The problem with a lot of the people taking the hardline pro-cartoon position is the inability to properly acknowledge or appreciate the larger cultural context within which this event is playing out. And also the exact history of the specific Danish cartoon controversy more specifically.
Basically, as far as I can see from reading a lot of the commentary recently, there seems to be a complete inability or unwillingness to regard the event in any kind of larger context. But the thing is, nothing – no events – occur in a vacuum. And I think with regards to most issues, progressives think context matters. Allow me to begin with analogy.

For example, I would imagine most people on this site would regard the fact that African Americans are disadvantaged – on aggregate – within America society as a whole. A typical right wing response to this is that either a) African Americans are innately inferior, which explains their disadvantage, or that, more commonly, b) their poverty is their own fault and if they just worked hard, they would be equal to white Americans. Now while b) is not a completely illogical or unreasonable point, I also think it is grossly simplistic and willing ignores hundreds of years of racism, apartheid, and systemized government-created, disadvantage, in both obvious forms (JIm Crow in the South), and less obvious forms (FHA housing policy, redlining), not to mention all kinds of subtle private forms of discrimination (bank loan policies, real estate “steering,” etc.). To say that these historical and political factors have nothing to do with contemporary race relations strikes me as absurd. Now, of course, this does not thus justify anything African Americans say or do because they have been oppressed.Of course not. For example, gang violence is wrong, regardless of this history. And neither is the idea that book learning as being “white” a sensible or legitimate form of “protest.” But to address the question of American race relations (as well as some of its unsavory characteristics) with out acknowledging these factors makes one wilfully uniformed and ignorant, and potentially suggests a way of – perhaps unconsciosuly – justifying one’s raacism.

I think a similar dynamic is playing out in some of the commentary I have seen on this website (and of course, elsewhere). Firstly, let us take note of the original context of the cartoon’s publication. A populist right wing Danish tabloid Jyllands-Posten commissioned a series of cartoonists to draw depictions of Mohammed after a Danish children’s book about Mohammed could not find an illustrator because prospective illustrators did not want to depict Mohammed, fearing a personal backlash, as any depiction of Mohammed is regarded as sacreligious by many Muslims. That is the immediate background.

Also important to note is the larger question of Muslim immigrants – primarily from Middle Eastern nations – to Europe since World War II, and the attendant political problems this has raised, especially in the last decade or two. Most of you I’m sure are aware of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist in Holland a couple of years ago. This was an event clearly related to the conflict between Dutch secularism and the still strong religiousity of a large segment of the Islamic populastion of Holland, which is almost all foreign in origin. This is an important point – in the context of Europe, Islam is “raced” in a way it is not necessarily in the broader Islamic world (I will return to this point). Similarly, a more secular version of these kind of conflicts has recently occurred in Britain – in significant riots in places like Bradford and Birmingham – between whites and South Asian Muslims (although not because of issues relating to Islam) and likewise in France, most famously in the “banlieu emeuts” of last November, involving primarily youth of North and West African origin. While neither of these conflicts was about a religious issue, they are evidence of the larger theme of third world immigration to Europe and the difficulties this has posed.

An important flipside to these conflicts has been the rise of nativist – and in some cases borderline fascist – political figures and parties who have been quite explicity anti-Muslim, anti-“foreigner” (particularly anti-third world foreigner) as a response to the anxieties these kind of culture clashes have provoked amongst “white” Europeans. Some of these groups and figures you have probably heard of. For example, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front Nationale, Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, the recent election of Jorg Haider in Austria, and, recently, in Denmark, when immigration restriction was important plank of platform bringing a rightist-coalition government to power. While these might be some of the more notable instances of this political turn, this anti-immigrant/immigrant question has become central in most European countries, launching a number of single issue parties (or at least parties whose primary appeal is based on stopping immigration).

Currently, Denmark has a population that is 4% Muslim, primarily drawn from Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey. Not unlike in other European countries, these immigrants have largely come to a society previously almost 100% “white,” that is often radically secular (for example, Denmark legalized gay marriage in 1989 (!) and it has some of the most liberal laws dealing with pornography in the world – for example, tabloids publish covers with naked women frequently), and have occupied a position on the social structure that is marginal – that is to say, in lowly paid jobs. Also, like in other European countries, there has been serious concern that these Muslim immigrants are too different to adopt properly to the norms established within the host society, and that if it is possible that they can, more immigrants of similar origin must be stopped or the society will lose its character.

It is in this context, then, that these cartoons were published. As such, I think is disingenous or ignorant to claim the question of their original publication is one of religion and blasphemy. Quite clearly, they were published in a context where Islam is understood as a cultural trait belonging to a specific minority seen as a threat to the Danish national character, a minority that is largely seen as a race in the context of Danish society, but of European society together. Thus, here, Islam is not simply “just a religion.” Doing a caricature of Muhammed has a specific cultural and racial meaning and is not simply about some kind narrow, free-floating idea of Islam. In this sense, I would argue that this cartoon has a cultural meaning not unlike that of anti-Jewish cartoons in the context of 19th and early 20th century Europe, where a “religion” is mocked, but a religion held by an often disliked, and usually marginalized minority often viewed in distinctly racial terms by the host European society.

This is why I find some of the full-throated “free speech” champions distasteful and ignorant. This question is not as simple as you want to make it seem.

