Cartoons, Outrage and Dialogue (Feb 2006 listserv discussion)
What follows is an archive of a February 2006 conversation on the NCDD Discussion list. Lars Hasselblad Torres initiated the discussion, asking if anyone was running dialogues around the outrage over the cartoons that were published in Denmark in September 2005.
Lars Hasselblad Torres:
Is anyone coordinating dialogue activities around the recent outrage over cartoons that were published in Denmark in September last year? This seems to be an instance where assumption, representation, politics and reaction have combined in a particularly toxic cocktail that is only now reverberating around the world.
The Danish government has said that increased dialogue is necessary. I wonder what kinds of conversations this opportunity can open here in the US as well?
Not sure if others are interested in this as well; wanting to be sensitive to traffic issues, I am open to off-list traffic as well.
Lars Hasselblad Torres
Researcher and Web Developer
Thank you for your thoughtful reflection on such a serious issue. I just returned from a long trip to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. I was in Mecca at the same spot where hundreds of people died in stampede – I was lucky to have done the stoning 10 hours earlier. Every time I come back I come back with renewed respect for my adopted country America. I also come back amazed at the lack of understanding and compassion about each other. It seems that there are many worlds on our planet earth.
I would love to participate in any such discussion on-line or off-line…I could help in inviting other curious and helpful people.
Mino F. Akhtar
Knowledge Innovation LLC
Organizational Learning & Change
The Cartoon Backlash: Redefining Alignments
By George Friedman
There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. We just couldn’t help but
open with that — with apologies to Shakespeare. Nonetheless, there is
something exceedingly odd in the notion that Denmark — which has made a
national religion of not being offensive to anyone — could become the focal
point of Muslim rage. The sight of the Danish and Norwegian embassies being
burned in Damascus — and Scandinavians in general being warned to leave
Islamic countries — has an aura of the surreal: Nobody gets mad at Denmark
or Norway. Yet, death threats are now being hurled against the Danes and
Norwegians as though they were mad-dog friends of Dick Cheney. History has
its interesting moments.
At the same time, the matter is not to be dismissed lightly. The explosion
in the Muslim world over the publication of 12 cartoons by a minor Danish
newspaper — cartoons that first appeared back in September — has,
remarkably, redefined the geopolitical matrix of the U.S.-jihadist war. Or,
to be more precise, it has set in motion something that appears to be
redefining that matrix. We do not mean here simply a clash of civilizations,
although that is undoubtedly part of it. Rather, we mean that alignments
within the Islamic world and within the West appear to be in flux in some
very important ways.
Let’s begin with the obvious: the debate over the cartoons. There is a
prohibition in Islam against making images of the Prophet Mohammed. There
also is a prohibition against ridiculing the Prophet. Thus, a cartoon that
ridicules the Prophet violates two fundamental rules simultaneously. Muslims
around the world were deeply offended by these cartoons.
It must be emphatically pointed out that the Muslim rejection of the
cartoons does not derive from a universalistic view that one should respect
religions. The criticism does not derive from a secularist view that holds
all religions in equal indifference and requires “sensitivity” not on
account of theologies, but in order to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. The
Muslim view is theological: The Prophet Mohammed is not to be ridiculed or
portrayed. But violating the sensibilities of other religions is not taboo.
Therefore, Muslims frequently, in action, print and speech, do and say
things about other religions — Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism — that
followers of these religions would find defamatory. The Taliban, for
example, were not concerned about the views among other religions when they
destroyed the famous Buddhas in Bamiyan. The Muslim demand is honest and
authentic: It is for respect for Islam, not a general secular respect for
all beliefs as if they were all equal.
The response from the West, and from Europe in particular, has been to frame
the question as a matter of free speech. European newspapers, wishing to
show solidarity with the Danes, have reprinted the cartoons, further
infuriating the Muslims. European liberalism has a more complex profile than
Islamic rage over insults. In many countries, it is illegal to incite racial
hatred. It is difficult to imagine that the defenders of these cartoons
would sit by quietly if a racially defamatory cartoon were published. Or,
imagine the reception among liberal Europeans — or on any American campus
– if a professor published a book purporting to prove that women were
intellectually inferior to men. (The mere suggestion of such a thing, by the
president of Harvard in a recent speech, led to calls for his resignation.)
In terms of the dialogue over the cartoons, there is enough to amuse even
the most jaded observers. The sight of Muslims arguing the need for greater
sensitivity among others, and of advocates of laws against racial hatred
demanding absolute free speech, is truly marvelous to behold. There is, of
course, one minor difference between the two sides: The Muslims are
threatening to kill people who offend them and are burning embassies — in
essence, holding entire nations responsible for the actions of a few of
their citizens. The European liberals are merely making speeches. They are
not threatening to kill critics of the modern secular state. That also
distinguishes the Muslims from, say, Christians in the United States who
have been affronted by National Endowment for the Arts grants.
