Left: Miniature of Muhammed re-dedicating the Black Stone at the Kaaba. From Jami Al-Tawarikh, by Rashid Al-Din, 1324. Edinburgh University Library, ms. 20, fol. 55. Date: 1324-1585. Arabian (Mecca). Right: Norwegian newspaper showing the Danish cartoons (posted on al-Jazira).

Hamlet: ‘By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!– I say, away!–Go on; I’ll follow thee.’ [Exeunt Ghost and Hamlet.]

Horatio: ‘He waxes desperate with imagination.’

Marcellus: ‘Let’s follow; ’tis not fit thus to obey him.’

Horatio: ‘Have after.–To what issue will this come?’

Marcellus: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’

Horatio: ‘Heaven will direct it.’

From Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (I, iv)

By now the whole world knows about a controversial set of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Published in a major Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten), the images are rotten to the core to many Muslims. The rotting has been going on since last September, when the images were first printed, in part as a challenge to find Danish artists not afraid to caricature Muhammad as they have Jesus and other prophets in the past. As an illustration of how fast this story is developing in cyberspace, check out the post on Wi[c]k[ed]ipedia.

No matter what you think of the humor in the drawings, the current situation is no fun for anyone. The outrage of many Muslims worldwide has boiled over in the past few weeks to a remarkable escalation not seen since the days of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. There has been an economic boycott of Danish products, resulting in the
loss of millions of dollars in sales to the Middle East. Some Danish embassies have been closed. Flags have been burnt. An Iraqi insurgent group has called for attacks on the small contingent of Danish troops fighting with the coalition. Republication of the cartoons in Norwegian and French newspapers has led to an ever wider frenzy about a Western conspiracy to defame Islam.

Reconstructing the recent run-a-muck of events is complicated by the charges and counter charges centered on the Western secular notion of “freedom of expression” and beyond that “freedom of the press.” There are only some 150,000 Muslims among Denmark’s 5.4 million inhabitants, amounting to only 3% of the population. But signs of frustration with the perceived separateness of Danish Muslims were evident all last year. In January, 2005 Denmark’s Supreme Court ruled that a supermarket chain had the right to fire a young Muslim woman for wearing an Islamic headscarf to work. In a book published last spring Queen Margrethe of Denmark challenged Danish Muslims to learn to speak better Danish and to try to fit in. What started out as a small ethnocentric brush fire last October is now burning out of control, certainly out of proportion to any practical damage a page of cartoons in a limited circulation Danish newspaper should warrant.

The reminder of Rushdie’s novel is not unique to the secular side of the divide over this issue. A few days ago Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shia Hizbullah party in
Lebanon raised the stakes: “If there had been a Muslim to carry out Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against the renegade Salman Rushdie, this rabble who insult our Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, Norway and France would not have dared to do so.” Following on the damage done to Islam everywhere by extremist terrorist bombings in New York, Madrid and London, such inflammatory rhetoric only serves to validate Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilization” scenario as an accurate view of the future, even if largely wrong for the past and recent present.

I will pass on the issue of whether or not these images pose a serious challenge or threat to Islam as one of the major world faiths. My own view, even as a satirist who idolizes Montesquieu and Swift, is that the best public course is one of “freedom of discretion” at a time when there is such misunderstanding on all sides. Emotions are running high in large part because these Danish artists have produced the strawtoons
that seem to break the camel’s back, so to speak of Muslim frustration. The longer term issue is what impact the current outrage will have on how Muslims and non-Muslims view each other in the years to come. Flag-burning and threats of violence are not likely to be conducive to negotiating better understanding and interfaith dialogue.

To start with there is the issue of whether or not Muhammad as a mortal man can be portrayed in an image. In the Arabian heartland there tended to be few depictions of Muhammad, or at least his face rarely shown in the surviving illustrated manuscripts. A notable exception, and not the only one, is from the Jami Al-Tawarikh by the 14th century Rashid Al-Din; this book was written and illustrated in Mecca. I doubt it caused any riots in the streets at the time; fortunately there was no internet or satellite tv to make it into an issue. It is also debatable if a non-Muslim can be held accountable for drawing a picture of Muhammad, since such an individual is not under Islamic rules. Christians, for example, can drink wine and eat pork, even though Muslims may not. Simply depicting Muhammad is not really the issue, but
rather the sticky point here is portraying Muhammad visually as a terrorist. Verbally there has been no dearth of such vilification stemming back to Dante’s Inferno and before.

