JG - The cartoon controversy
The cartoon controversy
published: Tuesday February 7, 2006
Gwynne Dyer, Contributor
"WITHOUT THIS there would be no Life of Brian," said Roger Koeppel, editor-in-chief of the German newspaper Die Welt, claiming that his decision to republish the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused such offence to many Muslims was a free speech issue. "It's at the very core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire." That is true, but it is not the only truth.
Jyllands-Posten, which originally published the series of 12 cartoons about the Muhammad over four months ago, has the largest circulation of any Danish newspaper. Denmark's Muslim community, only 170,000 strong, is one of the most marginalised and beleaguered in Europe, and the governing coalition includes a large party that is explicitly anti-immigrant and implicitly anti-Muslim.
The cartoons were neither clever nor funny, and two of them were blatantly offensive. One depicted Muhammad himself as a terrorist, his turban transformed into a fizzing bomb; the other showed him speaking to a ragged queue of suicide bombers at heaven's gate saying "Stop, stop, we've run out of virgins."
They deliberately implied that Islam is a terrorist religion, and Denmark's Muslims quite reasonably demanded an apology. It was still a storm in a very small teacup -- but then the usual suspects got to work.
It took a lot of time and effort to build this into a real confrontation, but the Norwegian Christian monthly magazine helpfully republished the cartoons in January, Saudi Arabia and Libya withdrew their ambassadors from Copenhagen, and indignation built steadily in Muslim chat rooms and blogs on the Internet.
DANISH FLAGS BURNT
By the end of January, Danish flags were being burnt and Danish goods boycotted in the Arab world, and both the Danish Prime Minister and the editor of Jyllands-Posten went into reverse, publicly apologising for the offence that had been caused. But it was too late.
Various right-wing newspapers in Europe including Die Welt and France-Soir saw the Danish apologies as a failure to defend free speech, and republished the offending cartoons on their front pages.
The 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference warned that "Over-reactions surpassing the limits of peaceful democratic acts ... are dangerous and detrimental to the efforts to defend the legitimate case of the Muslim world."
Similarly on the Western side - you can't really say Christian anymore, except for the United States and maybe Poland - the great majority of newspapers did not publish the cartoons. In Britain, in Poland, in Russia, in Canada and (with one exception) in the United States, none did. It is not self-censorship to refuse to publish these abusive images that link Muslims with terrorism, it is simply common courtesy.
It does not mean that no Western cartoonist may ever use Muhammad again (though they will doubtless be more cautious about the context in future). The ban on images of Muhammad is a Muslim tradition, not a Western one.
But we live in a joined-up world where everybody can see everybody else all the time, and being polite to the neighbours is a social obligation. Jyllands-Posten and its emulators were very stupid and very rude.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.