These are not trivial distinctions. But what is important is this: The
controversy over the cartoons involves issues so fundamental to the two
sides that neither can give in. The Muslims cannot accept visual satire
involving the Prophet. Nor can the Europeans accept that Muslims can, using
the threat of force, dictate what can be published. Core values are at
stake, and that translates into geopolitics.
In one sense, there is nothing new or interesting in intellectual
inconsistency or dishonesty. Nor is there very much new about Muslims — or
at least radical ones — threatening to kill people who offend them. What is
new is the breadth of the Muslim response and the fact that it is directed
obsessively not against the United States, but against European states.
One of the primary features of the U.S.-jihadist war has been that each side
has tried to divide the other along a pre-existing fault line. For the
United States, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the manipulation of
Sunni-Shiite tensions has been evident. For the jihadists, and even more for
non-jihadist Muslims caught up in the war, the tension between the United
States and Europe has been a critical fault line to manipulate. It is
significant, then, that the cartoon affair threatens to overwhelm both the
Euro-American split and the Sunni-Shiite split. It is, paradoxically, an
affair that unifies as well as divides.
The Fissures in the West
It is dangerous and difficult to speak of the “European position” — there
really isn’t one. But there is a Franco-German position that generally has
been taken to be the European position. More precisely, there is the elite
Franco-German position that The New York Times refers to whenever it
mentions “Europe.” That is the Europe that we mean now.
In the European view, then, the United States massively overreacted to 9/11.
Apart from the criticism of Iraq, the Europeans believe that the United
States failed to appreciate al Qaeda’s relative isolation within the Islamic
world and, by reshaping its relations with the Islamic world over 9/11,
caused more damage. Indeed, this view goes, the United States increased the
power of al Qaeda and added unnecessarily to the threat it presents.
Implicit in the European criticisms — particularly from the French — was
the view that American cowboy insensitivity to the Muslim world not only
increased the danger after 9/11, but effectively precipitated 9/11. From
excessive support for Israel to support for Egypt and Jordan, the United
States alienated the Muslims. In other words, 9/11 was the result of a lack
of sophistication and poor policy decisions by the United States — and the
response to the 9/11 attacks was simply over the top.
Now an affair has blown up that not only did not involve the United States,
but also did not involve a state decision. The decision to publish the
offending cartoons was that of a Danish private citizen. The Islamic
response has been to hold the entire state responsible. As the cartoons were
republished, it was not the publications printing them that were viewed as
responsible, but the states in which they were published. There were attacks
on embassies, gunmen in EU offices at Gaza, threats of another 9/11 in
From a psychological standpoint, this drives home to the Europeans an
argument that the Bush administration has been making from the beginning –
that the threat from Muslim extremists is not really a response to anything,
but a constantly present danger that can be triggered by anything or
nothing. European states cannot control what private publications publish.
That means that, like it or not, they are hostage to Islamic perceptions.
The threat, therefore, is not under their control. And thus, even if the
actions or policies of the United States did precipitate 9/11, the Europeans
are no more immune to the threat than the Americans are.
This combines with the Paris riots last
November and the generally deteriorating relationships between Muslims in
Europe and the dominant populations. The pictures of demonstrators in
London, threatening the city with another 9/11, touch extremely sensitive
nerves. It becomes increasingly difficult for Europeans to distinguish
between their own relationship with the Islamic world and the American
relationship with the Islamic world. A sense of shared fate emerges, driving
the Americans and Europeans closer together. At a time when pressing issues
like Iranian nuclear weapons are on the table, this increases Washington’s
freedom of action. Put another way, the Muslim strategy of splitting the
United States and Europe — and using Europe to constrain the United States
– was heavily damaged by the Muslim response to the cartoons.
The Intra-Ummah Divide
But so too was the split between Sunni and Shia. Tensions between these two
communities have always been substantial. Theological differences aside,
both international friction and internal friction have been severe. The
Iran-Iraq war, current near-civil war in Iraq, tensions between Sunnis and
Shia in the Gulf states, all point to the obvious: These two communities
are, while both Muslim, mistrustful of one another. Shiite Iran has long
viewed Sunni Saudi Arabia as the corrupt tool of the United States, while
radical Sunnis saw Iran as collaborating with the United States in Iraq and
The cartoons are the one thing that both communities — not only in the
Middle East but also in the wider Muslim world — must agree about. Neither
side can afford to allow any give in this affair and still hope to maintain
any credibility in the Islamic world. Each community — and each state that
is dominated by one community or another — must work to establish (or
maintain) its Islamic credentials. A case in point is the violence against
Danish and Norwegian diplomatic offices in Syria (and later, in Lebanon and
Iran) — which undoubtedly occurred with Syrian government involvement.
Syria is ruled by Alawites, a Shiite sect. Syria — aligned with Iran — is
home to a major Sunni community; there is another in Lebanon. The cartoons
provided what was essentially a secular regime the opportunity to take the
lead in a religious matter, by permitting the attacks on the embassies. This
helped consolidate the regime’s position, however temporarily.
