Magazine article New Internationalist

Cartoon Conflict

Magazine article New Internationalist

Cartoon Conflict

Article excerpt

This has been a non-debate. Only about one per cent of the people who discuss the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad deny the principle of freedom of speech, and only about one per cent deny that such freedoms should be exercised responsibly. There is no deep disagreementconcerning these fundamental moral principles but this controversy has demonstrated how intensely difficult it is to translate such almost selfevident principles into coherent practice on a global scale. Rather than discussing the rights and wrongs of the affair, I want to turn to the lessons it teaches.

Let's start at the beginning. The lyllands Fasten (Jutland Post) is a right-of-centre Danish daily paper. It circulates in a country that, since January 2005, has been governed by a minority coalition of liberal and conservative parties, who are in turn dependent on a far right-wing party, the Danish People's Party, which won 13.2 per cent of the votes in the 2005 elections. This government has passed laws severely restricting immigration. The Danish People's Party campaigns for a still tougher anti-immigration policy and explicitly targets Muslims in its pronouncements. There are approximately 200,000 Muslims resident in Denmark, about 3.7 per cent of the total population. Many are now leaving Denmark for more liberal Sweden.

Early in 2005 a Danish author of children's books, Kare Bluitgen, intended to write a biography of Muhammad. He wanted pictures for his work: to his surprise, no illustrator was willing to draw them. Was this out of fear of reprisals from Muslim terrorists? Or out of respect for the Muslim convention that the Prophet should not be depicted? Bluitgen contacted thejyllands Fasten, whose editor quickly decided that this constituted a case of 'self-censorship' and that his paper had to defend Denmark's tradition of freedom of expression. There is more to this than meets the eye: in 2003, the same paper had refused to publish caricatures of Jesus on the grounds that they would be offensive. But in the increasingly xenophobic, anti-immigrant atmosphere of 2005, no one in the Jyllands Fasten seemed concerned about the offence that their cartoons might cause Muslims.

Danish Muslims objected almost immediately. On 19 October 2005, three ambassadors from Muslim countries requested a meeting with the Danish Prime Minister to register their concern: he refused to meet t|iem. This point is significant. The first impression that many Muslims gained from this affair was that the muchvaunted structures of freedom of speech did not work for them: while the militant London cleric Abu Hamza could be imprisoned on charges of inciting hatred, David Irving imprisoned for Holocaust denial and Ken Livingstone suspended from office for some stupid antisemitic remarks, there appeared to be no potential legal redress for Muslims offended by these cartoons.


Twelve cartoons were published: some have captions attached, but the most controversial of them does not, beyond the single word 'Muhammad'. This cartoon showed a bearded, curiously Indian-looking face, wearing a bomb with a burning fuse in place of a turban. There was a single, carefully written verse, in Arabic, on the turban. It reads 'There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah'-the single most important phrase in Islam. The presence of this verse suggested that the illustrator had researched the topic and knew what he was doing: the insult his work presents was not simple carelessness or stupidity. Despite these words, this image is principally visual and - just like prehistoric cave-paintings - it is extremely difficult to assign a fixed meaning to this non-verbal image. To an extent, each viewer is free to devise their own interpretation.

For the Jyllands Fasten, the drawings were 'sober', and constituted a contribution to 'an ongoing public' debate on freedom of expression' (Jyllands Posten, 8 February 2006). For a number of right-wing liberals, the cartoons were a part of a joyous European satirical tradition. …

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