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Something Rotten in Denmark?

Crisis Sparked by Cartoons Has Many Layers

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, FEB. 11, 2006 ( That a global crisis could be sparked by the publication of a few cartoons seems to vindicated the old adage of the pen being mightier than the sword. The events have also demonstrated that freedom has its limits, particularly when the deeply held religious beliefs of others are involved.

The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons last September, after asking artists to depict Islam’s prophet. The newspaper’s aim was to challenge what it perceived was self-censorship among artists dealing with Islamic issues. A Norwegian newspaper reprinted the images in January.

Then, after demonstrations protesting the cartoons started to gather force, a number of European newspapers reprinted the cartoons, in what they considered to be a defense of freedom of expression. With a few exceptions, media in Anglo-Saxon countries have refrained from publishing the cartoons.

The events have provoked a lively debate in the press. A Feb. 3 editorial in the London-based Times noted that the paper refrained from reprinting the images. It would have been a needlessly gratuitous insult to do so, months after their original publication, the editorial said. It did add, however, that the protests by Muslims “would carry more weight if pictures that crudely insult Jews and Christians were not found regularly in the Middle East.”

By contrast, another British newspaper, the Telegraph, in an editorial the same day defended “the right to offend,” even as it opted not to publish the cartoons. The Guardian newspaper said that the right of free speech is an important principle, but added: “There are limits and boundaries — of taste, law, convention, principle or judgment.” The editorial noted, for example, that British newspapers regularly publish stories about child pornography, but so far none have reproduced examples of it.

The German newsweekly Die Zeit did republish one of the caricatures. “It was the right thing to do,” argued the magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff. He wrote a column in Tuesday’s edition of the Washington Post.

Kleine-Brockhoff explained that Die Zeit would not have printed the cartoons if they had been originally offered to the magazine. Freedom of the press is accompanied by a responsibility not to inflame opinion, he stated. Yet, “the criteria change when material that is seen as offensive becomes newsworthy.”

Moreover, he affirmed: “To publish does not mean to endorse.” Kleine-Brockhoff noted that the Mideast governments now protesting the issue are also responsible for oppressing their own religious minorities. Should we counsel “tolerance toward intolerance?” he asked.

Satire’s limits

A former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches, in an interview published Feb. 3, said that targets for satire should be carefully chosen. Cardinal Achille Silvestrini told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that satire has its limits. While it may be permissible to poke fun at a priest, or Islamic customs, he said, it is another matter to attack God, the Koran or Allah.

Freedom of expression, therefore, must be accompanied by respect, argued the cardinal. And, he added, Western culture needs to limit its affirmation of liberty as an absolute value.

The theme of limits to liberty was also dealt with by one of Rome’s auxiliary bishops, Rino Fisichella, in an interview with the newspaper Il Messaggero last Saturday. Absolute liberty does not exist, he affirmed. Moreover, liberty is not meant to be used against others, but to favor others and to grow.

The press, Bishop Fisichella insisted, needs to understand that the space available for liberty to be exercised is limited by the respect for others, not only as persons, but also for their beliefs and faith.

That same day, the Vatican press office issued a statement on the matter of the cartoons. The right to freedom of thought and expression, it said, “cannot imply the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.” But equally deplorable, the statement added, are the violent reactions of protest: “Real or verbal intolerance, no matter where it comes from, as action or reaction, is always a serious threat to peace.”

Anver Emon, who teaches Islamic law at the University of Toronto, also deplored the violence by Muslim protesters. But, in a commentary published Monday by the Canadian newspaper National Post, Emon pointed out the difficult circumstances under which many Muslims live.

In Europe, he noted, Muslims are often confined to the margins of society, suffering continual criticisms about the detrimental effect their presence will have on the continent. Then, too, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian strife, have led to a high level of tension in the Mideast, Emon observed.


Back in Denmark, meanwhile, additional details surrounding those infamous cartoons have put some of the protagonists in a different light. On Monday the British newspaper Guardian reported that three years ago the Jyllands-Posten refused to run drawings making fun of Jesus Christ. The Danish newspaper made that decision on the grounds that the drawings could be offensive to readers and were not funny.

Then, on Tuesday, a Palestinian imam living in Denmark, Ahmed Abu-Laban, came in for criticism in an article published by the Wall Street Journal. Abu-Laban put together a delegation that toured the Mideast with a dossier about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, the Journal reported.

The dossier, in addition to the published cartoons, also contained other highly offensive pictures that never appeared in the Jyllands-Posten. The dossier also made a number of false affirmations about supposed ill-treatment of Muslims in Denmark.

In fact, the whole row over the cartoons has been hijacked by extremists, according to Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens. The decision by the Saudi, Iranian and Syrian governments to withdraw their ambassadors from Copenhagen, for example, “was an act of political calculation,” Stephens reported in an article published Tuesday. Knowing well that the Danish government does not control the press, the three Mideast governments nevertheless chose to escalate the controversy for their own motives, Stephens contended.

Likewise, a state TV announcer in Iran depicted the cartoons as an insult to Islam made by the Danish government, not a private newspaper, the Associated Press reported Thursday. The AP also noted that in Syria, where the state has absolute control, few believe the protesters who stirred up violence could have gotten away with their acts without tacit government consent.

High-tech tension

The protests are also being fanned by extremists, the Washington Post reported Thursday. Text messages to mobile phones, Internet blogs and e-mails are being sent all over the world. Radical Islamic Web sites also echo calls to violence. The material circulated often contains false information and exaggerations, designed to inflame passions, the Post said.

“We are confronted by misinformation passed on by mobile messages and Web logs at such high speed that it is picked up and acted upon before we have a chance to correct it,” commented Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a news conference Tuesday.

A recent meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference saw Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appeal to Muslim leaders to unite in opposing extremists who, he argued, have hijacked their religion.

“It bleeds the heart of a believer,” Abdullah was quoted as saying in a Reuters report Dec. 7, “to see how this glorious civilization has fallen from the height of glory to the ravine of frailty and how its thoughts were hijacked by devilish and criminal gangs that spread havoc on earth.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi also issued a solemn warning. Muslims across the world, he said, were in a state of “disunity and discord.” Even non-Muslims could agree with that.

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