by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 35, No. 1, Safar, 1427)
The controversy surrounding Denmark’s offensive cartoons refuses to die down. Demonstrations and protest rallies continue in various parts of the world, including Europe and North America, where Muslims reside as minorities. Some of the largest rallies took place in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan. Another countrywide protest has been called for March 3 inPakistan, with its organizers predicting that a million people will attend. Even in Canada, with a Muslim population of about 750,000, there were rallies on two consecutive weekends, February 11 and 19; thousands of people braved sub-zero temperatures to protest the gratuitous insult to the Prophet of Allah (saw). Similar rallies have taken place around the world. Danish goods and products have also been boycotted, resulting in losses of millions of dollars for Danish companies.
Amid rising tension, Denmark withdrew its ambassadors from Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia, saying that they were not safe. This is not true because Muslim governments provide adequate protection for diplomatic staff, especially from Europe and North America, so the Danes were essentially expressing their displeasure at Muslims taking so much umbrage at “mere” cartoons. The subtext was, why can Muslims not appreciate a bit of humour. Another implied question was, why do Muslims react so violently when provoked? Such arguments are patronizing and clearly reflect the arrogance of those who think they have a right to insult and offend others, but that their victims are not entitled to respond. They expect the victims to put up with such insults because Europeans (and Westerners in general) consider themselves a superior breed above the law.
It is apparent that the victims are no longer prepared to put up with such insult and offence. What needs to be understood is why Muslims react with such passion when the Prophet of Islam, upon whom be peace, is insulted. Such questions are raised by Western commentators who view the world through their own narrow prism and so are unable to appreciate perspectives that are at variance with their own. Muslims attach great importance to the honour of the Prophet, upon whom be peace. The Qur’an commands the believers to recite salutations and blessings each time his name is mentioned (33: 56). In another ayah, the Qur’an tells us: “Allah, His Messenger and the true believers are linked together in honour and might; only the hypocrites do not know this” (63:8).
Muslims have demanded that both the editor of the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten which commissioned and then published these cartoons last September, and the Danish government apologise. On February 19 Carsten Juste, the paper’s editor-in-chief, signed a full-page advertisement in the Saudi paper ash-Sharq al-Awsat, which is printed in London, England. The statement was titled “Apology” in big bold letters and addressed to Muslim citizens. Its text read: “These drawings apparently hurt millions of Muslims around the world, so we now offer our apology and deep regret for what happened because it is far from the paper’s intention...We did not set out to offend or insult any religion. We apologise for being misunderstood and reiterate that we did not intend to target anyone ... I hope this clears the misunderstanding and God bless.” Even a cursory glance at the statement makes it clear that the editor has not apologised for publishing the offensive cartoons, saying only that he is sorry “for being misunderstood”.
The paper’s culture editor, Flemming Rose, was the one who provoked the controversy in the first place. He commissioned these cartoons and published 12 of them in order to “break the taboo” about “not offending Muslims”. Even after worldwide protests the paper’s editors offered a half-hearted apology; the cartoons were republished by seven newspapers in Europe on February 1, obviously with the permission of the Danish paper, with the clear intention of further inflaming Muslim passions. There appeared to be coordination between newspaper editors in Europe; otherwise how could the cartoons be published simultaneously in seven countries? In an interview with the British daily, the Guardian, Jan Lund, foreign editor of Jyllands-Posten, came closer to the truth when he said: “We apologized for hurting the feelings of a lot of Muslims in this. But we don’t apologize for printing the cartoons.”
Along with protests, Muslims discovered another weapon: boycott. With 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, people started a spontaneous boycott of Danish goods and products. Store shelves in the Middle East were emptied of Danish goods. Within days the boycott started to bite. Arla Foods, one of the leading Danish-Norwegian companies, faced losses amounting to $480 million a year. Iran cancelled a number of contracts, and businesses in the Middle East cancelled meetings with Danish companies. Suddenly Muslims discovered their strength and the Danes began to see sense.
It was only after the threat of serious disruption to their exports that the Danish government announced plans to hold a dialogue with Muslims on March 10. Had such a dialogue been held when the Muslims first requested one, soon after the cartoons appeared, the world would have been spared much distress. Muslims have never shied away from dialogue, nor from debating their deen or even the personality of the Prophet, upon whom be peace; what they insist on is that such a dialogue must take place in an environment of mutual respect. The cartoons were intended to insult and provoke, and destroy respect.
Nor is it the case that there are no restrictions in Europe on freedom of speech. In many countries, including Austria, Germany and France, it is an offence to deny the Holocaust, for instance. David Irving, a revisionist British historian, was sentenced to three years in jail in Austria at exactly the same time as the Europeans were screaming themselves hoarse about their freedom to insult the Prophet of Islam (saw). Nobody said a single word about Irving’s freedom of speech. Why is it that such protection is not available to Muslims? Nor is this the only example. When an Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri, announced a Holocaust cartoon contest (which was later withdrawn), and challenged the Danish paper to reprint them, Rose told CNN that he would (International Herald Tribune, February 9). His editor-in-chief immediately sent him on indefinite leave of absence. So much for freedom of speech.
There are laws in Denmark (Section 266b of the Danish Criminal Code) against insulting or degrading people on the basis of “race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religion or sexual inclination.” Offenders can be fined or be imprisoned for two years. Similarly, section 140, dealing with blasphemy, prohibits public mockery or insult to “the doctrines or worship of any religious community that is legal” in the country. In the case of these cartoons both laws were violated, yet the Danish government hid behind the excuse that it could not intervene in the matter. Only after the boycott started to bite did the government in Copenhagen announce that it would consider whether the cartoons have violated Danish laws.
The cartoon controversy, however, must be seen in its larger context. These cartoons did not appear in a vacuum; in fact, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten specifically commissioned them, asking cartoonists to draw caricatures of the Prophet (saw). “Agents of certain persuasion” are behind the egregious affront to Islam in order to provoke Muslims, Professor MikaelRothstein of the University of Copenhagen told the BBC. The American Free Press, a conservative paper published from Washington DC, reported that Rose has close links with Daniel Pipes, a rabidly anti-Muslim ideologue who maintains a website called Campus Watch. This lists the names of university professors who are critical of Israel’s policies. Pipes has compared “militant Islam” with fascism and communism, and is on record as having stated that the only path to peace in the Middle East is through a total military victory for Israel. Rose was so impressed with Pipes that he wrote an article paying tribute to the American neo-con.
Pipes, however, is not alone in spouting such venom. The Danish political establishment has been drifting toward the right under prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. His ruling coalition partner, the People’s Party, has called for a total ban on Muslim immigration; others have called for the expulsion of Muslims from the country. Yet others have said there should be a test to determine whether Muslims in Denmark have culturally assimilated sufficiently before being granted citizenship. Even Margarethe, the Danish queen, has jumped into the controversy, saying that Islam is a “dangerous religion”. When the head of state harbours such views about the second largest religion in the world, it should come as no surprise that newspaper-editors take the liberty of insulting revered personalities of Islam.
Racism and religious bigotry against Muslims are evidently alive and well in Europe.