A Discord over Dogmas

Satiric cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper triggered a wave of protests among Muslims worldwide. Is it a godsend for the far-right and radical Muslims?

SHOUTS of "Allahu Akbar" rang out from the 2,000 or so followers of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia who took to the streets last week. They were protesting the publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten. The Hizbut Tahrir supporters from Jakarta and surrounding areas, gathered at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout, near the Nusantara Building. There was a stage large enough to deliver orations, and loudspeakers were set up at various points.

Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, five months after the Jyllands-Posten's inflammatory publication, the depiction of Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist figure is still making news. One of the unflattering cartoons depicted a head wrapped in a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse. The Islamic declaration of faith was written on the bomb in Arabic lettering. It was the association of Prophet Muhammad with terrorism which offended the majority of the Muslim community.

One of the cartoonists, Franz Füchsel, said that it was not his intention to hurt the feelings of the Muslim community. However, Flemming Rose, the paper's cultural editor, insisted that his interest in publishing the cartoons was only to assert the right of free speech over religious taboos.

This controversy has not stopped at the right of free expression. Moreover, three years ago, this newspaper refused to run some cartoons which lampooned Jesus. The reason cited was that it would not be enjoyable and would provoke an outcry. The editor who refused to run the cartoons was Jens Kaiser. Now he has refused to compare this decision with the current controversy over the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. His reasoning may be disappointing: the Jyllands-Posten never commissioned the Jesus cartoon, it was unsolicited.

The ambassadors of 11 Muslim-majority countries urged Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to take necessary measures to deal with this blasphemy towards Islam. However, Rasmussen said that he cannot do anything because Denmark's constitution guarantees freedom of speech. For this reason, a number of Islamic organizations in Denmark have taken legal measures by reporting the Jyllands-Posten to the police for violating Article 140 of the Criminal Code.

The law says that no one is allowed to publicly ridicule or insult the dogmas of worship of any officially recognized religious community in Denmark. Also, Article 266b criminalizes the dissemination of statements or other information by which a group of people are threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their religion. Based on this report, the police conducted an investigation on October 27 of last year.

However, on January 6 this year, the regional public prosecutor in the city of Viborg rejected the case. He said that while the right to freedom of speech must be exercised with the necessary respect for other human rights, including the right to protection against discrimination, insult and degradation, no apparent violation of the law had occurred.

The prosecutor's argument fits with the precedent set in 1984 when an artist, Jens Jørgen Thorsen, was asked to paint the wall of a train station. Thorsen portrayed a naked Jesus having an erection. In 1992, Thorsen also directed a film which portrayed a sexually active Jesus. Thorsen's mural and film did cause a bitter debate, but no criminal charges were made against him. In Denmark, as in other Western nations, there are many depictions of Jesus, but part of Danish society does not consider it an insult. Now, for some reason, Thorsen's mural has been removed from the wall of the train station.

In 2005, controversy over the Muhammad cartoons only received limited media attention outside of Denmark. Six of the cartoons were even reprinted by the Egyptian newspaper Al Faqr in October 2005 without any reaction. However, when a number of countries neighboring Denmark carried the cartoons in full at the same time, protests broke out.

On February 2, a number of media outlets in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy re-published the full series of the cartoons in support of the Jyllands-Posten, in the name of freedom of expression. In France, on the front page of the tabloid France-Soir was the provocative headline: "Yes, we have the right to caricature God", with a cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud.

France is the Western European nation with the largest Muslim community, about 5 million. According to Mohammed Bechari, President of the National Federation of the Muslims of France, his group is going to file a lawsuit against France-Soir, the paper which printed the caricatures. The drawings offended 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide. Since then, there has been a wave of protests, from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, to Indonesia.

A number of Danish imams who were dissatisfied with the public prosecutor's decision made a tour of the Middle East. This group of imams, consisting of Imam Ahmad Abu Laban, Akhmad Akkari, and led by Sheikh Rais Huleyhel, signed a petition. They met with Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, and the Sheikh of the University of Al-Azhar, Cairo, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, as well as the Egyptian Foreign Minister. They brought a dossier of the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, complaining of Islamophobia in Denmark, and asked for support.

Citizens in Denmark are divided on the issue. The left held a demonstration near the Hilleroed train station, about 30 kilometers northeast of Copenhagen. They supported the protests of the Muslim community regarding the publication of the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. They carried banners urging people to "crush the Nazis". For them, freedom of expression does not mean hurting others. "We say no to the racist and ignorant Danish Front demonstration against Muslims in Denmark and in the world," said Daniel Savi, a local secretary of the youth wing of the Socialist People's Party.

An hour earlier, at the same location, there was a demonstration of the extreme right which was organized by the Danish Front. They supported the Jyllands-Posten, and protested the burning of the flag of Denmark and attacks on Danish embassies in a number of Muslim-majority countries.

