Friday, February 03, 2006

Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy

I noticed that CNN finally mentioned the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, now that it's escalated. I heard about it for the first time on Monday via, of all things, The Miniatures Page, a web site for miniature games. They mentioned that Cougar's Corner, a Danish web site dealing with miniatures games, was hacked by Muslim hackers. The only reason this site was targeted was, apparently, because it was Danish.

On September 30, 2005, the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed a dozen cartoons featuring the Muslim prophet Muhammad. They commissioned and published the cartoons as a statement about freedom of speech and self-censorship. KÃ¥re Bluitgen is a Danish writer who had great difficulty finding artists to illustrate his children's book on Muhammad. The artists feared violent reprisals by Muslim extremists if they depicted the prophet. The cartoons were the newspaper's response.

The Muslim community, in general, was incensed by the cartoons. Many — including non-Muslims — considered the comics provocative and offensive. Muslims around the world considered it blasphemy.

According to various Hadith (the traditions related to the sayings and doings of Muhammad), the depiction of Muhammad is blasphemy, as it's a form of idolatry. Muslims are to worship god, not Muhammad. The proscription against idolatry makes a certain amount of sense, especially given the extreme level idolatry in the Catholic church in the first millennium, and how Christians often seem to worship Christ over God. The depiction of Muhammad is not entirely proscribed, though. Some schools of Muslim thought feel the depiction of humans at all is wrong, while others compromise by showing Muhammad with his face cloaked in a hood. There are others, still, who think his depiction is okay if it is respectful.

There's no denying that the cartoons were not respectful. One cartoon shows him with a bomb in his turban. Another has a number of figures, including what could be Christ and Buddha, joining Muhammad in a police line up. However, the cartoons brought up an interesting discussion about artists censoring themselves due to the fear of reprisals. Can there be freedom of speech under such circumstances? It was perhaps heavy handed, but it was an important message.

Muslims in Denmark and abroad were furious. On October 19, representatives of 10 Muslim nations asked to speak with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss this alleged "hate speech". Rasmussen declined. He said that he could not interfere with his people's right to free speech, though he said that blasphemy and discrimination could be fought in the courts. The Muslim nations were not content with this response.

The Arab League condemned Denmark in December. On January 10 of this year a Christian newspaper in Norway published the cartoons. Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their Danish ambassadors. Pakistan urged Denmark to penalize the cartoonists. Bahrain demanded action by other Arab leaders. Danish products were destroyed and banned throughout the Middle East. There were protests in Pakistan and mass demonstrations in Iraq. The European Union's Gaza offices were invaded by 15 masked gunmen, who demanded an apology from Denmark and Norway but left without further incident 30 minutes later.

The Danish prime minister apologized to Muslims but also said there was little they could do due to freedom of speech laws.

In the last couple of days papers in Germany, France, Belgium, and Iceland published the cartoons. Gunmen returned to the EU offices in Gaza and declared it closed. The British Islamist group Al Ghurabaa publish an article on their website titled, "Kill those who insult the Prophet Muhammad". Official Muslim government responses called for legal punishments against the cartoonists and restrictions on freedom of speech. A number of Danish web sites have been hacked by Muslim hackers, regardless of political content (or lack thereof).

The Western response is, of course, something different. The United States and Great Britain denounced the publishing of cartoons that could be considered offensive, while at the same time asserting an individual's right to free speech. The British foreign minister praised the restraint of British newspapers in not publishing the cartoons. The EU came out in support of Denmark, claiming that the ban on Danish goods was against world trade regulations. The UN's High Commission on Human Rights is investigating the cartoons to see if they are racist.

Western individuals have been less diplomatic. A number of groups (conservative, liberal, libertarian, white supremacist, pretty much the whole gamut of American politics) have come out in support of Denmark due to freedom of speech concerns. A number of American blogs have called for the purchase of Danish goods in support of freedom of speech.

The situation is escalating, not subsiding. It's entirely possible that a terrorist attack might result.

