Edition 25 Volume 6 - June 26, 2024

Denmark and Islam

Blood and blasphemy -   Irfan Husain

The mere fact that a bomb had destroyed the Danish embassy was enough to satisfy millions of Pakistanis.

Confusion of values need not cause conflict -   Maryam Yasmin Hussain

The alternative to respectful dialogue is simply too frightening.

A Jordanian perspective -   Oraib Al Rantawi

Reactions to the caricatures and film have become a factor in local and regional politics.

How the Danish cartoons prevent dialogue -   Toger Seidenfaden

I am about to be indicted in a Jordanian court.

Blood and blasphemy
 Irfan Husain

When a car bomb devastated the Danish embassy in Islamabad on June 2, its repercussions were felt more in the West than in Pakistan itself. Over the years, Pakistanis have become so accustomed to terror attacks that they tend to take such atrocities in their stride. And the fact is that by again publishing a sacrilegious cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad after the violent reaction last year, the Danes had not made themselves very popular in the Muslim world.

The most common reaction to the embassy bombing, even among the educated, was: "It's a terrible thing, but why did the Danes insult our Prophet?" The more zealous Pakistanis welcomed the attack with glee, saying, in effect: "Serves the Danes right!" Even when al-Qaeda accepted responsibility for the attack, there was very little sense of outrage. The fact that all eight of those killed were Muslims and Pakistanis (one of the victims was a Danish citizen of Pakistani origin) seemed to count for very little.

Two days after the attack, a text message zipped from one cell phone to the next across the country, announcing that the boycott of Danish products in the Muslim world had thus far cost the Scandinavian nation a billion dollars. No source was given for this information, but the jubilant tone was clear: "Keep it up!" the message concluded.

It is difficult for a westerner to understand the depth of the anger most practising Muslims feel about anything that is seen as an insult to their Prophet. In Europe, in particular, religious belief has weakened to the point where stand-up comics regularly poke fun at everybody from Jesus to the Pope. "The Life of Brian", the hilarious seventies comedy by Monty Python parodying Christ's life and times, remains an iconic film. For a generation brought up in this utterly secular environment where belief is an insignificant aspect of life, Muslim reaction to a few badly drawn cartoons in an unknown Danish newspaper has been absolutely baffling.

While Europe has been growing away from its religious moorings, Islam has been witnessing a resurgence. Younger Muslims are, by and large, much more rigid in their faith than their parents were. At the same time, countries like Pakistan have fewer contacts with the West at the personal level. This growing distance has made it easier for extremists to demonize the West, casting it in the role of Islam's arch-enemy. Thus, each conflict involving Muslims is presented as an anti-Islam conspiracy, whether it is the western presence in Afghanistan or Iraq, the oppression of Palestinians or Russian excesses in Chechnya. All form part of the sinister anti-Islam narrative.

In this super-charged atmosphere of paranoia and violence, publication of the cartoons in Denmark is seen as a deliberately provocative act. Muslims would never dream of running similar caricatures of Moses or Jesus, both prophets of Islam, so they cannot imagine why Christians would gratuitously insult the most revered figure in Islam. Even for sophisticated Muslims, freedom of speech does not include this kind of behavior. In a recent conference organized by the Cordoba Initiative and the Malaysian government in Kuala Lumpur, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ex-diplomat and sometime head of the intelligence service, declared: "I can never accept that freedom of speech is morally right when it offends my faith."

To put things in the Pakistani context, one unfortunate citizen was recently sentenced to death for making remarks that witnesses swore were disrespectful of the Prophet. Under the country's blasphemy laws, anybody guilty of insulting the Prophet or desecrating the Qur'an faces the death penalty. Over the years, this legislation--introduced by then-president Zia ul-Haq over 20 years ago--has been used by people to settle scores or grab their neighbors' property. Invariably, the death sentence is converted to a life term on appeal, but in the fanatical environment that prevails in much of rural Pakistan a charge of blasphemy is hard to shake off. Innocent people have been beaten or burned to death by rampaging mobs enraged by rumors that a copy of the Quran had been burned.

Against this backdrop, the bombing of the Danish embassy in Islamabad makes for a kind of rough justice in the eyes of most Pakistanis. Never mind that Pakistan's image abroad, already at a record low, has taken a further plunge. Never mind that all those killed were Muslims who had nothing to do with the publication of the offending cartoon. Never mind, too, that most Pakistanis have not even seen the cartoon in question. The mere fact that a bomb had destroyed the Danish embassy was enough to satisfy millions of Pakistanis.

