The controversy over the 12 caricatures of Muhammad published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has exploded into a global scandal, complete with angry demonstrations, defiant republications of the cartoons in newspapers across Europe, diplomatic démarches and withdrawn Arab envoys, a boycott of Danish goods in the Middle East, gunmen at the European Union’s office in Gaza, and calls for calm amid fears of more tumult to come. (You can see the cartoons here.)
News agencies settled on “Muslim outrage” as a shorthand to describe the uproar over the cartoons. This is accurate but tells only part of the story. In the Arab world, press reactions revealed additional nuances in what is the biggest international wrangle over freedom of expression and respect for Islam since Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
The caricature that has sparked the loudest outcry depicts Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. Muhammad al-Hamadi, writing in the United Arab Emirates’ Al-Ittihad, argued that the perception of a link between Islam and terrorism is not merely a figment of European cartoonists’ imaginations: “The world has come to believe that Islam is what is practiced by Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Zarqawi, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and others who have presented a distorted image of Islam. We must be honest with ourselves and admit that we are the reason for these drawings. Any harm to the Prophet or Islam is a result of Muslims who have come to reflect the worst image of Islam and certain Arabs who have not conveyed faithfully the life and biography of the Prophet.”
Al-Hamadi criticized Denmark as well for picking the wrong issue for a stand on principle: “If Denmark has tried to teach Arabs and Muslims a lesson in respect for the country’s constitution and its laws, I believe it did not succeed in choosing the right issue. The justification that one must respect the constitution that guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to denigrate others, was not appropriate—this is the trap that Denmark fell into.”
Abdallah Bin Bakhit, writing in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Jazirah, used the popular boycott of Danish goods to direct subtle criticism at the Arab world’s weak institutions: “All of the pressure that we see being exerted on the Danish government and on Danish public opinion is simply spontaneous pressure, supported by a few businessmen, that began with the man in the street and will end with him. The Danish goods that are today disappearing from store shelves will be back in a few days as though nothing had happened. Muslims are the strongest people in the world when it comes to individual reactions and the weakest when it comes to institutionalized operations. Events have taught us that every reaction to such attacks on Islam (wherever they may take place) ends with institutionalized responses aimed at sapping the popular, local anger, but not at treating the issue in the place where it broke out.”
In an op-ed in the pan-Arab daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, Muhammad Karishan drew a slightly different, but no less critical, lesson from the boycott, contrasting it favorably with the ineffectual efforts of Arab diplomats: “It is now clear that the pictures of Danish goods being thrown from supermarket shelves are a thousand times more eloquent than the efforts of Arab ambassadors in Denmark to meet with the prime minister, who refused even to receive them.”
Egypt’s Al-Ahram celebrated the boycott in an editorial, calling it a “civil-society initiative” and warning that Muslim governments should leave the action to their citizens to avoid a detrimental multilateral escalation.
Sati Nur al-Din had little use for either cartoonists or boycotts in an op-ed in Lebanon’s Al-Safir. Calling the Danish newspaper’s decision to publish the caricatures a “grievous error, most likely intentional,” Nur al-Din chided Arabs for a response that “that does not become them or their history and does not contribute to fixing their strained relations with the West.” Looking back, Nur al-Din reminded readers that the Ayatollah Khomeini used the Rushdie affair to undermine Iranian revolutionaries seeking a rapprochement with the West. By way of contrast, he concluded, “The Arabs and Muslims who are moving today against Denmark, its products, and embassies, are not exploiting the caricature issue for any political goal, as Khomeini did. Rather, they are sending what is by any standard the wrong message, choosing a foolish pretext for what is really a caricature of a battle.”
A persistent theme in the press’s response was the gap between European concern over anti-Semitism and indifference to the denigration of Islam. Abdallah Bin Bakhit asked, “While the Danish government claims that the publication of the caricatures falls under freedom of opinion as guaranteed by the Danish Constitution, would it respond with the same claim if a researcher had published a report on the Holocaust challenging the official opinion imposed by Jewish organizations?”
Husayn Shabakshi wrote in the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, “Anti-Semitism is unacceptable, and the Danish caricatures would not have been published if they had depicted a Jewish rabbi, for example.” He continued, “Jews have succeeded in criminalizing any critical mention of Jews as anti-Semitism, subjecting anyone who engages in this to harsh punishments. Today, it is necessary for serious Islamic organizations to make concerted efforts in the international arena to criminalize infringements on Islam.”
Taking a broader view, Ahmad Abd-al-Husayn noted in Iraq’s Al-Sabah that a collision of two basic rights lies at the heart of the controversy: “In the name of freedom, which is one human right, dignity, another sacred right, is trampled. What has gone wrong? Which should win out? Freedom of expression and action, the highest of the arts and most precious endowment of humankind on this earth, or the free will to sanctify the symbols and beliefs that order the existence of nations and cultures?” The author continued, “The shameful drawing by this Dane is nothing but an extreme example, one of numerous examples in which freedom stands in opposition to itself. For the free press has allowed al-Qaida to reach every home via television and the Internet. But we know what al-Qaida thinks of the free press. It is sufficient to recall the obliteration of television in Kabul when it was ruled by the ‘commander of the faithful.’ ” In closing, Abd-al-Husayn warned, “The denigrators of the prophets are not free. They are using freedom as a weapon in a war that no one will win.”