I have put off writing this article for about eight years now, and repeatedly imagined that I would never have to write it. But, apparently, some things have to be stated out loud, with full details and reasons appended.
Before I begin, I would like to state two things clearly:
Firstly, I am an atheist, and I am against all religion, because magical thinking muddies logic and destroys analytical ability.
Secondly, I am in favour of free speech as a right. However, if there is to be free speech, it must be applicable equally, across the board. If there are restrictions, they too must be applied equally, across the board.
It was in 2006 that I first became aware of the so-called Muhammad Cartoons “controversy”. Back then I was on Orkut, which as far as I am aware still exists, though I don’t know anyone who still uses it. Back then, though, Orkut was a vibrant network with a fairly large user base, and there were many “communities” of atheists where they exchanged notes.
Well, what did I find but that these atheist communities suddenly filled with people sporting Danish flags as their avatars as a gesture of support to Denmark. I’d already, of course, heard in the news about protests against the cartoons, but this Danish flag-waving left me scratching my head. After all, a lot of these same people were, only days earlier, condemning the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, partly carried out by these same Danes. It was surprising to say the least.
The murkiness of the whole thing was exacerbated by the fact that the other nations of Western Europe lined up behind Denmark and offered full support. This was fully and completely amazing because these were the exact same nations which criminalised Holocaust Denial – locked up people for even questioning the official account of the Holocaust, in fact, such as the exact number of dead, not denying it outright – and in the case of Germany even criminalised the swastika. There seemed, to me, something of a gigantic piece of double standards at work here.
On the surface, though, it seemed to be a fairly typical case of Muslim overreaction. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, which is the largest in Denmark, but virtually unknown outside it, holds an experiment in free speech by inviting some of its staff and other cartoonists to draw the Prophet Muhammad. Result: large scale rioting across the world, death threats against the cartoonists, economic sanctions against Denmark. Those Muslims again, blowing their tops as usual.
Of course, it wasn’t anything like as simple as that. These things never are.
To begin with, we should know who Jyllands-Posten are. By no means is the paper a liberal voice of free speech; in fact,
the solicitation and publication of the ʻMuhammad cartoonsʼ was part of a long and carefully orchestrated campaign by the conservative Jyllands-Posten (also known in Denmark as Jyllands-Pesten – the plague from Jutland), in which it backed the centre-right Venstre party of Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen in its successful bid for power in 2001. Central to Venstreʼs campaign, aside from its neoliberal economic agenda, was the promise to tackle the problem of foreigners who refused to 'integrate' into Danish society. [Source]
Therefore, we have a right-wing paper in a nation with an increasingly large Muslim minority, using the excuse of “free speech” to advance its agenda. I wonder what we would find if we looked at Jyllands-Posten’s record where non-Muslim religious matters are concerned?
While Jyllands-Posten has published satirical cartoons depicting Christian figures, it rejected unsolicited cartoons in 2003 which depicted Jesus, opening it to accusations of a double standard. In February 2006, Jyllands-Posten refused to publish Holocaust cartoons, which included cartoons that mocked or denied the Holocaust, offered by an Iranian newspaper which had held a contest. [Source]
While not definitive, there does seem to be a distinct double standard here, especially since the paper published the initial cartoons as a deliberate and conscious decision, gathering together cartoonists for the specific purpose of drawing them. And though the different cartoons depict completely different scenes – for reasons I will mention, I am not going to post the cartoons on this article, but they can be viewed here – there are several, especially one which shows a bearded man with a bomb for a turban, which are unambiguously meant to offend.
So, where does that leave us, exactly? When you go out of your way to offend someone, and that person is offended, are you entitled to claim that you’ve been unfairly victimised because that person has been offended?
And why, oh, why, were the Muslims offended?
Let’s get one thing out of the way, first: if there is one thing you can absolutely guarantee will rouse a Muslim reaction, it’s insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Everyone with even baseline knowledge of Islam knows that. Muslim poets over the centuries have routinely poured scorn and censure on Allah and on the mullahs, but not one of them has ever insulted Muhammad. That would be the equivalent of a devout Jew insulting YHWH.
Then, the cartoons weren’t all the same. Some of them were neutral depictions of Muhammad. One depicted not the Prophet Muhammad himself but a schoolboy called Muhammad. And some of them were openly and deliberately insulting.
If the cartoons had not been insulting, it’s a guarantee that nothing would have happened. It isn’t as though Muhammad is sacrosanct from depiction in Islam. Shia Islam, in fact, has a fair history of depicting him. But there’s a difference between depicting him and insulting him.