In Parliament, some members from religious parties--their numbers drastically slashed in the recent elections--urged the government to break off diplomatic relations with Denmark. Even columnists who are staunch supporters of freedom of speech argued for anti-blasphemy laws in the West.

Sadly, this is not the first cross-cultural misunderstanding between the West and the Islamic world, nor is it likely to be the last.- Published 26/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Irfan Husain writes two columns a week for Dawn, Pakistan's widest circulating and most influential daily. After a career in the civil service spanning 30 years, he was president of a university in Pakistan for five years. He now divides his time between England and Pakistan.

Confusion of values need not cause conflict
 Maryam Yasmin Hussain

The reprinting of the Muhammad cartoons in 16 newspapers in Denmark in February ignited a lingering bitterness among Muslims across the world. The first reprinting of the cartoons, more than two years ago, might have been forgiven as a mistake by the Danish media in the name of freedom of speech. This second printing has caused widespread resentment in the Muslim world as it is considered a deliberate and premeditated attempt to offend Muslims once again. Even moderate and secular Muslims consider this second reprinting to be, at best, in very poor taste.

Previously, moderate Muslims were inclined toward reconciliation with Denmark and other European countries where the cartoons had been printed. The boycott of Danish goods was led primarily by governments in Arab and Muslim countries. Now the situation is changing. Countries like Jordan, which traditionally try to bridge the gap between Muslims and the West, are also deeply offended by the most recent cartoon affair. And the boycott is receiving more popular support and may as a result last longer and reach deeper.

On June 2, the Danish embassy in Islamabad was targeted by a car bomb in what is believed to be a reaction to the reprinting. A few days later an organization associated with al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombing on its website. It was an apparent attempt at gaining popular support by bombing Denmark's political representation in the Pakistani capital. Fortunately the majority of political and religious leaders unanimously condemned the bombing.

While a marginal group of Muslims believes in violence, the majority of Muslims still have faith in a harmonious and peaceful dialogue between the West and the Muslim world to resolve their differences. The alternative to respectful dialogue is simply too frightening.

The brutal act of bombing a Danish embassy and claiming innocent lives is a strategy to disrupt relations between Pakistan and Denmark and spread hatred among people of different faiths. This should however not be an obstacle to collaboration between the West and Muslim countries. Otherwise terrorist groups all over the globe will be a step closer to achieving their goal, which seems to be the realization of Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations.

It's indeed ironic that the Danish media's insistence on publishing the cartoons is in a very odd way doing such terrorists a favor by bringing a clash between the West and the Muslim world closer. And it is very unfortunate that the concept of freedom of speech is being misused. While some hold that this basic right means anything goes, it is observed differently in different parts of the world. At the time of the original cartoon controversy in 2024, David Irving was convicted of denying the Holocaust as a historical fact and sentenced to jail in Austria, a member state of the European Union. So even as the EU was expressing its support for the Danish media apparently as a matter of freedom of speech, its silence on Irving's conviction was deafening. No European or western government used its support of the right to freedom of speech to defend Irving's right to express his beliefs.

But the few extremist groups cannot be neglected. It is necessary to look into and understand their reasons for engaging in violence. This in no way entails justification: no one should accept violence as a means to resolve any kind of problem. The path to peace is only effectively pursued through dialogue.

And whatever the cause of violence--whether it is political, an outgrowth of religious extremism or a result of a lack of understanding--this should not stand in the way of mutual respect. There are areas where the Muslim world and the West do not share common ground. These differences must be accepted in the spirit of tolerance and peaceful engagement.- Published 26/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Maryam Yasmin Hussain is of Pakistani origin, born and raised in Denmark. She recently returned to Denmark from Pakistan where she had pursued her studies.

A Jordanian perspective
 Oraib Al Rantawi

As is the case with all Muslim peoples, Jordanians are sorry whenever they see their religious symbols and fundamental beliefs exposed to abuse, defamation and cynicism. The sorrow is even greater when the perpetrators are western writers, artists or politicians. The abuse in this case becomes a provocative and aggressive act that can be classified as a "clash of civilizations" or even seemingly reflect a "crusade" against Islam and Muslims.

