Cartoons play into hands of extremists on both sides
Craig S. Smith, New York Times
Sunday, February 5, 2006
Paris -- Europeans hoisted the banner of press freedom last week in response to Muslim anger over a dozen Danish cartoons, some of them mocking the prophet Muhammad. But something deeper and more complex was also at work.
The fracas grew out of, and then fed, a war of polemics between Europe's anti-immigrant nationalists and the fundamentalist Muslims among its immigrants.
"One extreme triggers the other," said Jonas Gahr Store, Norway's foreign minister, arguing that both sides want to polarize the debate at the expense of the moderate majority. "These issues are dangerous because they give the extremes fertile ground."
It began with a decision by a Danish newspaper to commission, and then print, cartoons portraying Muhammad in whatever light cartoonists chose to put him.
The newspaper's culture editor, Fleming Rose, says he intended simply to test cartoonists to see whether they were self-censoring their work, out of fear of violence from Islamic radicals. He cited a Danish comedian who said in an interview that he had no problem urinating on the Bible, but that he would not dare do the same to the Quran.
"Some Muslims try to impose their religious taboos in the public domain," Rose said. "In my book, that's not asking for my respect, it's asking for my submission."
Rose wrote to the Danish Cartoonist Society, inviting cartoonists to depict their interpretation of the prophet -- whose likeness many devout Muslims believe should never be depicted. Some refused on the grounds that the exercise was a provocation, but a dozen complied.
Rose said not all 12 drawings would offend Muslims. One depicted a Danish anti-immigration politician in a police lineup, and another lampooned Rose as an agent provocateur.
"It wasn't meant to insult or hurt anybody's feelings," Rose said, drawing a distinction between criticizing religious authority, "which goes all the way back to Voltaire and the tradition of the Enlightenment," and the "far greater offense of denigrating a specific ethnic group."
But this did not take place in a political vacuum. Hostile feelings have been growing between Denmark's immigrants and a government supported by the right-wing Danish People's Party, which has pushed anti-immigrant policies. And stereotyping in cartoons has a notorious history in Europe, where anti-Semitic caricatures fed the Holocaust, just as they feed anti-Israeli propaganda in the Middle East today.
In the current climate, some experts on mass communications suggest, the exercise was no more benign than commissioning caricatures of African Americans would have been during the 1960s civil rights struggle.
Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School in New York City, put it this way: "He knew what he was doing."
The reaction, in any event, was clearly deliberate. A group of Denmark's fundamentalist Muslim clerics lobbied the embassies of 11 mostly Muslim countries to demand a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. When he refused, the clerics took their show on the road, shopping the offending images around the Middle East.
The clerics inflamed the response by including in their presentation far more offensive cartoons that never appeared in any newspaper, some depicting Muhammad as a pedophile, a pig or engaged in bestiality.
The result: Boycotts of Danish goods spread in the Middle East, while newspapers across Europe reprinted the cartoons as an act of solidarity with Rose's newspaper.
And there was agonizing over what it meant for both press freedom and tolerance.
"The limit to freedom of expression is the point at which there is an intent to harm a person or a community," said William Bourdon, a French lawyer who has handled important freedom-of-speech cases. "It's not because there was a reaction that there should be a presumption of intent."
But Mustafa Hussain, a Pakistani-born Danish sociologist, said the cartoons showed how far to the right Europe's debate has swung. "Switch on the television, and you have the impression that Muslims are all fanatics, that Muslims don't understand Western liberal values," he said.
But regardless of whether Rose's exercise achieved his stated goal -- of forcing citizens to think about their submission to someone else's taboos -- it was clear that it had helped extremists on both sides who would keep Europe and the Muslim world from understanding each other.