Gavyn Edmunds attempts to understand the motivations behind the printing of anti-Islamic cartoons
Last September, a small Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, chose to publish twelve cartoons ‘satirising’ Islam. To Muslims the depiction of the prophet is prohibited by the Koran and causes extreme offence.
Anyone who has viewed the pictures will first be struck by how amateurish they appear. The cartoons range from a sketch of Muhammad in heaven standing in front of a line of suicide bombers who are being told to stop because “We’ve run out of virgins”, to a caricature of the prophet’s head whose turban (incidentally a Sikh; not even a Muslim one) has morphed into a bomb with a lit fuse.
Nearly five months after the first publication of the cartoons, we now stand in the midst of an unprecedented diplomatic disaster. Various Muslim ambassadors have been withdrawn, whilst numerous embassies have been closed by the Danish government following the fire-bombing of their mission in Beirut. However, amid the expected backlash of flag burning, boycotting and anti-west sloganeering – more seriously – dozens of people have been left dead after riot police turned upon Muslim protesters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia.
Many have reduced the printing of these cartoons and the escalating Muslim reaction as a battle between ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘religious belief’. However, by reducing this row in such a binary fashion its context is being ignored. It was not – as many commentators have argued – an apocalyptic prologue to the unavoidable ‘clash of civilisations’ yet to come. It was, rather, an expression of the lack of acceptance Muslim communities are forced to endure within Danish society.
Many of the country’s 170,000 Muslims are concentrated inside a small number of urban centres, and for many commentators Muslims represent a growing underclass within Denmark, challenging the nation’s tolerant and egalitarian image. At the core of the cartoon row lies the reality that Danish Muslims face discreet day-to-day discrimination.
Jyllands-Posten attempted to justify its actions as a way of challenging what they saw as a form of self-censorship over Islam present within the Danish media. However, by publishing cartoons which portrayed Islam as a faith of suicide bombers, together with pictures of Muhammad (any representation of God or a prophet is strictly forbidden in Islam), the paper singled out perhaps the most marginalised section of Danish society.
The argument was further inflamed when the Danish PM, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, refused to meet a delegation of Muslim leaders to discuss the issue. Given that a Danish MP had previously described Muslims as “a cancer in Denmark”, this was interpreted by many Muslims as a further example of growing Islamophobia.
Furthermore, the decision by editors in France, Germany, Italy and Spain to reprint some of the original cartoons can be seen as much as a sign of contempt for their own marginalised Muslim population as it can be seen as a display of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten. As we have often seen over the last few years, the far right have exploited the ignorance that segregation creates in order to make serious electoral inroads across mainland Europe.
In the United Kingdom the British National Party has attempted to take advantage of tensions in a small number of heavily divided communities. The BNP has also published links on their website to European newspapers that have printed these cartoons.
In comparison to other European nations, Britain has had relative levels of success in integrating generations of immigrants into mainstream society. In many ways, the example set in Britain illustrates that religious faith can exist peacefully within a secular western society, once acceptance – and the respect for the beliefs of others that follows it – is established.
Many commentators have pointed out how damaging this row has been to relations between Islam and the west. However, if anything is to be gained from the debate which the conflict has sparked, it is the proof that Islam and the west can live with each other. One only has to turn to Britain to find the evidence.