Then, too, it wasn’t just an isolated example, though for the Manichean narrative favoured by the West fed on a diet of Hollywood movies, there’s no such thing as nuance. Just as the Afghans said that the protests after American troops burned Korans in Afghanistan weren’t just about the Korans – it was the culmination of a series of humiliations, the straw that broke the camel’s back – it was a culmination of a series of instances in which immigrants, specifically Muslim immigrants, were targeted in Denmark. And that’s not even including Danish involvement in the illegal imperialist invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
If Jyllands-Posten had wanted a debate about Islam and free speech, as it claimed, it could have chosen literally anything about Islam to draw or write about, rather than this. There are so many things unambiguously wrong with Islam that there is endless material to pick on, from suicide bombing to the treatment of women to the rejection of modern scientific thought. All of those would be perfectly valid, and all of them would also not result in any kind of outpouring of Muslim rage. In fact, sections of Muslims would probably even have welcomed them.
Why was this not done? There’s only one interpretation, that the newspaper set out deliberately to offend.
By any logical definition, an action designed to offend another person comes under hate speech. Freedom of speech is not absolute anywhere in the world; you can’t go into a crowded theatre, yell “fire” and then claim that you’re innocent of the resultant stampede because you were merely expressing your freedom of speech. Similarly, if you go to scream racial epithets at someone, and that person reacts with anger, you can’t get away from the responsibility for knowingly and deliberately provoking that anger. That’s why hate speech laws exist.
[And that is why I am not going to publish the Muhammad cartoons in this article, because it’s just as much hate speech as painting swastikas on synagogues, and for the same reason, I am also not going to post pictures of swastikas on synagogues.]
Even then, the reaction was far from being as immediate or as generally thought. The cartoons first appeared on 30th September 2005, to general public weariness. It wasn’t till 4th October that a death threat was made (by a teenager, whose mother turned him in). After that this is what happened:
…a group of Islamic leaders…called a meeting to discuss their strategy, which took place in Copenhagen a few days after the cartoons appeared…The meeting established 19 "action points" to try to influence public opinion about the cartoons. Ahmed Akkari from an mosque in Aarhus was designated the group's spokesman. The group planned a variety of political activities, including launching a legal complaint against the newspaper, writing letters to media outlets inside and outside Denmark, contacting politicians and diplomatic representatives, organising a protest in Copenhagen, and mobilising Danish Muslims through text messages and mosques…A peaceful protest, which attracted about 3,500 demonstrators, was held in Copenhagen on 14 October 2005.
So far, not the slightest sign of violence. Everything completely peaceful and legal. What happens next?
Having received petitions from Danish imams, eleven ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries… asked for a meeting with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen on 12 October 2005. They wanted to discuss what they perceived as an "on-going smearing campaign in Danish public circles and media against Islam and Muslims". In a letter, the ambassadors mentioned the issue of the Muhammad cartoons, a recent indictment against Radio Holger, and statements by MP Louise Frevert and the Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen. It concluded:
We deplore these statements and publications and urge Your Excellency's government to take all those responsible to task under law of the land in the interest of inter-faith harmony, better integration and Denmark's overall relations with the Muslim world.
In other words, not only were the initial reactions completely peaceful, this is direct proof that the cartoons didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, in a void; they were part of a series of actions that the Muslims of Denmark viewed as discriminatory and offensive.
As to why other Muslim countries got involved, there’s a simple response: when neo-Nazi hoodlums vandalise Jewish cemeteries elsewhere or scrawl swastikas on synagogues, why does the relevant Israeli embassy immediately get involved? What’s good for one is good for the other, as long as we are even going to pretend to be neutral and even-handed.
The (right-wing) Danish government, which was supported by Jyllands-Posten, refused to meet the ambassadors, and also ignored further representations from the Organistion of Islamic Countries and the Arab League. If it had met the ambassadors, and stated that it stood for good relations with all religions, but that it had no control over the media, and this officially dissociated itself with the issue, it would have been Jyllands-Posten versus any Muslim who wanted to take it to court. The Danish state would have been out of it. But by refusing to take this simple step, the government entangled itself in the issue, to no credit to itself at all; instead, Danish right-wing Prime Minister Rasmussen endorsed the Jyllands-Posten stand in an interview. Far from being even a neutral, therefore, the Danish government allied itself to one side in the dispute.
