Magazine article The New Yorker

Intolerance

Magazine article The New Yorker

Intolerance

Article excerpt

When a dozen cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed appeared in the conservative Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, in September, 2005, there was only a muted outcry from the small Danish Muslim community, and little reaction in the rest of the Muslim world. Six months later, however, riots broke out and Danish embassies were burned; more than a hundred people died. Assassination threats were made, and continue to this day.

Last year, when plans were announced for Cordoba House, an Islamic community center to be built two blocks north of Ground Zero, few opposed them. The project was designed to promote moderate Islam and provide a bridge to other faiths. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Sufi cleric leading the effort, told the Times, in December, "We want to push back against the extremists." In August, the Landmarks Preservation Commission granted Park51, as the center is now known, unanimous approval. A month later, it is the focus of a bitter quarrel about the place of Islam in our society.

The lessons of the Danish cartoon controversy serve as an ominous template for the current debate. One reason for the initial lack of reaction to the cartoons was that they were, essentially, innocuous. There is a prohibition on depictions of the Prophet in Islam, but that taboo has ebbed and flowed over time, and only two of the twelve published cartoons could really be construed as offensive in themselves: one portrayed the Prophet as a barbarian with a drawn sword, which played into a racial stereotype; the other showed him wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb. Newspapers in several Muslim countries published the cartoons to demonstrate that they were tasteless, rather than vicious. The cartoons, in other words, did not cause the trouble.

So what happened? A group of radical imams in Denmark, led by Ahmed Abu Laban, an associate of Gama'a al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian terrorist organization, decided to use the cartoons to inflate their own importance. They showed the cartoons to various Muslim leaders in other countries, and included three illustrations that had not appeared in the Danish papers. One was a photograph of a man supposedly wearing a prayer cap and a pig mask, and imitating the Prophet. (He turned out to be a contestant in a French hog-calling competition). Another depicted a dog mounting a Muslim in prayer. The third was a drawing of the Prophet as a maddened pedophile gripping helpless children like dolls in either hand. The imams later claimed that these illustrations had been e-mailed to them as threats--although they never produced any proof that they hadn't made the drawings themselves--and so were fair representations of European anti-Muslim sentiment. The leaders saw them and were inflamed. The Sunni scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi demanded a Day of Rage. So far, we have had five years of rage.

In the dispute over Park51, the role of the radical imams has been taken by bloggers and right-wing commentators. In this parable, Pamela Geller, who writes a blog called Atlas Shrugs and runs a group called Stop Islamization of America, plays the part of Ahmed Abu Laban. Geller has already contributed to the phony claim that President Obama is a Muslim (which twenty per cent of the American public now believe is true), by promoting a theory that he is the bastard son of Malcolm X. Because of Park51's location, Geller compares the community center (or the "9/11 Monster Mosque," as she terms it) to Al Aqsa, the ancient mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem--a flash point for Jewish extremists in Israel. …

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