03 February 2006

The Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy

Free-speech vs. hate-speech. Freedom of the press vs. freedom from being oppressed. Reducing the issue of offensive political cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed that were originally published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, to television-sized sound/sight-bites does an injustice to the complexities and nuances of this incident; an incident grows more unfortunate by the hour.

I won't rehash the figure-level debate that is being waged around the world - a debate that (once again) polarizes the West and the non-West; yet again demonstrates that neither side has any interest in truly understanding and appreciating the cultural context of the other (and, "the other," in Habermasian terms). What is far more interesting to me is the back story that has been lost in the noise, the rhetoric, Muslim demonstrations, and Western remonstrations.

If you have yet to see the offensive cartoons, and are so-interested, you can find them here (about 2/3 of the way down the page), along with various depictions of Mohammed throughout history, and in contemporary times. Most are not in any way offensive (aside from the Islamic admonition not to depict humans at all); some are satirical, but not particularly defamatory. However, what struck me as tremendously offensive were the three cartoons that were not among the original twelve printed in the Danish newspaper, but were included in a booklet that a Danish Muslim delegation presented in the Middle East, apparently claiming that they were among the published cartoons.
One issue that puzzles many Danes is the timing of this outburst. The cartoons were published in September: Why have the protests erupted from Muslims worldwide only now? The person who knows the answer to this question is Ahmed Abdel Rahman Abu Laban, a man that the Washington Post has recently profiled as “one of Denmark's most prominent imams.”

Last November, Abu Laban, a 60-year-old Palestinian who ... has been connected by Danish intelligence to other Islamists operating in the country, put together a delegation that traveled to the Middle East to discuss the issue of the cartoons with senior officials and prominent Islamic scholars. The delegation met with Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammad Sayyed Tantawi, and Sunni Islam’s most influential scholar, Yusuf al Qaradawi. ...

On its face, it would appear as if nothing were wrong. However, the Danish Muslim delegation showed much more than the 12 cartoons published by Jyllands Posten. In the booklet it presented during its tour of the Middle East, the delegation included other cartoons of Mohammed that were highly offensive, including one where the Prophet has a pig face. But these additional pictures were NOT published by the newspaper, but were completely fabricated by the delegation and inserted in the booklet (which has been obtained and made available to me by Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet [in Danish, but with slides of each page of the alleged booklet]). The delegation has claimed that the differentiation was made to their interlocutors, even though the claim has not been independently verified. In any case, the action was a deliberate malicious and irresponsible deed carried out by a notorious Islamist who in another situation had said that “mockery against Mohamed deserves death penalty.” And in a quintessential exercise in taqiya, Abu Laban has praised the boycott of Danish goods on al Jazeera, while condemning it on Danish TV.
Why would a Danish Muslim cleric choose to literally inflame the Islamic world on this months-old issue? Why would he knowingly contribute to the global distribution of offensive images of the Prophet Mohammed? While the figure-level debate centres on free-speech vs. hate-speech, the ground issue seems clear to me, (assuming the booklet story is accurate): The controversy is entirely about the manipulative promotion of hate speech - first by so-called leaders against their own, to encourage hate against others.

Cartoon or no cartoon, I cannot believe this is what Mohammed had in mind.

Update (6 Feb 2006): What would prophet Mohammed have done?
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If you like the approach I take to this issue, come see what I say about other things on the main blog page.

1 comment:

Erling Hansen said...

This is a very balanced rendition of the last few months. I can contribute to the history of the cartoons: In August last year Danish author Kåre Bluitgen was looking around for an artist to illustrate his new book about Mohammed. He easily found artists who were willing, but none of them wanted to be credited with their name. Salman Rushdie and the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh were evidence of the danger.
Kåre Bluitgen was interviewed by JyllandsPosten about the new book, and when the editors of the newspaper heard about this selfcensorship, they chose to confront this selfcensorship/the muslim terrorpressure by publishing the 12 cartoons and writing the story about the reason why they were published.

I hope this comment can broaden the understanding of JyllandsPostens actions.
Erling Hansen