Danish Cartoon Outrage in Context

There has been a lot of talk about the violent response by Muslims to cartoons mocking Mohamed published in Denmark. From what I have been able to discern, it is a mistake to think that the Muslim response to the cartoons is a natural, grassroots movement, representative of Muslims in general. The violence, protests, and threats appear to be part of a calculated propaganda maneuver, orchestrated by reactionary Muslim political groups.

According to this interesting article by Andrew Higgins in the Wall Street Journal, what was published in the Denmark newspaper was misrepresented to Muslims outside of Denmark:

Keen to “globalize” the crisis to pressure the Danish government, Mr. Abu- Laban and his colleagues decided to send delegations to the Middle East. They prepared a dossier to distribute during the travels. The document, which exceeded 30 pages, featured copies of the published cartoons and Arabic media reports about the controversy. It also contained a group of highly offensive pictures that had never been published by the newspaper, including a photograph of a man dressed as a pig, with the caption: “this is the real picture of Muhammad.”

Ahmed Akarri, a 28-year-old Islamist activist involved in the committee, says the photographs had been sent to Danish Muslims anonymously and were included as examples of Denmark’s anti-Muslim sentiment. He denies any attempt to mislead the Arab public about what had been published in Jyllands-Posten.

In another interesting article, Amir Taheri writes:

But how representative of Islam are all those demonstrators? The “rage machine” was set in motion when the Muslim Brotherhood—a political, not a religious, organization—called on sympathizers in the Middle East and Europe to take the field. A fatwa was issued by Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a Brotherhood sheikh with his own program on al-Jazeera. Not to be left behind, the Brotherhood’s rivals, Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party) and the Movement of the Exiles (Ghuraba), joined the fray. Believing that there might be something in it for themselves, the Syrian Baathist leaders abandoned their party’s 60-year-old secular pretensions and organized attacks on the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and Beirut.

Taheri continues to show that there is a long tradition of both self-directed religious satire as well as depiction of the prophet in Muslim art and literature:

The truth is that Islam has always had a sense of humor and has never called for chopping heads as the answer to satirists. Muhammad himself pardoned a famous Meccan poet who had lampooned him for more than a decade. Both Arabic and Persian literature, the two great literatures of Islam, are full of examples of “laughing at religion,” at times to the point of irreverence.

Another important point Taheri makes is that ethics in Islam are based on “Limits and Proportions.” In responding to offense, a Muslim should respond ethically with something proportionate: “the answer to an offensive cartoon is a cartoon, not the burning of embassies or the kidnapping of people designated as the enemy.

I few years ago I read a fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly by a man who had spent time in Egypt investigating terrorist involvement in a plane crash. I wish I remembered the particulars, but one thing that stuck with me from the article was the fact that when he spoke with average Egyptian citizens he found that their belief that the United States government was the most corrupt and evil in the world was founded in their experience with the corruption of their own government.

The only government they could comprehend was unjust, corrupt, and authoritarian. They could not envision that any government more powerful and influential in the world than their own could possibly be less corrupt and oppressive. It was perfectly plausible to them that the United States government would shoot down one of its own passenger airplanes and then blame it on Islamic terrorists, because they would expect such a scheme from their own government. In their view, the fact that the U. S. wielded such great power in the world was prima facie evidence of its great corruption and evil.

The point is that the Muslim response to the Danish cartoons has been manipulated through disinformation and propaganda pushed by reactionary Muslim political groups. It is also influenced by the conception of all government created among many Muslims citizens by their own oppressive regimes. We should take those things into consideration when framing our analysis and response.

Of course, there are those among the radical left and reactionary right in the U.S. who believe that our government would, and has attacked its own people and falsly blamed it on Muslim Terrorists (9/11). But I find their theories not only unbelievable and paranoid, but based on scant evidence. There is great value in being suspicious of government. However, some seem to take things to an extreme that I find mind-boggling.

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