Cartoons of Prophet Spark Boycott by Arabs

By Jeffry Mallow

Published February 03, 2006, issue of February 03, 2006.
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Denmark has become, much to its tolerant citizens’ bewilderment, the target of an international Muslim boycott, in protest of what international Muslim groups call Denmark’s “aggressive campaign waged against Islam and its prophet.”

“Boycott” actually understates the case. In the past week alone, crowds of angry Muslims in several Arab countries burned the Danish flag, a mob attacked European Union offices in Gaza and at least two Danes were beaten in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Denmark; Libya closed its embassy, and Iraq, Iran, Jordan and Sudan lodged official protests. A meeting of Arab interior ministers in Tunis demanded that Denmark punish the “authors” of the offense. Danish products were taken off the shelves in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain and other countries, forcing one Danish dairy firm to lay off 800 workers. The European Union trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, struck back with a threat to haul the Saudis before the World Trade Organization. Muslim states replied by submitting a complaint to the United Nations. At midweek the dispute was growing into a full-scale global confrontation between Islam and the West.

The cause of the fury? A dozen cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper last September, depicting the Prophet Muhammad in satiric guises. One showed him with a fuse attached to his turban; another showed him telling dead suicide bombers that he had run out of virgins to reward them.

The newspaper, mass-circulation daily Jyllands-Posten, published the cartoons as part of a tongue-in-cheek contest, after a local author publicly complained that he could not find an illustrator for his biography of Muhammad. The cartoons prompted protests by Arab ambassadors, but the affair blew over quickly.

It erupted again in mid-January when the cartoons were republished in a Norwegian magazine, this time drawing angry attention across the Muslim world. The protests are focused, for the most part, not on the cartoons’ tone, but on the mere fact of them. Muslim religious law forbids any depiction of Muhammad. Pundits across the Arab world say Denmark transgressed that sensitivity.

Jyllands-Posten will never win any awards for good taste. Several years ago, during a petition campaign against anti-Israel bias in the press, the paper saw fit to publish a letter from a Dane who tried to discredit the petition by counting its “Jewish names.” (Of course he got it wrong, targeting Vikings named Weber and missing Jews named Mallow.)

This time, the newspaper actually apologized for its unintended insult to Muslims — but not for publishing the cartoons, citing the inalienable right of news organizations to free expression.

The Danish government took the same tack. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen took strong exception to the content of the cartoons but reiterated the right of the press to free expression, however ill advised.

But the furor has not died down. The 55-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference declared this week that Denmark’s refusal to censor its newspapers was, oddly, “an affront to free expression.” Abu Bashar, a local Danish imam who is a chaplain at Nyborg State Prison, told the BBC — falsely — that the cartoons showed Muhammad with a pig’s nose and ears. Two Danish Protestant bishops replied that the burning of the Danish flag, which has a cross as its pattern, was a desecration of Christianity.

Danish intellectuals have offered a variety of proposals to de-escalate the crisis. A lecturer at Syddansk University’s Middle East Institute, Helle Lykke Nielsen, proposed that the prime minister and foreign minister travel the Arab states on an apology tour. (Not likely; several Arab governments already have warned the two to stay away.) Aarhus University professor Mehdi Mozaffari counseled the opposite: “Keep cool. Once Fogh [Rasmussen] has apologized, the next thing will be [a demand for] apologies from the queen and the parliament.”

Danes themselves seem shocked. They are, after all, citizens of a country that has opened its doors to tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants in recent decades. They have been generous in their support, monetary and political, for the Palestinian cause. Danish public debate, strongly pro-Israel a generation ago, has followed the general European shift toward the Palestinians. Just days before the Palestinian election, Denmark’s Channel 2 Television rebroadcast a 2002 documentary on the “Jenin massacre,” reviving the now-discredited slur that Israel perpetrated a mass killing in the West Bank city. The film was a tendentious mélange of anti-Israel propaganda that somehow never mentioned the U.N. investigation showing the “massacre” to be a fabrication.

Then again, the same Channel 2 broadcast a program this week on the 1969 American moon landing. This gave equal time to crackpots who say that the whole thing was faked. Perhaps nothing should be surprising in a country that has as its national hero a teller of fairy-tales, Hans Christian Andersen.

For all that, the boycott has brought to the surface a simmering resentment that many Danes feel toward their country’s Muslim minority. A mixture of Arabs, Turks and Kurds, Muslims make up about 3% of Denmark’s population of 5.3 million. As in much of Europe, the Muslim minority remains outside the mainstream, unassimilated and largely alienated from Denmark’s freewheeling culture.

In the face of continual lecturing from high-minded liberals who blame it all on Danish racism, a public backlash has arisen. The satirical cartoons in Jyllands-Posten are merely one example.

More soberly, observers compare the Muslim immigration to the earlier immigration of Jews fleeing communist Poland in the late 1960s. The Jews, critics note, all have integrated and given their children Danish citizenship. Many Muslims have done neither.

As in France and the Netherlands, the anti-Muslim backlash has a political edge. The far-right, anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party, riding anti-Muslim resentment, emerged as the third largest party in the past two parliamentary elections, in 2001 and 2005, with 13% of the vote.

This week, the talk was turning nasty. Some press commentators were calling for a counter-boycott of Muslim shops in Denmark. Happily, most mainstream voices rejected the tactic. Some moderate Muslims, such as leftist parliamentarian Naser Khader, are calling for calm dialogue. But more Muslims were supporting the boycott, fueling the tension further.

It doesn’t help that Muslims — both here and in the Middle East — seem to many Danes to be demanding more than just respect. Most Danes agree that it’s unfair to depict the prophet of Islam as a mad bomber. But many public voices in the Arab and Muslim press are going further: They want Denmark and the West to honor the Muslim religious ban on any depictions of Muhammad. That raises images of imposing Sharia law on Denmark, a country that guards its freedom of expression almost — well, religiously. Besides, as one observer noted this week, Jewish religious law forbids the depiction of God, but Jews don’t boycott Italy for Michelangelo’s “Creation.”

Denmark, like France, Great Britain and the Netherlands, is finally being forced to face the question of just what it means to be an immigrant. Does it mean accepting the culture of one’s adopted homeland, keeping one’s own roots as long as they don’t violate the law? Or does it mean, “Thanks for a piece of your territory, and now I will teach you — or force you — to live by my norms”? And what’s a free society to do about it?

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