A Caricature of Respect

Sara Bjerg Moller
Sara Bjerg Moller
Sara Bjerg Moller Assistant Professor - School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University

February 7, 2006

The publication of 12 cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has triggered a multinational crisis. Danish embassies have been burned in Damascus and Beirut, and five Afghans and one Somali have been killed by police in their home countries while protesting the cartoons. In Denmark, the cartoonists who drew the caricatures have gone into hiding. And it’s not just Denmark that is feeling the pressure; all of Europe is on high alert.

Given that, it speaks volumes that the politically fragmented continent—unable to agree on the Iraq war or on a European Union constitution—has managed to come together to support the Danish newspaper’s right to publish the caricatures.

But should we be surprised? The questions raised by the caricatures, which were published after the newspaper’s editor issued an invitation to Danish cartoonists to submit drawings of Muhammad, have been asked with increasing frequency in European capitals recently: How much does a society have to change to welcome immigrants from different cultures and religions, and how much must newcomers have to change in order to become members of that society? How, he wanted to know, was Islam affecting traditional Danish values such as freedom of expression and tolerance?

It’s not just Denmark that’s facing this identity crisis, it’s almost every nation in Europe. Similar questions were raised by the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 and by the riots in Parisian suburbs in the fall. Londoners were shocked to learn that four of the five Underground bombers in July were British-born.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Europe. There are at least 15 million Muslims living in the EU today. In the eyes of many Europeans, the problem hasn’t been just the size of the Muslim population, but these immigrants’ refusal to assimilate or compromise with Western culture and values.

In the past, Europeans tended to err on the side of caution and avoided directly challenging Islam for fear of destabilizing their relationship with the Muslim world. Now, Europe’s strategic interest in retaining access to Middle East oil demands that governments soothe Islamic ire. But European politicians’ interests lie in insisting that Muslim immigrants assimilate and in standing tough against censorship by standing up to Muslim mobs.

Now, European debates about immigration policies are not just arguments about assimilation. In the wake of the cartoon furor, they are becoming what everyone dreads: a “clash of civilizations.”

From the beginning, much more than freedom of expression has been at stake in the row over the cartoons. At issue is whether two cultures can coexist if Muslims refuse to accept one of the basic tenets of liberalism: the right of others to express their views, however offensive, without the threat of violent reprisal. The Muslims who torched embassies, and the governments that did not condemn them, have shown themselves incapable of understanding what pluralistic societies are all about.

In trying to appease Muslim public opinion by calling the cartoons offensive, the State Department missed the point. So did former President Clinton, who told an audience in Qatar last week that he found the cartoons “appalling.”

It’s not the decision by Jyllands-Posten and other European newspapers to publish the cartoons that is appalling, it’s the response from the Muslim world. If the Muslim outrage is really about demanding respect for others’ beliefs (a valid argument), Arabs should be insisting that their own media stop the almost-daily depictions of Jews and Christians as bloodthirsty cannibals and murderers of children. One tasteless act does not excuse another. Tolerance is a two-way street.

And what of the cartoons? The real issue is not that some of the cartoons portrayed Islam unflatteringly but that the prophet’s image was drawn at all. While Muslims are prohibited from depicting Muhammad, and doing so is considered blasphemy, this prohibition should not apply to non-Muslims. Demanding that non-Muslims abide by such a religious edict is tantamount to ordering them to follow an Islamic halal diet or cover their women’s hair. In a world with more than a dozen major religions, no faith can prescribe such behaviors to others.

Ironically, it was a Jordanian newspaper that got it right last week when it published three of the cartoons under the headline: “What hurts Islam more: these cartoons or pictures of a hostage-taker slitting the throat of his victim before cameras, or a suicide bomber blowing up an Amman wedding party?”

Although the editor of that paper now sits in a Jordanian jail, the question he asked is surely worth pondering.