The controversial issue of 12 anti-Muslim cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has taken unexpected social and religious dimensions. Ambassadors have been recalled, Danish (and Norwegian) embassies have been torched in Arab capitals, and thousands of angry Muslims have demonstrated from the UK to Yemen, from Indonesia to Afghanistan. If there are people still doubting the impact of emotions potentially created by religion in international affairs, the ongoing controversy is proof to the contrary.
In an interview granted on Feb. 1 to Al Arabiya and reproduced on his website (http://www.stm.dk), Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen emphasized that his government cannot interfere with the press and cannot be held responsible for what the media publishes, although “everybody has a responsibility not to stimulate conflict.” The cartoons were meant to provoke: cartoonists were invited to contribute after an author had complained that nobody dared illustrate his book about Muhammad. By publishing the 12 cartoons, the conservative newspaper wanted to make a statement, but its editor issued a (partial) apology on January 30 for having “offended many Muslims.”
Some non-Muslim journalists now feel that the Danish newspaper acted irresponsibly, comparing it to children playing with fire, according to the newspaper, NZZ am Sonntag, Feb. 5. The US government criticized the cartoons, the Vatican stated that freedom of thought and expression ” cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers,” and the South African high court banned the publication of the cartoons following a request from a Muslim organization. While several politicians have condemned “outrageous cartoons,” The Economist (Feb. 2) observed that it is unclear “how democracies can discourage conflict without clamping down on free expression of opinion.”
Consequences drawn from the controversy vary strongly from one source to another. Preaching at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on Friday Feb. 3, a leading imam rejoiced to see “A great new spirit is flowing through the body of the Islamic nation” (Reuters). Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott observed (Feb. 4) that “If vastly different worldviews can find no accommodation on a subject, then perhaps it’s too early, in human history, to have the conversation.” Some wonder if Muslims – including Muslims living in the West – are becoming inclined to redefine the boundaries of a Western consensus according to which “poking fun at religious figures is acceptable.”
The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League would like to have the issue discussed at the United Nations and to have it pass a resolution banning attacks on religious beliefs (which may lead to unusual political alliances if such a discussion indeed takes place). Beside current post-9/11 debates, the controversy appears also as a witness to the rise of modern transnational media, with a significant impact still to be fully revealed in the religious and political fields: “A local Danish dispute is thus quickly elevated to the level of a global conflict.” (BBC, Feb. 4).
— By Jean-Francois Mayer