Escalating Conflict about Prophet Caricatures

Bomb in Turban

After the publication of the provocative Mohammed caricatures in a Danish newspaper the question has been raised about whether certain rights such as the freedom of speech and the press should find their limits where the freedom of the other is affected.

After the publication of the provocative Mohammed caricatures in a Danish newspaper the question has been raised about whether certain rights such as the freedom of speech and the press should really remain unrestricted or whether they – like every other freedom – should find their limits where the freedom of the other is affected. By Peter Philipp

​​"Because we are strong advocates of religious freedom and because we respect the right of every person to worship as they please, it was not our intention to insult anyone because of their religion," wrote Carsten Juste, editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten."

Damage limitation

Carsten Juste acts contrite: In an "open letter to our Muslim fellow citizens" Juste attempted at the end of January to calm the waves stirred up at the end of September, which keep growing larger and are threatening to get out of hand.

Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Kuwait have pulled their ambassadors from Denmark; Danish diplomats in Teheran and Baghdad have been summoned; an EU office was attacked in Gaza; every day more and more Arab and Islamic states are joining together in their call for a boycott of Danish goods; and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen has warned its citizens against traveling to countries like Saudi Arabia.

With a sharp pen

What has triggered these campaigns was the publication of twelve caricatures in "Jyllands-Posten" at the end of September. The newspaper, in an utterly mad initiative, wanted to "test" how far it could go. The object of the caricatures was namely the prophet Mohammed and what was sketched here with a sharp pen was not exactly flattering and even less suitable for promoting peace between religions.

In one the prophet – whose representation is strictly forbidden in Islam – was depicted with a bomblike turban: a message which has angered even moderate Muslims, because not only does it disparage Mohammed, but it equates him and Islam with terrorism.

The editor-in-chief of "Jyllands-Posten" now thinks that perhaps the caricature initiative "has been interpreted as a campaign against Muslims in Denmark and the rest of the world as a result of cultural misunderstandings."

This is not the case. They intended nothing of the sort and regret if they unintentionally hurt the feelings of Muslims. This apology has since been accepted by Muslim associations in Denmark. But not – for the time being – by Arab and Muslim states.

Mobilizing against the West

And here begins the second dimension of the scandal: Certain circles in the Muslim world appear to welcome the incident as an opportunity to reproach the West for its arrogance and insensitivity toward Islam.

Thus the controversial caricatures from "Jyllands-Posten" – which were also printed in a Norwegian newspaper – have spread throughout the Muslim world. And still others have appeared whose origins are unknown, and of which Carsten Juste says: "We would never have published them because they violate our ethical code."

The conflict, however, has also been aggravated by a fundamental misunderstanding on the side of the protesters. Arab governments are demanding an apology from the Danish government, and Arab ministers of the interior are asking Copenhagen to punish the authors of the caricatures.

The response has only made the situation worse. Minister President Anders Fogh Rasmussen distanced himself from the publication of the caricatures, but referred to the vested freedom of speech and press.

Norway has reacted similarly to demands for a political reprimand of the responsible parties. Anger from the Arab states has grown stronger, and a Saudi commentator went as far as to claim that it is now quite obvious that the West treats Islam as an enemy: Whoever denies the Holocaust in Western media is punished, but whoever disparages Islam and his prophets goes scot-free.

Once again insufficient knowledge and deliberate demonization of the other have stoked the fire. Just as they did years ago when Rudi Carell made fun of the Iranian revolutionary leader Khomeini in a tasteless TV sketch and Teheran initiated a political crisis with the Federal Republic.

Right to protection against disparagement

But at the same time we in the secular societies of the West need to rethink the relation between state and religion. As was discussed after the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, we must at least give some thought to whether certain rights such as the freedom of speech and press should really remain unrestricted or whether they – like every other freedom – should find their limits where the freedom of the other is affected.

In this case it is the freedom to worship and the right of minorities to protection from persecution, repression, and even disparagement. A religious minority – and that is what Muslims in Western democracies are – have a right to be protected against such hostilities, and the majority has an obligation to vouchsafe their protection. Otherwise the noble principles of democracy are meaningless.

Liberal thinkers naturally see a danger here. For instance, the left-wing "tageszeitung" in Berlin wrote in a commentary that there can be no guarantee that such incidences as what happened in Denmark will not recur:

"This is a request that cannot be fulfilled unless we let priests, Imams, and rabbis decide what we may read, hear, and see. After all these religious authorities have proven long enough that they are formidable repressors of the freedom of speech."

Peter Philipp

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2006

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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