It was only at the end of October, nearly a month after the cartoons were published, that there was any further action, and that consisted of lodging a police case, which was dismissed in January 2006 on the grounds that the cartoons were in the “public interest”. By that time, a committee of Imams toured West Asia with a dossier of documents relating to the case, including cartoons from another paper published in November 2005, which were allegedly “even more offensive” than these. There were also – and this caused a great deal of problems – images which were taken from a French “pig squealing contest”, and had nothing whatever to do with the cartoons, but which were (deliberately or inadvertently) passed off as part of the anti-Muslim mindset in Denmark.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, goes into a discussion of these extras, and strongly defends the cartoons. Like his “New Atheist” counterparts, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins has been accused of cloaking his hatred for Islam in atheism. Personally, I know little about Sam Harris and I only have total and absolute contempt for Hitchens, who was one of the vociferous supporters of the invasion of Iraq. Dawkins, as I have seen, drops all his otherwise careful scholarship when it comes to Islam, and makes sweeping statements which would be hilarious if they weren’t so ugly and inaccurate.
But, Dawkins or the others should be asked, what did they expect to happen when the situation reached the point where it became the property of the mullahs? Did they imagine that there would be no rabble-rousing, no playing to the gallery? In fact, is this rabble rousing and playing to the gallery not precisely the reaction the cartoons were designed to provoke? So, what exactly is the point, that Muslims were guilty of getting angry at something deliberately crafted to make them angry?
It was only after the Imams made this trip, in late January and February 2006, that the protests turned violent. This is in complete and absolute contrast to the usual narrative of lunatic Muslims going on the rampage at the drop of a cartoonist’s pen. In fact, the protests were fuelled by local mullahs who deliberately and cynically egged on people who had not, of course, ever seen the cartoons for themselves, and who had no opportunity to see the cartoons for themselves. Again, this was completely and utterly predictable. Some of these protests were actually just a manifestation of other long-ongoing battles, as in Nigeria where they exacerbated Muslim-Christian conflicts.
By March, some West Asian countries organised a boycott of Danish exports, another thing which was a direct result of the Danish government’s refusal to stand clearly aside from the cartoons, as we’ve seen. In effect, these boycotts had little real effect, but these were the only official reactions by Muslim nations or organisations to the cartoons. The Organisation of Islamic Countries not only denounced the death threats to the cartoonists, it called the protests “un-Islamic”. But that is something that didn’t fit the dominant anti-Islamic feeling in the West. Nor did the fact that an extremely small minority of the world’s Muslim population participate make it to the dominant Western consciousness; it simply did not fit the theme.
Let me say something clearly here: just as a hundred and sixty years ago, racism against non-white people was perfectly acceptable in mainstream Western society, and as anti-Jewish racism was also acceptable till the end of the Second World War, today anti-Islamism is completely mainstream in the West. It’s also every bit as stupid and ignorant of Islam as racism and anti-Judaism were stupid and ignorant in their turn. The danger is, though, that it tends to turn itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people are made to feel consistently attacked and vulnerable, they will react in ways which are consistent with defending themselves. They will listen to leaders who dramatise the sense of insecurity to cement their own hold on power. This is as true of Islam as anything else, and anyone who pretends shock at the Muslim reaction is being dangerously disingenuous.
Also, let me point out that Islam isn’t a single, unified entity. Like Christianity itself, it isn’t a religion so much as a collection of different religions with only some points in common. The overwhelming number of Muslims are actually more concerned with day to day living than any religious matter, and they couldn’t care less about things like this as long as it’s not shoved in their faces. Even then, the vast majority will not react in any way. But the media will go out of its way to depict the entire Muslim world as violent and unstable. Because that sells.
There was also, at this time, what I feel personally is the single most cynical action in the whole cooked-up “controversy”. It was the decision of other newspapers across Europe to reprint the cartoons in “solidarity”. Now, Denmark, for all its faults, does treat freedom of speech relatively even handedly, and has no laws against Holocaust Denial. However, papers in nations which do have such laws – countries which lock people up for questioning the standard narrative of the Holocaust – gleefully reprinted the cartoons. I don’t know if they felt any cognitive dissonance, but I doubt it.
Whenever I bring this point up – the blatant double standards of those European nations – I can absolutely guarantee that somebody is going to accuse me of being a Holocaust Denier. My response is always the same:
First, that those who deny the Holocaust happened are equivalent to those who claim the earth is flat. Do these European nations have laws against Round Earth Denial?
Second, the fact that the Holocaust happened does not sanctify one particular narrative of it, and indeed by enforcing one particular narrative, plays into the hands of Holocaust deniers.
Third, the fact of the Holocaust does not excuse the crimes of the so-called state of Israel; and these same nations are completely in support of those crimes.
So, as you probably will have guessed by now, as an atheist I am strongly against the Muhammad cartoons, for the following reasons:
1. They are clearly an example of hate speech.
2. They are calculated to produce the exact same divide in society that they claim to be against.
3. The standard narrative of them in the popular consciousness is completely opposed to the facts.
4. There are blatant double standards where the Holocaust is concerned.
The real tragedy is that I have to actually point these things out at all.