February 4, 2006 - The publication last September of twelve satirical cartoons about Muhammad in a Danish newspaper and their recent reprinting have set off a violent storm of protest throughout the Muslim world whose fury is only increasing.
Here is just some of the fallout:
The U.S. reaction is indeed bizarre. A State Department spokesman stated:
These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims. We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.
This effectively blames the violence not on those who committed it but on the cartoonists! By simply publishing a political satire, they supposedly "incited" religious and ethnic hatred. This is appeasement raised to a fine art.
One thing must be made clear at the outset, if it is not already obvious. Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity. It is a religion that embodies a collection of ideas which, among other things, incites people to violence when other people simply exercise their right to speak freely. No idea should ever be held immune from criticism. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize any religion, including Islam. A sharp distinction must be made between criticizing Islam as a religion or set of ideas and inciting hatred against Muslims as a group, which is totally impermissible.
Muslims for their part have shown no hesitation to attack the religion or ethnicity of others. Newspapers in many Arab countries publish blatantly anti-Semitic cartoons, and no one utters a protest. They also continue to publish and broadcast the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic tract that even the Nazis used in their anti-Jewish propaganda. And talk about inciting religious hatred: nobody protested when Syrian television showed documentaries in prime time portraying rabbis as cannibals. For Muslims now to scream about religious or ethnic prejudice because a Danish paper printed twelve silly cartoons is profoundly hypocritical.
Is Muhammad really so weak that twelve stupid Danish cartoons are a threat to him so huge as to justify violence in his defense?
All over the world Islam is being used to justify violence, and the world looks the other way. In the greatest mosques of Saudi Arabia, the center of Sunni Islam, and Iran, the center of Shiite Islam, as well as in mosques in many other parts of the world, not just cartoons but truly venomous religious and ethnic hatred is preached repeatedly, but because there is no violent reaction against it the preachers of hate get a free pass. Meanwhile this hatred is building to a boil that may one day plunge the entire world into catastrophe. And we are making a fuss about twelve Danish cartoons.
Some Muslims have criticized the Danish cartoons as encouraging a confusion between "real" Islam and the Islamic extremism of terrorist groups. But if the two are really different and are being confused, what is causing the confusion, Danish cartoons or the worldwide violence perpetrated in the name of Islam? Wouldn't the best way to dispel such confusion be for Muslims who oppose the violence to speak out against it? Where are those moderate Muslim voices? A few people in the street, if one can find them, are not enough. We have a right to expect official Muslim authorities and teachers to come out publicly against religiously inspired violence. Where are they?
Dalil Boubakeur, head of France's Muslim Council, condemned the cartoons as an indication of what he calls Europe's growing "Islamophobia." But why should people not be suspicious of Islam, if twelve satirical cartoons are enough to trigger violence and threats of violence across the world with no official religious organ within Islam speaking out against it?
The passion behind this protest certainly makes one wonder about Muslim denunciations of terrorism. This worldwide protest against cartoons shows that Muslims are capable of a strong unified response when something really moves them. In comparison Muslim protests against terrorism are tepid, when they exist at all. If "militant" Islam is not the "real" Islam, then where is the passion against the "hijacking" of the religion? The true blasphemy is not cartoons. It is violence in the name of God. Where is the unified, passionate response against this blasphemy? Instead, there are only more threats of holy violence including beheading, no empty threat since Muslim extremists have already carried it out. What are non-Muslims supposed to think? With no visible evidence, the claim that the majority of Muslims disavow religious violence rings hollow. One wants to believe it, but confirmation is hardly overwhelming. Meanwhile these loud and violent mass demonstrations all over the world give credence to the worst possible image Westerners have of Islam.
Why do we feel the passion of Muslims only in expressions of hate against non-Muslims? Where is the passionate protest against the kidnapping of Christian Science Reporter Jill Carroll, whose life is in great danger as I write this? Where was the passion against the murder of Margaret Hassan, the British humanitarian worker who married an Iraqi, became an Iraqi citizen, and worked for thirty years to help the Iraqi people? Yet portray Muhammad as a man of violence, when even the Arabic biographies confirm that is exactly what he was, and the murderous passion of Islam surfaces.
This is not the first time Muslims have responded with violence at the perception of an offense to their religion. In 2002 over two hundred people died when Muslims erupted in riots after a Nigerian newspaper published an article suggesting that Muhammad might have chosen to marry one of the beautiful contestants in the Miss World Pageant that was being held in Lagos.
I am not suggesting that insulting Islam is a proper thing to do. And in the Nigeria case, it does not even seem that an offense was intended. But it should be obvious that speech is no excuse for violence, especially violence against people who had nothing to do with the perceived offense. Those who criticize the speakers and writers while apologizing to people who threaten violence or commit violent acts are nothing more than cowards.
We need a healthy debate about religion, not just Islam but all religion. Extreme forms of religion tend to set groups of people against each other, in stark contradiction to the values most religious people claim to profess. Islam in particular seems especially volatile, capable of inflaming hatred of grand proportions at the slightest provocation. We must be allowed to talk about this. Perhaps if discussing this topic were permitted, people wouldn't have to draw cartoons.
Associated Press. Cartoon Row: Danish Embassy Ablaze." CNN.com, February 4, 2006.
Barzak, Ibrahim. Protests Over Muhammad Cartoons Escalate." Washington Post, February 3, 2006.
BBC News. Nigeria riots toll 'passes 200'." BBC News World Edition, November 24, 2002.
CNN News Staff. Muslim Protesters Target Embassies over Cartoons." CNN.com, February 4, 2006.
Fattah, Hassan M. Caricature of Muhammad Leads to Boycott of Danish Goods." New York Times, January 31, 2006.
Fisher, Ian. Tens of Thousands Protest Cartoon in Gaza." New York Times, February 3, 2006.
Hudson, Saul. U.S. Backs Muslims in Cartoon Dispute." Reuters, February 3, 2006.
New York Post Editorial Staff. Bushies Betray Free Speech." New York Post, February 4, 2006.
Reuters News Staff. Muslims Attack Danish Embassy Building in Jakarta." New York Times, February 3, 2006.
Smith, Craig S. and Ian Fisher. Temperatures Rise Over Cartoons Mocking Muhammad." New York Times, February 3, 2006.
Soltis, Andy. Going Atomic over a Comic." New York Post, February 4, 2006.
Picture Credit: Recent photos from London of demonstrators against the Danish cartoons, collected by Michelle Malkin.
Peace with Realism