti-semetic (sorry- anti-zionist) cartoons in your newspapers we will not decide to kill you for it. Good thing because we actually can kill all of you; however, our laws and religions teach us that this is wrong to the point of being evil. Hence we won't kill you for calling us names and you know it so your entire violent outburst is not only childlike and hypocritical but takes advantage of our civility. As recent history should have taught you our civility has limits.

Rushdie lives! Buy Danish! Publish more cartoons!

Lane Brody

Lane, I agree with you an all substantive points here. My problem is that I don't see a whole lot of substantive points.

Agreed, being offended does not entitle you to violence. If somebody insults your mother in a bar or whatever, that doesn't entitle you to throw the first punch. If somebody insults the USA or the Marines or your karate dojo, likewise. Everybody who commits violence over these cartoons should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Meanwhile, the cartoonist(s) should and will suffer no worse punishment than being fired and having trouble finding new jobs as cartoonists.

The consequences that ought to happen are happening. So what else do you think ought to happen?

Chatami is over the week-end in Malaysa to present the Eastern dual.
Him and Khamenei(22 states of Arabia it is assumed) I wish the best.
Pakistan received my recommendations: Not to attack Skandinavians.

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