January 5, 2007
A Retrospective Study of the Unfolding of the Muhammad Cartoons Crisis and its Implications
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By Aluma Dankowitz and MEMRI research staff*
On September 30, 2005, Denmark's biggest daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a series of 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. One, which was perceived as highly offensive, showed the Prophet with a bomb on top of his turban. Several months later, mass demonstrations were held in the streets of the Muslim world to protest against the perceived insult to the Prophet; some of the demonstrations turned violent and dozens were killed. Arab countries recalled their ambassadors; Danish and Norwegian diplomatic representations in Damascus, Beirut, and Tehran were attacked and set on fire; churches were attacked; Scandinavian representatives in the Middle East received death threats and demands that they leave their posts; fatwas permitting the murder of the cartoonists were issued by several Muslim clerics; Muslim fundamentalist organizations threatened terror attacks in Denmark; and an unprecedented boycott of Danish products was implemented by Muslim countries.(1)
"The Muslims worldwide - some billion and a half... are facing a new kind of Crusader war, whose weapon is the pen, not the rifle," wrote Muhammad Foda in the evening supplement of the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhouriyya.(2) The popular nature of the protest against the cartoons is all the more evident because well-known Egyptian singer Sha'aban Abd Al-Rahim wrote a song about the affair.(3)
Bin Laden also mentioned the affair. In a tape released April 23, 2006, he demanded that the Western governments hand the cartoonists who had defamed the Prophet over to the Muslims, so that they could be tried according to shari'a law. He stressed that anyone who mocked the Prophet or Islam should be killed.(4) On May 15, 2006, Al-Qaeda activist Sheikh Abu Yahya Al-Libi, who in July 2005 had escaped from a U.S. military prison in Afghanistan, said that the Muslims should talk less and do more: They should fight Denmark and Norway, and not be content with demonstrations and other forms of protest.(5)
However, the protests were not only on the popular level. The cartoon crisis began with activity by Danish Muslim leaders, and with calculated moves by Arab governments and Islamist figures. This is evident in the fact that the wave of mass demonstrations began months after the publication of the cartoons, and following Islamist and government activity - that is, not in immediate response to the publication of the cartoons.
The intense protest against the cartoons gave rise to worldwide debate regarding freedom of expression and the different perspectives on this freedom in Western and Muslim cultures. The main argument made by Denmark and by countries that defended it was that the publication of the cartoons violated no law and overstepped no boundaries of freedom of expression or freedom of the press as practiced in the West. To counter this argument, Muslim shapers of public opinion - many of whom have themselves in the past invoked the "freedom of expression" argument when accused of making antisemitic statements - were forced to redefine the boundaries of this freedom, stating that it did not apply to materials offensive to others. But even as it presented this argument, Arab media continued to make harsh and offensive statements against non-Muslims.(6)
This paper presents the unfolding of the crisis, the role of the Arab governments in it, and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera TV in escalating it. It also presents the prevailing Arab and Muslim perspective on the boundaries of freedom of expression as reflected in response to the cartoon crisis.
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*Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.
(1) For example, in a communiqué by the Abu Hafs Al-Masri Brigades who claim to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda, the organization threatened Denmark with "a blood-soaked war and blessed invasions [by the Muslims]." Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, February 2, 2006. On the burning of the embassies and the damage to churches, see MEMRI TV Clip No. 1025, "Protesters Burn European Embassies, Consulates, Churches in Damascus and Beirut," Al-Jazeera TV (Qatar), New TV (Lebanon), February 5, 2006, http://www.memritv.org/search.asp?ACT=S9&P1=1025 .
(2) As cited in Al-Masaa (Egypt), February 3, 2006.
(3) See MEMRI TV Clip No. 1073, "Egyptian Performer Sha'ban Abd Al-Rahim Sings against Denmark and the Avian Flu, and Talks about His Life and Convictions," Dream2 TV (Egypt), March 1, 2006, http://www.memritv.org/search.asp?ACT=S9&P1=1073 .
(4) http://www.metransparent.com/texts/bin_laden_full_text.htm, April 27, 2006.
See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1153, "Arab Reformists Under Threat by Islamists: Bin Laden Urges Killing of 'Freethinkers,'" May 3, 2006, http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=subjects&Area=reform&ID=SP115306.
(5) Yahya Al-Libi's statements were posted on several Islamist forums. See, for example, http://www.al-hesbah.org/v/showthread.php?t=62858, May 12, 2005.
(6) This combination of demands to respect Islam, on the one hand, and offensive comments, on the other hand, can be seen in the following remarks by an Iraqi preacher: "Bring Your wrath down upon the heads of the people of Denmark, oh Allah. Bring Your full force down upon their heads, oh Allah. Make Your ground swallow them up, oh Allah. Send Your earthquakes upon them, oh Allah. Send Your hurricanes upon them, oh Allah. Erupt Your volcanoes upon them, oh Allah. [...] You do not know how to respect the monotheistic religions, or the prophets and messengers. Oh Arab and Muslim rulers, a trade boycott is not enough. Closing down embassies is not enough. You should instruct your peoples to boycott all the infidels." Salah Al-Din TV, Iraq, February 10, 2006, http://www.memritv.org/Transcript.asp?P1=1047 .
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