Prophet Disarmed: A Dozen Drawings as a Litmus Test for Freedom | Freedom House

Prophet Disarmed: A Dozen Drawings as a Litmus Test for Freedom

The Weekly Standard, by Arch Puddington


The Cartoons That Shook the World
by Jytte Klausen
Yale, 240 pp., $35

In early October, a German publishing house, Droste, canceled the publication of a murder mystery about honor killing out of fear that passages in the book might incite violent retaliation from Islamic extremists. That decision was the latest in a depressing series of capitulations by publishers, opera houses, and government agencies in what might be called the post-cartoon era. Whether in Europe or the United States, few today are willing to risk the consequences endured by Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper which, in a single edition in 2005, published 12 cartoons that either depicted the Prophet Muhammad or dealt with Islamic themes.

The ensuing response--fatwas and death threats directed at the cartoonists and JP editors, boycotts of Danish products, the torching of embassies, deadly riots in a dozen cities--have clearly had the proverbial chilling effect at the level of elite media and culture. In the years since they appeared, a segment of conventional wisdom has concluded, or rationalized, that the cartoons represented an offense to Muslim believers and that, henceforth, no word or image should appear in public that "defamed" Islam. More disturbing, a process of redefining the meaning of freedom of expression has been initiated, pushed along by an aggressive and shrewd lobbying effort launched by governments notorious for their disdain for democratic liberties.

How did the democratic world reach this state of affairs? Some of the answers can be found in The Cartoons That Shook the World, Jytte Klausen's astute interpretive history of the crisis. Her thesis is that the cartoon crisis did not derive from a clash of civilizations between Islamic and Western cultures, as many asserted at the time, but should be regarded as a political struggle with both Danish and international dimensions. A Danish scholar currently residing in the United States, Klausen is well informed about contemporary Danish politics and seems to have interviewed just about everyone who played an important role in the crisis, including key figures in the Muslim world.

The cartoons were the idea of Flemming Rose, the JP's culture editor. Rose was concerned about what he saw as a creeping self-censorship throughout Europe on Muslim-related issues--withdrawals of paintings from museum exhibit halls, difficulty in finding illustrators for children's books on Muslim themes, and so forth. He also believed that a double standard was emerging in which Islam and its icons were treated with exaggerated respect and not subject to the same kind of probing and, occasionally, mocking treatment that is meted out to other faiths or institutions of national pride. To challenge these self-imposed inhibitions, Rose hit on the idea of using cartoons in order to break two taboos: first, the taboo against criticizing Muslims; and second, the taboo against artistic portrayals of Muhammad. He asked members of the cartoonists' union (yes, Denmark has a cartoonists' union) to draw the prophet "as you see him."

The 12 cartoons were published on September 30, 2005. Contrary to the mythology that all depicted and ridiculed the Prophet, most, in fact, dealt with purely Danish issues. Some poked fun at far-right politicians; others depicted Muslims as victims. At least two, however, were meant to draw a connection between Islam and violence. Front and center here was the infamous depiction of a seated Muhammad with a bomb embedded in his turban.

The initial response was restricted to Denmark. Protests directed at JP were led by a group of imams and mosque activists of extremist pedigree; the most notorious imam subsequently relocated to Lebanon, where he is believed to play a role in radical Sunni politics. While Denmark's Muslim community found the cartoons irritating, few were willing to follow the lead of the radical imams, and the issue quickly faded away.

Having failed to stir the anger of local Muslims, the imams' next move was to internationalize the struggle. In December a delegation of Danish imams traveled to Egypt, apparently at the invitation of Egyptian officials, where they presented a portfolio of grievances to religious leaders, government figures, and leaders of such organizations as the Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Their dossier was not limited to the original cartoons: It included statements by anti-immigrant Danish politicians and, significantly in light of subsequent events, cartoons of a sexual and deliberately offensive nature that had not appeared in JP.

