“There is no god, and we are his prophets”
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
This story would be funny, if it wasn’t tragic. It’s the story of how a dozen comic cartoons contributed to the deaths of roughly 200 people, while Western leaders, and the Western public at large, failed to support the fundamental right of freedom of expression, succumbing to the fear of retribution by religious extremists, in the form of self-censorship and political correctness.
In 2005, a Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) decided to take part in the international dialogue concerning criticism against Islam, in a time when there was tension over the issue, since London had recently been bomb attacked, as Barcelona had been the previous year, adding to the New York attack of 2001; all by Islamist extremists.
The story started with the attempt of Kare Bluitgen to find illustrators for her children’s book The Koran and the life of the Prophet Mohamed, something that proved to be impossible since her three first choices denied the invitation, fearing reprisal against them and their families. Another instance had occupied the European public opinion: In 2004 the Dutch director Theo Van Gogh had been murdered by a fanatic Islamist after the making of a short film about the treatment of women in Islam. The film’s writer and producer, the apostate Ayaan Hirshi Ali, was also targeted with a threat and fled. Mohamed’s depiction, and sometimes any criticism on Islam, is considered a blasphemy by many Muslims; and a blasphemy punishable by death at that. The issue opened up a discussion in Denmark around self-censorship and religious fanaticism, and led the paper to making an experiment in order to establish whether the members of the Newspapers Illustrators Union would feel free to publish cartoons depicting the prophet.
Of the 42 members, only 12 drawings were published in the end. Many newspaper sellers refused to place the particular publication in their selling spots. Reaction to it started immediately by citizens, organisms and ambassadors of Muslim states in Copenhagen. Countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, even the more secular Turkey, insistently asked the prime minister of Denmark to intervene and accused him of inaction, unable to understand that the Danish government has no relation to the newspaper, while the publication did not constitute an illegal action. As the matter started to stagnate, three months after the publication, two Danish Imams set up a dossier with evidence from the case -including the cartoons- and made the rounds in the Muslim world riling up protests. Bear in mind that in those countries the public was unaware of the controversy and that the dossier included three extra drawings that had nothing to do with the Danish publication and were much more provocative than the originals.
Throughout the Muslim world riots broke out, with the death toll reaching 200 and one could witness in demonstrations in Western capitals signs like “death to the blasphemers” and “behead those who offend Islam”. A minister in India offered financial reward to whoever would behead “the Danish cartoonist” who caricatured Mohamed; and another one followed from Pakistan. Many countries of Islam started an embargo on Danish products resulting in 15.5% decrease of the country’s exports the months that followed. The situation exceeded every expectation as Denmark’s embassies in the Middle East received threats from maddening crowds and there was even an abduction of a German citizen in Gaza with the demand from the European Union to apologize for the cartoons (he was later released without injury). The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which in 2015 became the target of an attack in their offices, republished the drawings and Muslim groups took it to court; they were acquitted and the charges were dropped. Francois Hollande testified in favor of freedom of expression. For Charlie, this was the beginning of many attacks over the following ten years (including many threats and a firebomb attack), culminating in the January 2015 shooting.
The editor of Jyllands-Posten and one of the cartoonists (Kurt Westergaard) became the main targets of the fanatics and were forced to live under police protection ever since. Many attempts have been made against them; the most notable happening in 2010, when Westergaard had to hide in his panic room because an extremist decided to chop his head off and, until the police arrived, he was hitting the reinforced door with an axe (remember: tragic, not funny). He remains under constant police protection.
Very few newspapers republished even some of the cartoons, and some only to criticize them. On certain occasions those responsible for the republication were fired. In a clearly erroneous choice of priorities, political leaders in the West hurried to support the freedom of speech and expression…of those who asked for the deaths of the cartoonists!
Who will support the cartoonists, then? Our elected officials and the journalists who make a living on this exact freedom of the press, instead of resisting the barbarity, blamed the victims of an unprecedented injustice. As expected, this stance of politicians was followed by religious leaders –Christians and Jews- knowing that if they supported the satirists in one case -against Islam- they would not have any excuse later to object to any other instance of criticism targeting themselves (like in the cases of The Last Temptation Of Christ, Corpus Christi etc).
Muslim institutions and intellectuals in the Western media, though they claimed they “condemned violence”, insisted that the Danes were at fault for the incidents; that they should have respected the beliefs of their coreligionists and that they felt “deeply offended” by the publication. And these people call themselves “moderates”! It cannot be accepted, they said, for Christianity to be protected by blasphemy laws and, in the same time, Islam to be treated differently. I hope it’s obvious that the present writer is not a supporter of blasphemy laws, which are indeed still a reality in many Western countries even though they are rarely invoked, as I hope it’s obvious that these laws are not to be confused with the paranoid reactions to the Danish cartoons. Who hasn’t seen cartoons with priests, nuns, saints and even Jesus illustrated for mockery and ridicule? Some surely were offended; but how many reached the point of asking to ban such images? (And, moreover, how many asked for the death of the cartoonists?) It is the Islamists who demand for preferential treatment by excluding themselves from criticism. And they demand it with the threat of violence, with arson and axes; things that, ironically, validate the stereotypes they accuse the cartoonists of reproducing.
As we can see here, there is no prohibition in depicting Mohamed in the Koran, but there is in some Hadith. Traditionally, the relevant Hadith that mention the banning are accepted by most Muslims, Sunni and Shiite (even though lately the Shiites have become more tolerant and in the largely Shiite Syria there have appeared many representations of the prophet). So, it is not necessarily that they were annoyed by the image itself, but by the fact that the specific cartoons had negative connotations. These Muslims’ objections are not just about the infringement of an ambivalent religious rule; what they seem to really want is the silencing of every opposing voice, any attempt to ridicule, every critical view on their belief system. Besides, even the imams themselves, that riled up the Muslim world, felt the need to add to the collection an image showing the prophet as a pig –an impure animal in Islam.
In the case of the Danes, however, we’re talking about the actions of non-Muslims, in a non-Muslim secular country, on whom sharia is attempted to be enforced; either after the fact through the punishment of the “guilty” ones (according even to the “moderates”) or proactively through self-censorship (according to the regressives – “they had it coming”) for those who might consider acting similarly in the future.
What we should be doing is write better laws (if present law is inadequate) to ensure security in the open public dialogue and the freedom of expression, against any kind of religious or other attempt to impose a dogma or to rescind a right we should consider to be self-evident. Contrarily, due to a misunderstood notion of what political correctness is, we seem to give up the arms without the slightest struggle.
Still today, whoever decides to recreate the Danish cartoons would rather have to hope they go unnoticed in order for their lives to not change drastically, than that the issue is forgotten. It is no accident the drawings are not republished here, and places like AINA that have posted them, and some Scandinavian newspapers that republished them in 2008 to show solidarity (in light of a yet another conspiracy to assassinate the cartoonists), deserve our respect.
It is indeed incredible that the specific, quite mundane really, images would become the reason for death threats, arson, kidnapping and deaths. But, like someone said, only art has to be believable, reality doesn’t.
We only have a responsibility to not offend the people who support ideas or have beliefs. People do have rights; ideas and religions don’t.
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