I haven't seen the cartoons, so I can't really comment on them. I'm all for freedom of speech, but I feel that there has to be some responsibility to it. You don't yell "Fire!" in a crowded room. I'm not a huge fan of cloaking hatred in "freedom of speech". At the same time, I'm most definitely not a fan of restricting speech. It's too easy for a government to declare speech off limits. A democracy only functions when (or, more accurately, because) politicians can't easily stifle criticism.

Muslims should have the right to decry what they think is offensive. That's part of freedom of speech, after all. Banning Danish products may be against trade rules, but you can't make people buy a country's products. I remember in the mid 90s when Spain was poaching in the Grand Banks during the Canadian cod ban. Canadians stopped purchasing Spanish products. That, in itself, is a form of free speech.

However, Muslim countries need to put their money where their mouths are. The cartoons may be blasphemy, but they are nowhere near as offensive as calls for the death of the cartoonists. Muslim nations need to prosecute anyone issuing death threats, particularly if they want to be taken serious when they are "offended".

I'm not holding my breath.

(Edit note: I created this post on Friday night. It was visible until I posted today's entry, after which it disappeared. I'm re-posting it, verbatim.)


Winter said...

Amazing that people take such things personally.

Unknown said...

I once heard an interesting discussion about Islam and how it's going through the same developmental stages as Christianity, only about 600 years later (which ties in neatly with the founding of Islam in the 7th century C.E.).

If the theory is correct, that would put Islam at about the Christian equivalent of the 1400s. If you think of the position of women in society, the strength of Christian clerics, and their view of blasphemy in 15th century Europe, you wouldn't be far off.

At any rate, I suspect the Islamic riots are more than just an expression of outrage. The cartoons were first published four months ago. Little was made of them until politicians in a number of Muslim countries started to raise more heated objections.

I'd be willing to bet that Muslim clerics and politicians have been fanning the flames of discontent, using the cartoons as a symbol of the West's "war on Islam". It makes it easy for them to write the West off without having to deal with tough questions about civil rights and religious freedom.

I don't know if the current round of escalating violence is due to roving bands of men (most of the protesters are men) with nothing better to do, or hooligans who are using this as an excuse for an anarchist party (the Islamic equivalent of a post-sporting event riot), or if there's some sort of feedback loop going on.

The riots don't worry me so much as the fatwah's calling for the death of the cartoonists, and the reluctance of Muslim governments to denounce the death threats.

Winter said...

Do you think if we weren’t a democratic nation, (yet still as wealthy), we would be treated and portrayed the same? I suppose it depends on what type of government we are. Then again I just found out Russia was a federation, and that the word “federation” is in fact not a word invented by star trek lovers.

Unknown said...

The U.S. would be treated pretty much the same as long as it was just as wealthy, just as powerful, and just as visible, regardless of the type of government.

From what I can see, the non-democracies that cry out against the U.S. don't understand the whole concept of representative democracy, anyway, let alone the nuances of voting for one party over another (or why you would vote for a party on one platform though you despise their position on another platform).

Before the U.S. became the premier superpower during World War II, the "most hated nation" status went to Britain, for pretty much the same reasons. Prior to that it was Britain and Spain, and if you go back far enough you can see the same sort of hatred of Rome (though the latter examples were far less benign than the U.S. or even Britain).

As for type of government, the U.S. is a representative democracy, as is Canada. To make it more complicated, the U.S. is a "Presidential system" (or "Congressional system") representative democracy, while Canada is a "Westminster system" representative democracy. Both countries are also federations, since a federation just means that there's a central government with semi-autonomous regional governments. Canada is also a constitutional monarchy. Russia is a semi-presidential representative democracy (chuckle) that is also a federation.

Unknown said...

Oops... meant that before Britain there was France and Spain (not Britain and Spain...)

Winter said...

My God, I so would have copied off of you in school.. :)

Unknown said...

You would have probably failed! *L* Not only is my handwriting poor, I wasn't that great in school, for a number of reasons.

Winter said...

I actually used your entry on my blog, I hope this is okay... if it's not, well then, I guess I'll see you in court. :)