Arab leaders decided that the cartoons would be a useful weapon to advance both domestic and international political agendas. They circulated the cartoons (including the false ones) to audiences throughout the Middle East, encouraged the press and clerics to proclaim outrage, and announced boycotts and diplomatic sanctions against Denmark. The campaign to stir up the masses quickly spun out of control: By late January, four months after the JP cartoons appeared, mobs incited by al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other extremist groups, as well as websites, text messages, and transnational television networks, attacked Danish targets throughout the Middle East and Africa. Several hundred died in the upheaval, almost all Muslims.

While much of the world interpreted the frenzied reaction as emblematic of Muslim rage against an offense to their religion, Klausen sees the controversy as driven by more calculated motives. She notes that the cartoon furor coincided with the efforts of the Bush administration to promote the expansion of democracy in the Middle East, a pillar of the administration's strategy to confront the roots of extremism and terrorism. Egypt was to occupy a central position in that strategy, and Klausen contends that the Mubarak regime actively sought to whip up mass emotions over the cartoons in order to deflect the West's attention from the democracy agenda. The Egyptians, she suggests, were sending a not-so-subtle message that the volatile Arab masses require a strong, controlling hand. Indeed, she notes that the Muslim Brotherhood, which at the time was registering some modest political gains, regarded the cartoon controversy as irrelevant and a diversion from Egypt's most pressing problems.

Thus it was the autocracies of the Middle East that pounded home the interpretation of the cartoon uproar as a clash of civilizations--cynically, but effectively--to send a warning to the United States against its plans for Middle East democratization. At the same time, Arab regimes exploited those same cartoons to influence events in the West, especially in Europe. Here the message was that Europe should control its extremists, including mainstream newspapers such as Jyllands-Posten, just as the Arab leadership was keeping its extremists under thumb.

While she is scrupulous in placing the events within their relevant political context--she is especially good at describing Denmark's hard-edged immigration politics--Klausen neglects to mention the horrible series of killings, often done on camera and placed on the Internet, in Iraq and elsewhere, and justified by perpetrators on religious grounds. Clearly, these murders were an important influence on the bomb-in-a-turban depiction, a drawing that falls within the boundaries of the tradition of political cartooning. The fact that it was open to differing interpretations--some, including the artist, saw it as a statement about the hijacking of religion by fanatics; others saw it as linking Islam to violence--only reinforces its artistic legitimacy.

And while Klausen conveys unusual insight into the furor's geopolitical repercussions, she seems reluctant to acknowledge the potential impact on free speech. This may, in part, stem from her misgivings about Flemming Rose and other editors at Jyllands-Posten. In her earnest search for evenhandedness and intellectual consistency, Klausen recounts every statement and action that might suggest poor judgment or impure motives on the newspaper's part, or on the part of the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. While she is a committed free speech advocate (she is dubious about the usefulness of Europe's pervasive Holocaust denial laws), Klausen seems ambivalent about which offends her more: the journalists who published the cartoons or the autocrats whose actions resulted in mayhem and death.

One also wonders about Klausen's assertion that the controversy "may one day result in an act of restitution to Muslims." In the wake of the cartoons, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has carried out a relentless campaign to enshrine the defamation of Islam in international law. The OIC's success has been modest, but the flaccid response of the democracies in response to an attack on a core value of freedom is not reassuring. And while many devout Christians were highly critical of the cartoons as an offense to another faith, other critics in the democratic world have clearly been motivated by apprehension over the prospect of further violence.

This brings us to the refusal of Yale University Press to include both the cartoons and representations of Muhammad as depicted by artists through the centuries in The Cartoons That Shook the World. In an explanatory note, the publisher reports that it consulted "extensively" with "experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as with leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies." The conclusion of these experts was that republishing the cartoons "ran a serious risk of instigating violence." Klausen is surely right in stressing the Arab leadership's manipulation of the cartoons to fortify its response to demands for democratization. Her analysis, however, would have been stronger had she stressed the critical role that intimidation, on one side of this struggle, and retreat from principle, on the other, have played in bringing us to our current predicament.

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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