Recently, Jordanians have voiced their resentment and rejection of prejudice against the Prophet Muhammad. Frequently they have demonstrated and picketed. Newspapers and other media in Jordan have highlighted these protests. The campaign entitled "Except for the Messenger of Allah" has been the most obvious instance.

This very direct slogan reflects the Jordanian people's overall stance. Accordingly, campaigns have been organized to boycott first Danish and then Dutch goods. Some mega malls in Jordan have displayed this banner above vacant shelves that once held the products of these countries. While some shops withdrew from the boycott, others are still committed to it, either out of conviction or to attract customers in a competitive market.

Now for the first time, following the success of the "Messenger of Allah Unifies Us" campaign, the Danish caricatures and Dutch Fitna film are being brought to the Jordanian courts. The campaign motion, which has been admitted to court, charges some 20 Danish and Dutch figures and institutions. The charges include defaming the revelations of Islam, slandering Islam, offending the Prophet Mohammad, humiliating religious sentiments and using the internet in a manner harmful to citizens.

Nevertheless, it seems that with the passage of time and repeated recurrence of these offenses, Jordanians have become bored with the affair; new revelations cease to irritate or anger the public. Indeed, new priorities top its agenda these days--most importantly, rising prices of fuel and foodstuffs. Inflation is almost "eating up" wages and salaries, and more than 85 percent of Jordanians are suffering economically or, at best (and according to recent polls), their economic status has remained stagnant for the past three years.

This might explain why the latest campaign against the Danish caricatures and the Dutch film has been limited to a few elite figures and why their activities have not generated a broad popular response. Except for the media and press coverage that will accompany the court deliberations--especially if some of the Danish defendants appear before it, as the media predicts--the campaign is not expected to yield prominent results.

In fact, some Jordanians are now convinced that it is irrelevant to whip up Jordanian, Arab and Islamic public opinion at every "offense" or "provocation" caused by caricatures targeting Islam. This will merely encourage every unknown newspaper or communications medium and every failed journalist in the West to mount a provocation in search of international fame. These people argue that Islam and Muslims must be strong enough to avoid anger and fury over a caricature or a film.

This view does not appeal to another group of politicians and media figures who are themselves motivated to grab any opportunity to enhance their media recognition or revive their political visibility. Just as some western artists and politicians seek fame and repute when they expose Islam, so an exaggerated reaction by Jordanian and Arab artists, journalists and politicians should not be encouraged.

Yet the film and caricatures case has already entered the "local bazaar"; Islamic and non-Islamic parties and activists compete with one another to prove who is keener to defend Islam and Muslims and who best represents of the Islamic image and interests. Regretfully, successive governments have also plunged heart and soul into the cause for fear of being accused of failing to defend the Prophet. In this context, amendments have been introduced to statutes like the Press and Publication Law to limit freedom of expression and opinion under the pretext of defending religious symbols. It is sad to see Jordanians paying with their freedom and rights for "publication offences" committed thousands of miles away, under the argument that this is necessary to protect Islam from humiliation and offense.

Now that the case of the caricatures and the film has entered into local political calculations, the competition among local actors for the honor of defending Islam has motivated activities and campaigns against the "provocative West". Nor is the competition limited to local actors; it has become a component of the struggle to lead the Islamic world. If we observe the contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran to challenge the Danish caricature case we can appreciate that this is a battlefield where the two poles of the Islamic world struggle to lead it. Inevitably, this results in repercussions and reactions in each Arab and Muslim country where Iran or Saudi Arabia exercises influence.

In brief, reactions to the caricatures and film have become a factor in politics: a vehicle for advancement in local politics as well as a platform for local and regional actors to contest one another.- Published 26/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Oraib Al Rantawi is director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman and a columnist for Ad Dustour daily.

How the Danish cartoons prevent dialogue
 Toger Seidenfaden

Large parts of the global debate about the Danish cartoons have taken on the nature of a dialogue between the deaf and the blind. In the Muslim world, millions fail to see the point of depicting and caricaturing the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, and reject the absolute right to scorn, mock and ridicule religious Muslims asserted by the creator of the cartoons. In the West, the idea that offensive cartoons justify murderous threats and violence is completely unacceptable while freedom of speech is defended by all. The result is increasing polarization, with both sides not only asserting their values uncompromisingly but also feeding polarization, misunderstandings and further tensions.