Consider a comment posted on the BBC by an Egyptian Muslim who said, “Freedom of speech has its limits when it concerns others… How would it feel if Jesus Christ was the one insulted instead?” In Denmark, which has a long tradition of political satire, as elsewhere caricatures of Jesus and God are so routine as to have become
commonplace. Perhaps the gentleman should go to his Cairo Blockbuster and rent Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Satirists in the West tend to hold nothing sacred, nor are they legally restricted for the most part. So if Al-Jazeera wants to publish obscene pictures of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, it will not result in more than a raising of eyebrows in most of Europe and America. Indeed, Muslims would be more offended by any defaming of Issa the prophet.

An interesting perspective, also from an Egyptian author, comes from journalist Mona Eltahawy in a blog commentary entitlted “A MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLEHILL OVER DANISH CARTOONS.”

“The fracas over the cartoons is a sad testament to the impotence of the Muslim world. That clerics and leaders of Muslim countries gain any sense of power over this issue is a reminder of how powerless they really are and also a reminder, as if we needed one, of the moral bankruptcy of our self-appointed moral guides. It is no wonder that these same moral guides have gone on a power trip over cartoons – after all, clerics in Egypt have been arguing over whether married couples can be naked during sex.

In the midst of they hysteria over the cartoons, here are a few facts we should remember. However offensive any of the 12 cartoons were, they did not incite violence against Muslims. For an example of incitement, though, one must go back a few weeks before the cartoons were published. In August, the Danish authorities withdrew for three months the broadcasting license of a Copenhagen radio station after it called for the extermination of Muslims. Those were real threats and the government protected Muslims – the same government later condemned for not punishing the newspaper that published the cartoons.

Second, the cartoon incident belongs at the very center of the kind of debate that Muslims must have in the European countries where they live – particularly after the Madrid train bombings of 2003 and the London subway bombings of 2005. While right-wing anti-immigration groups whip up Islamophobia in Denmark, Muslim communities wallow in denial over the increasing role of their own extremists.

As just one example, last August Fadi Abdullatif, the spokesman for the Danish branch of the militant Hizb-ut-Tahrir organization, was charged with calling for the killing of members of the Danish government. He distributed leaflets calling on Muslims in Denmark to go to Fallujah in Iraq and fight the Americans, and to kill their own leaders if they
obstructed them. Police in Denmark have been on alert since the London
bombings, after which at least three extremist Web sites warned that
Denmark could be the next target. There are 500 Danish troops working
alongside American and British troops in Iraq.

Not only does Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an organization banned in many Muslim
countries, have a branch in Denmark, but Abdullatif has a history of
calling for violence that he then justifies by referring to freedom of
speech – the very notion the Danish newspaper made use of to publish
the cartoons. In October 2002, Abdullatif was found guilty of distributing racist propaganda after Hizb-ut-Tahrir handed out leaflets that made threats against Jews by citing verses from the Koran. He was given a 60-day suspended sentence.

Abdullatif used the Koran to justify incitement to violence! And we still wonder why people associate Islam with violence?

Muslims must honestly examine why there is such a huge gap between the
way we imagine Islam and our prophet, and the way both are seen by
others. Our offended sensibilities must not be limited to the Danish
newspaper or the cartoonist, but to those like Fadi Abdullatif whose
actions should be regarded as just as offensive to Islam and to our
reverence for the prophet. Otherwise, we are all responsible for those
Danish cartoons.”

This article is based on a column initially published in English in Lebanon’s ‘The Daily Star’ and in Arabic in Egypt’s ‘al-Dostour.’

If you have not yet seen the offending cartoons and wish to, they can be found, along with a series of earlier depictions of Muhammad, click here but note that it takes awhile for the page to load. If you think these are offensive, there is a new site in retalitation with even more negative portrayals — click here.

One thing is certain. Hell rather than heaven is directing this current
cartoongate as far too many people, sincere and otherwise, are waxing
desperate with imagined wrongs. Hopefully we can get past these
cartoons soon and once again deal with the main feature, an on-going
escalation of misrepresentation and misunderstanding creating far too
much clash talking and far too little civil debate.

Daniel Martin Varisco

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