Then, the question of the subsequent reaction. Here, I think more criticism and defense of free speech principles are in order. The first wave of protests came after the cartoon was originally published in Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. These were largely “low key” and involved boycotts in several Middle Eastern countries – Bahrain and Saudi Arabia being the two of which I am aware. There was also a mission by a series of political leaders from the Islamic world to meet with Danish PM Anders Fogh-Rasmussen. Now one can argue that this response was innapropriate. Personally, to me, it seems over the top and gratuitous. But I wouldn’t call it especially radical, either. As such, little of the world was aware of the controversy at the time. I can tell you I certainly wasn’t, and I read global newsources daily – particularly from France, Canada, Britain, and the United States.

The more recent controversy blew up when the aforementioned Danish PM Fogh-Rasmussen decided to issue an apology to Muslims who may have been offended. Mind you, this is all he did. He did not make any promises that he would censor future newspaper editorials or cartoons. Or make any other specific political concessions which some leaders in the Muslim world – wrongly, in my opinion – were demanding. Now to me, Rasmussen’s response was entirely appropriate.

But this response “offended” the editors of several European newspapers, who believed Rasmussen was “appeasing” Muslim sentiment by offering an apology for something that they felt he had no need to apologize for. in particular the German newspaper Die Welt. This decision was soon followed by more republications in other European newspapers. Subsequently, we have witnessed the indication of more serious and sustained protests in the Arab world, involving countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq, as well as amongst Muslim communities in Denmark, Britain, and elsewhere. A number of threats of violence have been issued, and in some cases, the violence has turned ugly, attacking the EU offices in Gaza, and most recently, torching the Danish and Norweigan embassies in Syria. Also, a Danish dairy company has been forced to close in Saudi Arabia, while a number of majority-Islamic nations have removed their diplomats from Denmark. Now, I agree that much of this subsequent reaction is out-of-line and is demaning things from Denmark it has no right to provide, if it is demanding anything at all. I also think that much of this reaction has become divorced from the original context of immigration and race within which the cartoon was originally published, and has – for many of those involved – become more directly a question of religion and blasphemy.

However, much of the “moderate” Muslim world has been deeply offended by the controversy, and not so much because of the blasphemy, but because of the gleeful defiance many seem to take with regards to offending Muslim sentiment more generally. For example, Hamad Karzai, a man for whom I have great respect, certainly a moderate or progressive Muslim with the uneviable task of trying to govern Afghanistan, has said the following: “Any insult to the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him, is an insult to more than one billion Muslims and an act like this must never be allowed to be repeated.” Likewise, Ahmad Olzalp from Egypt (who I must say, if you click on the link and see his picture, looks quite westernized) has the following to say:

A lot of people here are really offended by the cartoon.

My main problem with all of this is: What was the purpose of publishing this cartoon? Was it simply to offend? If so, they have certainly managed to do so.

It certainly appeared to be malicious, which is not in the spirit of freedom of speech.

In Europe there is a lot of uproar when anyone’s sensibilities are offended.

Take, for example, when Prince Harry dressed up in a Nazi outfit. The discussion was not about freedom of speech but what is considered offensive.

It’s the very same in this debate.

People have to be very careful when they publish something like this. They have to make sure they know what they are getting into.

I have discussed this with friends who view it as a very personal attack on them as Muslims. This one has hit a little too close to home.

Freedom of speech should be protected but it should be used responsibly  

I am Muslim and I like to see myself as open-minded and I believe in freedom of speech, but it should be used responsibly.

But I do sympathise with others around me who have taken this to heart.

The fact is there is wave of prejudice against Muslims and Islam sweeping Europe and this was below the belt.

The perception of Islam in Europe needs to be addressed, but I’m not sure that publishing a full page of caricatures about the Prophet Muhammad is the way to go about it.

European misconceptions about Islam are perhaps understandable in the wake of the attacks in London and Madrid, but it’s a small group of extremists doing this.

No doubt, there has been an overreaction on both sides of the argument.

The display of solidarity on the part of the European newspapers was an overreaction – to republish these pictures without context, just to take a stand, was wrong.

But then on the other side of the argument you have people making bomb threats, which is going way too far.

I hope it doesn’t end like it did with Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands.

It’s a good thing that it has opened up debate about perceptions of Muslims in Europe, but the arguments need to be more constructive in order for this to have a positive outcome.

The Danish failed to understand how offensive it is to caricature the Prophet Muhammad. In the Muslim world we are not even allowed to have any images of the Prophet Muhammad, never mind ones that caricature him.

But if lessons are learned from this, it will be a positive thing.

In other words, I do not think Denmark should give into the demands some are asking. They have – and I believe this very strongly – the right to maintain the society along the lines they have established, which to me, seem like lines I would like the US to follow with regards to personal freedom and civil liberty. I also think that freedom of speech must always be the default position of not just progressives, but of global citizens more generally. But I think to glory in these cartoons and understand the issue simply as one of blasphemy is to be ignorant also. Jyllens-Posten should not be lionized for printing cartoons which – as I note – could arguably be seen as like anti-Semitic cartoons published in Europe from 100 years ago. While the situation is not exactly the same, “Islam” is also not simply a religion in the context of modern European society either. And I think we should keep this in mind.

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