Danish Muslim Cartoon Controversy in Context

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross makes an interesting point with respect to the controversial Danish Muslim cartoons that have created a worldwide conflagration.

[Jyllands-Posten editor-in-chief Carsten] Juste contended that there is a real fear of being seen as criticizing Islam in large parts of the Western world, and that this fear has bred self-censorship. Juste is right on both counts. An article that I wrote for the Daily Standard back in November documents in some detail the trend toward criticism of Islam being met with threats or actual physical violence. Examples of this include Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa sentencing writer Salman Rushdie to death after publication of The Satanic Verses; the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh after he directed a film dramatizing the mistreatment of women born into Muslim families; the death threats directed against actor and Muslim convert Omar Sharif after he praised his role as St. Peter in an Italian TV film; Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali being driven underground by threats after admitting in a televised debate that she had left the Islamic faith; and Dutch painter Rachid Ben Ali being forced into hiding after one of his shows featured satirical work critical of Islamic militants’ violence.These are but a few examples of a far broader trend toward speech crticizing Islam being met not with counter-speech, but with threats — and in extreme instances, with death. So Jyllands-Posten’s publication of the cartoons of Muhammad is best understood not as an attack on Islam, but as a reaction to this trend, and an attempt to dramatically reassert the primacy of free speech. In the past, when criticism of Islam was met with threats, Westerners haven’t always been vigilant about standing behind speech rights. After a bounty was placed on Rushdie’s head, for example, British novelist John le Carré offered an excuse for Rusdie’s would-be assassins by stating that “there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity.” Likewise, Western legal systems — through such vehicles as religious vilification laws — frequently send mixed signals by suggesting that the slander of religion can be punished by law.

This isn’t to say that the cartoons have not being exploited by extremists on the Danish Right or that there are not reasons for sensitivity on the part of Muslims. There’s no doubt that the cartoons were offensive to Muslims and, indeed, intended to be.

Regardless, the right to free expression includes the right to be offensive in that expression. Indeed, it would be virtually meaningless otherwise. The editors at the London Telegraph are right: Democracy has a gun held to its head:

This newspaper would not have published the cartoons of Mohammed at the centre of this controversy, images which we regard as vulgar and fatuously insulting. But – and this is the crucial point – we reserve absolutely our right to make our own decision, free of threat and intimidation. The difficulty is that what started as an issue of editorial judgment has become a question of public order. The protesters in London with their disgraceful slogans – “Behead those who Insult Islam”, “Britain you will pay – 7/7 is on its way” – have made it all but impossible for a genuinely free debate on this issue to take place. All such debate is now being carried out in the shadow of murderous intimidation.

In this wretched affair, no sight has been more wretched than that of Jack Straw last week kowtowing to militant Islam. “There is freedom of speech, we all respect that,” the Foreign Secretary said, “but there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory.” How pathetic that Mr Straw did not find time to condemn the outrageous behaviour of protesters at home and abroad. Where, also, was Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, as Islamic militants called for bloodshed?

The Government’s response is especially feeble when compared to Margaret Thatcher’s behaviour during the Rushdie Affair. Whatever her private feelings about the author, she and her Cabinet colleagues were resolute in their defence of his rights. Even before the fatwah, she declared that “it is an essential part of our democratic system that people who act within the law should be able to express their opinions freely”.

Quite so. Mark Steyn observes that ‘Sensitivity’ can have brutal consequences. He begins with an interesting aside about the “spontaneous” nature of the protests:

I long ago lost count of the number of times I’ve switched on the TV and seen crazy guys jumping up and down in the street, torching the Stars and Stripes and yelling ”Death to the Great Satan!” Or torching the Union Jack and yelling ”Death to the Original If Now Somewhat Arthritic And Semi-Retired Satan!” But I never thought I’d switch on the TV and see the excitable young lads jumping up and down in Jakarta, Lahore, Aden, Hebron, etc., etc., torching the flag of Denmark.

Denmark! Even if you were overcome with a sudden urge to burn the Danish flag, where do you get one in a hurry in Gaza? Well, OK, that’s easy: the nearest European Union Humanitarian Aid and Intifada-Funding Branch Office. But where do you get one in an obscure town on the Punjabi plain on a Thursday afternoon? If I had a sudden yen to burn the Yemeni or Sudanese flag on my village green, I haven’t a clue how I’d get hold of one in this part of New Hampshire. Say what you like about the Islamic world, but they show tremendous initiative and energy and inventiveness, at least when it comes to threatening death to the infidels every 48 hours for one perceived offense or another. If only it could be channeled into, say, a small software company, what an economy they’d have.

