What are the “root causes,” to borrow the terminology of the sectarian left, of the Cartoon Intifada? On Sept. 17 of last year, the liberal Danish newspaper Politiken ran a story about author Kare Bluitgen, whose efforts to write a children’s book on Islam and its chief prophet had been stymied by the fact that no one was willing to illustrate the book. Graphic representations of Muhammad, you see, are absolutely trayf to orthodox Muslims, and the artists whom Bluitgen contacted were mindful of the fates of their countrymen and neighbors who had caused offense to orthodox Muslims in the past, like University of Copenhagen lecturer Carsten Niehbuhr, who was beaten and left on the side of a road, and Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was butchered with a knife in broad daylight.
Two weeks after the original article in Politiken, another Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, ran 12 editorial cartoons satirizing the circumstances under which Danish artists were too fearful for their lives to accept payment for kiddie book illustrations. Consider the timeline: Jyllands-Posten’s alleged profaning of Islam took place in September 2005; an Egyptian newspaper, El Fagr, reprinted some of the cartoons in October; yet it took the aggrieved faithful until February of 2006 to let the world know just how righteous they are by torching the embassies of sovereign states, trampling bystanders to death and forcing artists into hiding.
Why the delay? Between the publication of the cartoons and the attacks on Danish consular buildings, Muslim states began pressuring the Danish government to punish the newspaper. It was only after Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen definitively refused to submit to blackmail and extortion that a non-story of humorlessness among the pious became an international incident, kindling a sometimes figurative, sometimes literal conflagration from Copenhagen to Cairo. In other words, there never was a mass spontaneous outcry against the denigration of Muslim religious beliefs; there was only premeditated and ultimately successful incitement to violence on the part of theocratic bullies.
Denmark has a proud tradition of defying brownshirt tactics — this was the nation that made a conscious, collective effort to save its Jews from extermination and whose king wore a yellow star in solidarity — so it is unsurprising to see the Danes remaining resolute. Outside of Denmark, however, Western reaction to the assault on free speech has run the full gamut from obsequious to craven. Last week a court in Johannesburg ruled in favor of the South African Muslim Judicial Council’s effort to prevent South African newspapers from reprinting the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Editors of newspapers in Poland and Ukraine that did reprint the cartoons have issued nauseating apologies, while Sweden is going so far as to shut down Web sites that carried the images.
In what would amount to a pre-emptive surrender of fundamental freedom, the European Union is considering imposing regulations on media content in an effort, according to E.U. Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Fattini, to “give the Muslim world the message: We are aware of the consequences of free expression.” The most disgraceful reaction of all came — try to act surprised — from the Vatican, which claimed that “the right to freedom of expression does not imply the right to offend religious beliefs.” Thus does Cardinal Ratzinger’s church put us on notice, yet again, that it is positively opposed to individual and civil rights.
The U.S. of A, naturally, will not allow Europe to outdo it at anything, even caving in to death threats, and its luminaries have struck some exemplary profiles in cowardice. Bill Clinton, proving that he can parrot a mullah with nearly as much ease as a Baptist preacher, decried “this appalling example in northern Europe, in Denmark … these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.” The administration followed Clinton by issuing a blanket denunciation of “anti-Muslim images” in an official State Department statement. Neither Clinton, nor President Bush, apparently, has bothered to look at the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Otherwise they could not honestly take the position that the cartoons, with one exception, are anywhere in the neighborhood of bigotry.
True, in one cartoon of the 12, Muhammad’s turban is a bomb, and, who would have guessed it, that one cartoon is better known and more widely discussed than any of the others. (The way to prove the cartoonist who drew it wrong, however, is not to kill him.) In another “total outrage against Islam,” Muhammad is depicted in heaven before a queue of apparent martyrs, shouting, “Stop! We’ve run out of virgins.” Exposing the hypocrisy of slaughter in the name of God’s justice is not an offense; it is an editorial point eminently worth making. Another of the cartoons is not of Muhammad at all, but of a nervous cartoonist attempting to draw Muhammad and at the same time keep all unwelcome eyes away from his composition. Would anyone like to argue that this cartoon denigrates Muslims?
But of course, the reason for the embassy burnings, the promises of murder, the blackmail of civil institutions, is not the light in which a group of Danish cartoonists portrayed Muhammad, but the fact that Danish cartoonists portrayed Muhammad at all. And while Muslims have every right to abhor visual representations of their prophets, they have no right — none whatsoever — to prevent non-Muslims from drawing whatever pictures they want to. This is not a matter of tolerance of Muslim beliefs, but of whether or not we non-believers are prepared to submit ourselves, out of fear, to Islamic law. Capitulation to the bullies is not a sign of an abundance of intellectual sophistication, but a severe lack of self-respect.
Daniel Koffler is a senior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.