As there is something slightly irritating about a commentator who implicitly presents his own position as equidistant between two misguided sides of a debate, thus allocating himself immediate intellectual and moral superiority (or getting himself neatly caught in the crossfire, which is perhaps closer to the truth in this case), let me make my own position in the controversy explicit: as editor of the Danish daily newspaper Politiken, I have been a prominent participant in the debate about the cartoons commissioned and published by another Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, ever since they became an issue of major national and international concern.

On the one hand, I have criticized Jyllands-Posten for the original publication, which I see as an expression of rising intolerance and islamophobia in Danish politics. I have criticized the Danish government even more strongly for its complete lack of dialogue with the ambassadors from Muslim countries in Denmark, who tried to raise the issue at an early stage. The Danish government's unwillingness to distance itself from the cartoons and refusal of dialogue is in my opinion the main transmission mechanism which--four months after the original publication--transformed what would otherwise have remained a local affair into a global crisis. Unsurprisingly, this interpretation has not met with universal approval in Denmark and my newspaper and I have been blamed for showing insufficient solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, with the government and indeed with Denmark as such, when our country was the target of strong international pressure and attacks.

On the other hand, we have published one or more of the cartoons in Politiken--including the most controversial one--at least 15 times as part of our news coverage. We have done this, despite our disapproval of the cartoons and the reasons given for their original publication, simply because they have become news and are a necessary part of what our readers must see if they are to understand all the events that have grown out of the cartoon controversy. To put it in legal and normative terms: We reprinted the cartoons, not as an act of freedom of speech, but as an act of freedom of information, as defined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The first 14 times we did this, our practice was well understood: As editor, I did not receive a single complaint from any of our Danish Muslim readers. But on February 12, 2024, the Danish domestic intelligence service announced that it had arrested three residents of Denmark on suspicion of planning to murder Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist from Jyllands-Posten responsible for the most controversial of the cartoons. The next day, this was the main story in all Danish media, and most of them, including Politiken, reprinted Westergaard's cartoon. The fact that so many media reprinted the cartoon, while expressing outrage about a terrorist plot (not something we have much experience of in Denmark) led to this being described by news agencies as a collective act of defiance by Danish media. This is a misunderstanding. There was no consultation between media, and I believe most media reprinted the cartoons on much the same journalistic grounds as Politiken did. In the Middle East, however, this was perceived as a highly symbolic act of republication, renewing the original offense with intent, so to speak. It led to renewed tensions and a renewal of the boycott against Danish goods in a number of countries.

As a result, I am about to be indicted in a Jordanian court together with nine of my colleagues at other newspapers. Jordanian authorities apparently intend to assert their jurisdiction over Danish media on the basis of the cartoon also being reproduced on the internet. As I understand it, we will be charged with blasphemy and with an attempt to divide the Jordanian nation. I am informed that the possible penalties range from three years to life in prison.

Despite the rhetoric of those who insist on the right to provoke and sometimes demonize minorities, freedom of speech (and freedom of information) is not, in fact, completely unlimited in Europe. Legislation against libel, prohibition of racism and, in many countries, laws against blasphemy are in place. In the latter case, the need for public order is the main justification in what are largely secular societies. In the cartoon case, the Danish chief prosecutor determined that the most controversial of the cartoons does not rise to the level of offense necessary for prosecution, essentially because it can be interpreted as a satirical statement not against Islam or the prophet, but against those who misuse Islam to justify terrorism. In a civil suit by Muslim associations in Denmark against Jyllands-Posten, the local and then the superior court reached the same conclusion with regard to libel and acquitted the newspaper. It is worth noting that Danish Muslims have never taken any action against the many other Danish media--including Politiken--that have reprinted the cartoons on journalistic grounds.

I do not see the cartoon affair in Denmark and Europe as primarily about freedom of speech. In our societies, freedom of speech is only reinforced by attempts to attack it, especially when it is a small minority attacking dominant media. Threats of violence are unacceptable, but in the end they are also ineffective. In the Middle East, the situation is clearly different. Not only do I see the Jordanian case as misguided vis-a-vis Danish media, but we have seen many examples in the region of media and editors being punished for doing their job of informing the public. We live in different societies with different challenges, but this ought not to prevent us from debating all the issues that confront us. The cartoon affair is a negative case where extremists have gained the most. This can only be prevented if we stand together in defense of an open dialogue based on mutual respect and a refusal of intolerance, violence and political restraints on the media.- Published 26/6/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Toger Seidenfaden is editor-in-chief of the Danish daily, Politiken.

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