Over the past few weeks, Europe and the Muslim world have faced increasing protests, marked in parts of the Arab world by arson, death threats and the killing of demonstrators. The catalyst is not Americans torturing detainees in an Iraqi prison, or an Israeli assault on a Palestinian town, or Western threats against Iran over its nuclear program. It is a series of cartoons, including images of the Prophet Muhammad, published in a Danish newspaper. But it is no laughing matter.
The crisis began simmering after the cartoons were published on September 30 by the right-wing daily Jyllands-Posten. Even leaving aside the Islamic stricture against visual representations of the Prophet, it is not surprising that the cartoons offended Denmark’s Muslim minority–not to mention many Danes who respect their Muslim neighbors. In one cartoon Muhammad’s turban is a bomb; in another a turbaned figure in heaven implores a group of suicide bombers to stop because “we ran out of virgins!” Muslim clerics in Copenhagen denounced the cartoons in their sermons, demonstrations were organized to demand an apology and ambassadors from Muslim countries requested meetings with officials. Denmark’s prime minister defended the paper’s right to publish the cartoons on free-speech grounds and refused to meet with Danish Muslims or Muslim ambassadors.
By late January Danish embassies throughout the Middle East were attracting angry crowds. In a show of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, newspapers throughout Europe ran the cartoons, detonating even more furious reactions, from rioting and arson in Beirut and Kabul to an Iranian newspaper’s Holocaust cartoon contest. What had begun as a local affair had developed into a seeming showdown between Europe (portrayed as either liberal and tolerant or anti-Muslim and neocolonialist) and Islam (portrayed as either victimized and proud or backward and repressive)–a cardboard “clash of civilizations” deeply gratifying to the right-wing Europeans and radical Islamists who had fanned the flames of Copenhagen.
It mattered little that the attacks were roundly condemned by moderate Muslims like scholar Tariq Ramadan, who, writing in the Guardian, deplored the recklessness of governments that seized upon the cartoons to “bolster their Islamic legitimacy in the eyes of the public,” or that liberal European journalists like Neal Ascherson pilloried Jyllands-Posten for inflaming Muslim sensitivities. Thanks to an unholy convergence of actions by a right-wing newspaper and radical Muslims–helped along by a cynical prime minister and European newspapers that misleadingly treated the matter as simply a contest over free speech–the Danish cartoon scandal has exploded into an international crisis.
There is, to be sure, no moral equivalence between the attacks on Danish embassies and the publication (or republication) of a cartoon, however offensive. Cartoons specialize in overstatement, but while they may give–intend to give–offense, they cause no casualties. It is, moreover, contradictory to condemn anti-Muslim bigotry while publishing anti-Semitic calumnies like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (regularly featured in the Arabic media).
This magazine has historically been committed to freedom of speech, an essential principle that democratic societies have established over years of struggle, and we remain vigilant in its defense. Given attacks over the years from within our own constituency on cartoons by such esteemed Nation artists as Edward Sorel, David Levine and Robert Grossman, we at The Nation know as well as anyone their power to inflame emotions. Defending free speech means defending the rights of those with whom we disagree most profoundly, whether they are cartoonists who would have us believe that Muhammad is the forefather of today’s suicide bombers, marchers who argue that “blasphemy” is not covered by freedom of speech or Holocaust revisionists on trial in Europe, where some speech is not protected.
The cartoon scandal is about much more than freedom of speech. At its heart the controversy is about power–the power of images; the power that divides Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans, the West and the Middle East; the power of radical Islamists to silence more moderate voices–and the responsibility that comes with power. In today’s volatile political climate–charged by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, by Israel’s construction of the “separation wall” in Palestine, by the controversy over the hijab and the revolt in the French banlieues, by the growth of anti-immigration politics and radical Islam in “liberal” Europe and by the velocity with which news and rumor travel on the Internet–the point is not Jyllands-Posten‘s right to publish but its editorial wisdom, its sense of civic responsibility.
But whether or not the publishing of the cartoons was a reckless provocation, and whether or not the violent response was manipulated by Islamists, we must come to terms with the conditions that created the tinderbox. Cartoons embody larger political and social issues. As Gary Younge notes in this issue, discrimination against Muslims is an objective fact: Racially motivated crimes in Denmark have recently doubled. After the cartoon crisis has passed, that truth will remain.