- On September 30, 2005 twelve
cartoons depicting Mohammad the Prophet were published in the Danish
newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Admitting that cartoonists generally were reluctant
to work with him on illustrations for a children's book on Mohammad the
Prophet, the writer, Kare Bluitgen, reportedly commissioned and published
these cartoons to illustrate how difficult it was to get people to work
on this subject. It took several months for this blooper to become common
knowledge in the outside world, but the result has been predictably chaotic.
- The crisis, according to one report, was precipitated
by a young Islamic scholar in Denmark who hand delivered the cartoons to
leading Arab officials and clerics. This young activist Ahmad Akkari now
appears to admithow much he underestimated how volatile publishing the
cartoons could be. Certainly the creator now knows why illustrators were
reluctant to work on his book, but that is only the first lesson.
- Islamic religious aversion to images of people or animals,
especially images of God or the prophets, is well known, probably even
in Denmark. In Christendom, outside of images on the ceiling of the Sistine
Chapel of the Vatican, godly depictions are rare. Even mention of the
name of God is often frowned upon and is written by some as g-d to avoid
full reference. Most societies, regardless of the specifics of their beliefs,
are circumspect about references to their deity. This subject is not,
therefore, the proper subject of flippant discourse in any society.
- Westerners as a group may have become fairly casual about
various biblical references, and cartooning, even of delicate subjects,
is actually a commonplace way of raising certain issues without offense.
The offense, if any might be taken, may be diminished in some societies
by cartooning, and cartoons about some subjects may make people angry,
but rarely at the cartoonist. Some would class this state of mind as a
sign of western moral decay, but others might class it as a sign of maturity.
- Whatever the case, any detachment about religious matters
has been achieved by a relatively small number of Muslims. Aniconism, the
aversion to images, including not depicting images of the Prophet, is an
Islamic practice that has outlasted generations of exposure to the outside
world, and it presently resides among the strongest of Islamic core beliefs.
Mosques, old or new, are often elegant studies in geometric designs and
Arabesque wood work, and mosque windows (mashrabia) are often screened
with finely turned and finished lathe work. But there are no human or
animal images in them.
- In quiet global times, when there were no significant
disagreements between Islamic countries and the West, the Danish cartooning
gaffe might have passed with relatively little note. It would in no case
have been ignored, but it came on top of a pile of provocations: The invasions
of Afghanistan and Iraq, the War on Terrorism that US and increasingly
European officials and media refer to as a clash of civilizations, the
increasing poverty of many Islamic societies, the readiness of certain
individuals and groups to use this gaffe to their own advantage, and the
ready global circulation of any story together rendered the climate to
say the least poor for an offense against Mohammad the Prophet. In this
regard, a Bush team decision to tie the crisis to its Middle East agenda
by blaming Iran and Syria only further inflames Islamic emotions.
- Danish journalists, the Government of Denmark, and media
allies in many countries have argued that publishing the cartoons is covered
by freedom of speech, that is, in the United States, speech that is protected
by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. In a waspish defense of
that argument, the cartoons have been published worldwide on the Internet,
in the newspapers of 20 countries or more, and in one US newspaper.
- That sounds all well and good, but none of the media
organizations taking this position would publish a cartoon of an Israeli
rabbi with a bomb fuse in his skull cap, even though there have been some
fairly rabid ones. Nor would they publish an image of Jesus Christ holding
a hand grenade with his arm drawn back to throw it, even though a number
of Christians openly support violence. The image of Mohammad the Prophet
with a bomb fuse in his turban is no less offensive.
- None of those images would pass muster in the US as "protected
speech". In fact, predictably all of them would have the same effect
as shouting fire in a crowded theater. Not everybody who heard about them
or saw them would be angered enough to react violently, but some would.
- The publication of the cartoons was at a minimum thoughtless.
Reactions have been excessive, but such effects in the present state of
world affairs were totally predictable. Justifying the publication as
an act of free speech is a dangerous example of a growing Western habit
of looking down its nose at the sensibilities of Islamic peoples.
- It is time for serious fence-mending, starting with recognizing
that even if the cartoons were an innocent stupidity, they were potentially
offensive to one out of six people on the planet. Even if real and determined
work is attempted to repair the damage, it is unlikely to be successful
in the short run. Both the reactions to the cartoons and the task of cleaning
up after them are closely linked to past and proclaimed future western
policies and actions toward Islamic societies.
- The writer is the author of the recently published work,
_A World Less Safe_, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist
on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US
Department of State who held several senior diplomatic positions, including
Consul General, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Deputy Director of the State Department
Office of Counterterrorism, and Chairman of the Department of International
Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.