A Mountain Out of a Molehill
In the latest twist, both the Organization for the Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council condemned a Norwegian newspaper for reprinting the drawings a decision the publication defended as protecting freedom of expression. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Denmark for "consultations" and Iraqis called in sermons and demonstrations for an investigation into the Danish and Norwegian publications that published the cartoons.
The initial printing of the cartoons in Denmark led to death threats being issued against the artists, demonstrations in Kashmir, and condemnation from eleven countries. What did any of this achieve but prove the original point of the newspaper's culture editor, that artists in Europe were censoring themselves because they feared Muslim reaction? He commissioned the cartoons after hearing that Danish artists were too scared to illustrate a children's book about the prophet.
While one cartoon was particularly offensive because it showed the prophet as wearing a turban with a bomb attached to it, a great deal of the anger had to do with the mere depiction of the prophet. Muslims seem to forget that just because they are prohibited from representing the prophet in any way, this does not apply to everybody else. Even with regards to the egregious cartoon showing the prophet with a bomb, Muslim reaction was exaggerated. This should have remained an internal Danish issue. Muslim groups in Denmark have been pursuing a legal course and have vowed to appeal a prosecutor's refusal to file charges against the newspaper.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was right not to intervene, insisting the government has no say over media the argument used by Arab leaders when they are asked about anti-Semitism in their media, by the way. But in a New Year's speech, Rasmussen condemned "any expression, action or indication that attempts to demonize groups of people on the basis of their religion or ethnic background."
What should have remained a local issue turned into a diplomatic uproar that Muslims otherwise rarely provoke when fighting for their rights around the world. Perhaps the Muslim governments who spearheaded the campaign led by Egypt felt this was an easy way to burnish their Islamic credentials at a time when domestic Islamists are stronger than they have been in many years.
Must we really boycott Danish products, as one e-mail I received exhorted? And why did an audience member at December's Arab Thought Foundation conference in Dubai insist on delivering a lecture on the Danish cartoons, instead of focusing on the topic of the panel, namely Arab media and terrorism? Of all the issues that plague the Muslim world today, are our priorities cartoons published in a newspaper in a country inhabited by less than six million people? If we really want to pick a fight with the West, have we forgotten that five hundred Muslim men continue to be detained without charge at the makeshift prison run by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which last week marked its fourth anniversary?
The fracas over the cartoons is a sad testament to the impotence of the Muslim world. That clerics and leaders of Muslim countries gain any sense of power over this issue is a reminder of how powerless they really are and also a reminder, as if we needed one, of the moral bankruptcy of our self-appointed moral guides. It is no wonder that these same moral guides have gone on a power trip over cartoons after all, clerics in Egypt have been arguing over whether married couples can be naked during sex.
In the midst of the hysteria over the cartoons, here are a few facts we should remember. However offensive any of the twelve cartoons were, they did not incite violence against Muslims. For an example of incitement, though, one must go back a few weeks before the cartoons were published. In August, the Danish authorities withdrew for three months the broadcasting license of a Copenhagen radio station after it called for the extermination of Muslims. Those were real threats and the government protected Muslims the same government later condemned for not punishing the newspaper that published the cartoons.
Second, the cartoon incident belongs at the very center of the kind of debate that Muslims must have in the European countries where they live particularly after the Madrid train bombings of 2003 and the London subway bombings of 2005. While right-wing anti-immigration groups whip up Islamophobia in Denmark, Muslim communities wallow in denial over the increasing role of their own extremists.
As just one example, last August Fadi Abdullatif, the spokesman for the Danish branch of the militant Hizb-ut-Tahrir organization, was charged with calling for the killing of members of the Danish government. He distributed leaflets calling on Muslims in Denmark to go to Fallujah in Iraq and fight the Americans, and to kill their own leaders if they obstructed them. Police in Denmark have been on alert since the London bombings, after which at least three extremist Web sites warned that Denmark could be the next target. There are 500 Danish troops working alongside American and British troops in Iraq.
Not only does Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organization banned in many Muslim countries, have a branch in Denmark, but Abdullatif has a history of calling for violence that he then justifies by referring to freedom of speech the very notion the Danish newspaper made use of to publish the cartoons. In October 2002, Abdullatif was found guilty of distributing racist propaganda after Hizb-ut-Tahrir handed out leaflets that made threats against Jews by citing verses from the Koran. He was given a 60-day suspended sentence.
Abdullatif used the Koran to justify incitement to violence! And we still wonder why people associate Islam with violence?
Muslims must honestly examine why there is such a huge gap between the way we imagine Islam and our prophet, and the way both are seen by others. Our offended sensibilities must not be limited to the Danish newspaper or the cartoonist, but to those like Fadi Abdullatif whose actions should be regarded as just as offensive to Islam and to our reverence for the prophet. Otherwise, we are all responsible for those Danish cartoons.
This article is based on a column initially published in English in Lebanon's The Daily Star and in Arabic in Egypt's al-Dostour. Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian commentator.