The string of riots finally forced Denmark Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to appear on a number of Arab television stations on February 2, to apologize for the hurt feelings of the Muslim community as a result of the cartoons. However, he also defended freedom of expression. "We are facing a growing global crisis," said Rasmussen, speaking about the impact of the cartoons. According to him, extremists have taken advantage of the clash of civilizations by exploiting the controversy over the cartoons.

Casten Juste, editor-in-chief of the Jyllands-Posten, initially refused to bow to pressure to offer an apology. However, the publisher of Jyllands-Posten finally apologized on January 30. Juste defended his right to publish the cartoons, but apologized for hurting the feelings of many Muslims. Jyllands-Posten is an old newspaper which started on October 2, 1871. Although it is not published in the capital city of Copenhagen, the Jyllands-Posten is Denmark's largest newspaper, with a daily circulation of about 158,000. The publisher says it is an
independent newspaper, but the public says that the ideology of the Jyllands-Posten is a bit to the right. This paper is known for its strong position towards immigrants, who generally come from Middle Eastern nations.

These apologies did nothing to slow the wave of protests. The protests took many forms: non-violent protests, flag burnings, murder and bomb threats, and the boycotting of Danish products in 15 Muslim-majority countries from Algeria to Pakistan. As a result, about 200 jobs have already been cut in Denmark. Many companies will go bankrupt if there is a long-term boycott. Denmark's exports to Arab countries total about US$2.6 billion annually.

Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria have recalled their ambassadors from Copenhagen. In Lebanon and Syria, mobs burned buildings containing the Danish consulate. In the West Bank, Palestine, about 300 people attacked the mission for international observers in Hebron. As many as 60 members of the mission were still inside at the time. Several protestors tried to force their way inside, but police were able to keep the situation under control.

Even in Tehran, Iran, hundreds threw stones and firebombs at the offices of the embassies of Denmark and Austria, on Monday of last week. One of the most famous newspapers in Iran, Hamshahri, heated up the controversy over the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad by holding a contest requesting the submissions of cartoons about the killing of Jews--the holocaust--in Europe during World War II. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad stated that the history of the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis is a myth which has been turned into a political commodity. This paper is challenging the Western media to publish the caricatures about the holocaust. Their point is, Hamshahri is doing the same thing as the conservative Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, when the latter published the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. It is measuring the tolerance of the Western world regarding freedom of expression.

The worst riot took place in Afghanistan. Police and US forces killed four people on Wednesday of last week, while Afghans were protesting the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad at the US military base in the southern town of Qalat. The base was targeted because the United States "is the leader of Europe and the leading infidel in the world," said Sher Mohammed, 40, a farmer who suffered a gunshot wound while taking part in the protest in Qalat. "They are all the enemy of Islam. They are occupiers in our country and must be driven out," said Mohammed. Afghanistan government officials have accused Al Qaeda of being behind the three days of bloody rioting in Afghanistan, which resulted in 11 deaths. The Afghans were moved to protest the caricatures based on radio reports.

In Denmark and other countries, a number of editors have been fired for printing the cartoons. In Sabah, Malaysia, the editor of the Sarawak Tribune resigned after allowing the reprinting of a cartoon. On the other hand, the editorial staff at the New York Press resigned from the paper because the publishers decided not to run the caricatures of Muhammad, even though the paper came out with an editorial criticizing other papers for not publishing the cartoons.

Even Western leaders are concerned about the impact of the rioting. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Iran and Syria of utilizing the cartoon controversy to fuel anti-Western attitudes in the Middle East. European Union officials and diplomats believe that violent acts directed against the diplomatic missions of European countries and their citizens in Damascus, Beirut, Tehran, and Gaza did not take place spontaneously, but were incited by governments or political groups. Syria was accused of being behind the burning of the embassy of Denmark in Beirut.

According to a number of analysts, the current situation is a "godsend" for the two extremist camps. "Islamic fundamentalists and European right-wingers both enjoy a veritable gift that can be used to ignite fire after fire," said Jeanne Haaland Matlary, professor of international relations and former Deputy Foreign Minister of Norway.

After the ensuing fallout in Muslim countries, both sides of the conflict have found themselves in uncharted territory. Both sides eye each other with suspicion and miscomprehension. For the Western media, freedom of speech is their unquestioned "dogma." For the Muslim community it is protecting the honor of their prophet. Terry Davis, head of Europe's leading human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, said that all freedoms, including the freedom of speech, come with responsibility.

After the protests erupted, some Europeans realized that Muslim minority communities in Europe--3 percent in England, 4 percent in Denmark, and about 5 percent in all of the European Community--wield much power in the Muslim world. "No longer is the issue merely that of belittling an immigrant group. Just as there are heroes of free speech in Denmark, there are also heroes--from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa to Indonesia--who are ready to take to the barricades to defend their prophet's dignity," said Jürgen Gottschlich, a German reporter stationed in Istanbul, Turkey.

Raihul Fadjri, Abdul Manan (BBC, Washington Post, Guardian, AFP)

TEMPO, FEBRUARY 20, 2006-024/P. 40 Heading Cover Story


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