A fair point. I live in the D.C. suburbs, within probably five miles of someone from virtually any national origin you could think of, and haven’t a clue where I would go to get my hands on a Danish flag in a hurry.

His more serious point, though, parallels that of the Telegraph and Gartenstein-Ross:

Jyllands-Posten wasn’t being offensive for the sake of it. They had a serious point — or, at any rate, a more serious one than Britney Spears or Terence McNally. The cartoons accompanied a piece about the dangers of “self-censorship” — i.e., a climate in which there’s no explicit law forbidding you from addressing the more, er, lively aspects of Islam but nonetheless everyone feels it’s better not to.

That’s the question the Danish newspaper was testing: the weakness of free societies in the face of intimidation by militant Islam.

One day, years from now, as archaeologists sift through the ruins of an ancient civilization for clues to its downfall, they’ll marvel at how easy it all was. You don’t need to fly jets into skyscrapers and kill thousands of people. As a matter of fact, that’s a bad strategy, because even the wimpiest state will feel obliged to respond. But if you frame the issue in terms of multicultural “sensitivity,” the wimp state will bend over backward to give you everything you want — including, eventually, the keys to those skyscrapers. Thus, Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, hailed the “sensitivity” of Fleet Street in not reprinting the offending cartoons.

Sadly, Jyllands-Posten has seen their point made all too well.

See all of the images in full size at my Danish Muslim Cartoons page.

Related stories below the fold.



Danish Embassy in Syria Torched over Muslim Cartoons
Danish Muslim Cartoons ‘Offensive,’ Says U.S. Government
Muslim Day of Anger to Respond to Cartoons
French Editor Fired Over Muhammad Drawings
French and German Papers Republish Danish Cartoons
Danish Newspaper Apologizes for Muslim Cartoons

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    If the Muslims continue their Radical and extremist views by threatening and physical harm to those who write and make a little fun of them, then they are on a path of distruction. The entire civilized will not tolerate this radical behavior for to long and we will see outright religous war on every Muslims all around the world. If the Muslims were smart, they would pull in their horns and settle dowm, join civilization, and learn to be a little more tollerent of those who do not kill and maime those who do not agree with their form of worship. They are walking on thin ice and may find themselves not wanted and deported back to their homelands by those who tried to help them.

  2. Mike says:

    What is it that everyone recites everytime the extremists act up – “Islam is a peaceful religion” – which is true unless you are a Westerner, christian, Sunni, Shiite, Buddhist…did I leave anyone out?
    It is time to stop these demonstrations the second they start w/ whatever means it takes to stop them.

  3. G A PHILLIPS says:

    The thing is that smartning up don’t add up with their so called faith.We have smashed two of their stronghold countrys with the back of our hand, and yet they ask for more of a thrashing. They chant death to America every God blessed day. They hold death close to there hearts, and use it becuse their so called god tells them to. You know, after 911 I was shure we were going to bust a D-day out on their P-asses, but my wish not granted, but if they are going to beg us for it every single day, why not?

  4. jimbo says:

    People need to calm down and look at this “protest” rationally. Steyn is right on two counts. One is that the demonstrations are not spontaneous; and the other is that this is rank intimidation. The most violent protests came in Syria and Lebanon where Syria has more than its share of lackeys. Does anyone seriously believe that spontaneous demonstrations just “happen” in Syria? As someone who sent an email to Glen Reynolds pointed out (http://instapundit.com/archives/028420.php) this is old fashioned “power projection” by Syria’s ally and bankroller – Iran. A lot of people criticize Jack Straw and the State Dept. for condemning publication of the cartoons; but in those cases the statements were not made because the US and UK are intimidated. It is because they have bigger fish to fry and need to maintain credibility with Arabs, Sunnis, and democratic Muslims. The Iranian regime’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is a clear threat to all of them, and they know it. No one seems to have notice that Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite and a supporter of the US, has condemned the protests. Keep your eye on the ball.

  5. harry says: