The protracted, still-raging controversy over a Danish newspaper's caricature of the Prophet Muhammad is a case study of the West's troubled relations with Muslims. It features the easy cliches of the age - freedom of speech vs. Islamic intolerance, and open democratic debate vs. politically correct cravenness.
But what it has actually exposed is the European media's tendency to exploit anti-immigrant, particularly anti-Muslim, bigotry, as well as the Danes' readiness to bow to the gods of commerce. The story begins last fall when an author complained he could not get an artist to illustrate a children's book about Muhammad's life, given Islam's prohibition against depicting the Prophet, lest it lead to idolatry.
Jyllands-Posten, the conservative mass circulation daily, asked 40 illustrators to defy the ban. On Sept. 30, it published a dozen of their drawings. One depicted the Prophet as a bearded terrorist, with bulging eyes and a bomb-shaped turban with a burning fuse. Another had him wielding a sword. Another showed him as a crazed, knife-wielding Bedouin. Another placed him at the gates of Heaven telling suicide bombers: "Stop. Stop. We have run out of virgins!'' The first to complain were Danish Muslims. They were ignored. Muslim ambassadors to Denmark asked to meet the prime minister. Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused.
Flemming Rose, the paper's cultural editor, said he had commissioned the cartoons to break the self-censorship he felt had descended on Europe since the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim (since convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment). Editor Carsten Juste said he saw no reason to apologize. Prime Minister Rasmussen walked a fine line, denouncing "any expression that attempts to demonize groups on the basis of religion or ethnic background," but adding that "freedom of speech is not negotiable.''
As protests spread worldwide, Editor Juste struck a disingenuous note. "We are sorry if Muslims have been offended." On Jan. 10, the cartoons were reprinted in Norway in an evangelical Christian newspaper.
Protests continued. The Arab League and the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference issued formal condemnations. Last week, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Denmark. Libya closed its embassy. A grassroots consumer boycott of Danish and Norwegian products spread from Saudi Arabia across the Arabian Gulf.
Arla Foods - the Danish dairy, which sells about $421 million (U.S.) a year in that region - said sales had come to a "standstill." Other Danish firms also reported lost sales and cancelled business meetings. In Copenhagen, the Confederation of Danish Industries accused Jyllands-Posten of jeopardizing $1 billion of annual sales to the Middle East.
Editor Juste went back to being defiant. The paper "cannot and will not" apologize. "If we were to, we'd be letting down generations who have fought for freedom of speech. Do we have to give up this right to protect Danish export interests?" Meanwhile, in Iraq (where Denmark has 530 troops), thousands protested. In the West Bank, Danish flags were burnt. A militant Fatah group demanded that all Danes and Swedes leave the region, apparently confusing Sweden for Norway.
Sweden, Norway and Denmark urged their citizens to avoid travel to the Middle East. By Monday evening, Jyllands-Posten had caved. "The drawings are not against the Danish law but have indisputably offended many Muslims, for which we shall apologize." Yesterday, a newspaper in France and another in Germany published the cartoons, citing freedom of the press.
But the issue goes well beyond the old debate over whether freedom of expression has limits. It does in countries like Canada, which have anti-hate laws. But regardless of the presence or absence of legislated limits, every society has its own notions of what is acceptable and what is not. We can be certain that the editors publishing the Muhammad caricatures would not smear their pages with anti-Semitic graffiti. Or commission drawings maligning the Pope, by depicting him, say, in compromising sexual positions.
And had the editors opted to be that offensive, we can be equally certain that not too many people would have been rushing to their defense. It is this double standard that's at the heart of the repeated conflicts between the West and the world of Islam over how far anti-Islamic provocateurs can go in baiting Muslims, repeatedly, knowing full well the depth of Muslim feelings about their most cherished beliefs.
Invoking freedom of speech or the need to puncture political correctness are no more than smokescreens to hide that larger, and uglier, truth. The Danes have neither defended freedom of speech well nor upheld another sacred secular principle, mutual respect between peoples of all faiths. In balancing these two competing rights in this troubled world at this time, thinking people and responsible public institutions should err on the side of advancing mutual understanding, not fanning more conflicts.