Indeed, the Sunni and Shiite communities appear to be competing with each
other as to which is more offended. The Shiite Iranian-Syrian bloc has taken
the lead in violence, but the Sunni community has been quite vigorous as
well. The cartoons are being turned into a test of authenticity for Muslims.
To the degree that Muslims are prepared to tolerate or even move past this
issue, they are being attacked as being willing to tolerate the Prophet’s
defamation. The cartoons are forcing a radicalization of parts of the Muslim
community that are uneasy with the passions of the moment.
Beneficiaries on Both Sides
The processes under way in the West and within the Islamic world are
naturally interacting. The attacks on embassies, and threats against lives,
that are based on nationality alone are radicalizing the Western perspective
of Islam. The unwillingness of Western governments to punish or curtail the
distribution of the cartoons is taken as a sign of the real feelings of the
West. The situation is constantly compressing each community, even as they
One might say that all this is inevitable. After all, what other response
would there be, on either side? But this is where the odd part begins: The
cartoons actually were published in September, and — though they drew some
complaints, even at the diplomatic level — didn’t come close to sparking
riots. Events unfolded slowly: The objections of a Muslim cleric in Denmark
upon the initial publication by Jyllands-Posten eventually prompted leaders
of the Islamic Faith Community to travel to Egypt, Syria and Lebanon in
December, purposely “to stir up attitudes against Denmark and the Danes” in
response to the cartoons. As is now obvious, attitudes have certainly been
There are beneficiaries. It is important to note here that the fact that
someone benefits from something does not mean that he was responsible for
it. (We say this because in the past, when we have noted the beneficiaries
of an event or situation, the not-so-bright bulbs in some quarters took to
assuming that we meant the beneficiaries deliberately engineered the event.)
Still, there are two clear beneficiaries. One is the United States: The
cartoon affair is serving to further narrow the rift between the Bush
administration’s view of the Islamic world and that of many Europeans.
Between the Paris riots last year, the religiously motivated murder
Dutch filmmaker and the “blame Denmark” campaign, European patience is
wearing thin. The other beneficiary is Iran. As Iran moves toward a
confrontation with the United States over nuclear weapons, this helps to
rally the Muslim world to its side: Iran wants to be viewed as the defender
of Islam, and Sunnis who have raised questions about its flirtations with
the United States in Iraq are now seeing Iran as the leader in outrage
The cartoons have changed the dynamics both within Europe and the Islamic
world, and between them. That is not to say the furor will not die down in
due course, but it will take a long time for the bad feelings to dissipate.
This has created a serious barrier between moderate Muslims and Europeans
who were opposed to the United States. They were the ones most likely to be
willing to collaborate, and the current uproar makes that collaboration much
It’s hard to believe that a few cartoons could be that significant, but
Send questions or comments on this article to email@example.com.
I thought some of you might be intersted in this:
Mohammed Image Archive: Depictions of Mohammed Throughout History
www.zombietime.com, San Francisco/Berkeley, CA, US
While the debate rages, an important point has been overlooked: despite the Islamic prohibition against depicting Mohammed under any circumstances, hundreds of paintings, drawings and other images of Mohammed have been created over the centuries, with nary a word of complaint from the Muslim world. The recent cartoons in Jyllands-Posten are nothing new; it’s just that no other images of Mohammed have ever been so widely publicized. This page is an archive of numerous depictions of Mohammed, to serve as a reminder that such imagery has been part of Western and Islamic culture since the Middle Ages — and to serve as a resource for those interested in freedom of expression. The images in the
archive below have been divided into the following categories: * Islamic Paintings and Miniatures Showing Mohammed in Full, * Islamic Depictions of Mohammed with Face Hidden, * European Medieval and Renaissance Images, * Book Illustrations, * Dante’s Inferno, * French Book Covers, * Various Eras, * Contemporary Christian Drawings, * Animated TV Parodies, * Satirical Modern Cartoons, * The Jyllands-Posten Cartoons, * Recent Responses to the Controversy, * Links.”
In response to Cynthia Josayma, I don’t quite agree that the US benefits, or even that Iran benefits. I think the forces that drive fundamentalism profit.
I would also add that what has shocked the world is not the outrage and the protests (which I think everyone can appreciate) but the threats of decapitation and the violence.
A cartoon about fundamentalists hijacking Islam and using it to violent ends has resulted in…well you can finish the sentence.
I’m reminded of Catholic reaction to the elephant dung Jesus on exhibition in Brooklyn a few years back. There was outrage and protests, but no one burned anything down.
Hi Olya: I also was aware that there had been a tradition of pictures
some of which were once acceptable to Moslems. However, I think
stressing that that tradition exists takes us off the point. The point
is that Islamic people RIGHT NOW do not find this acceptable. In fact,
they find it sacreligious. And I don’t think that anyone should
support the right of free speech to produce sacreligious work UNLESS
they have a very good reason to produce that work. In other words, if
they have a strong artistic reason to commit sacrilege, or they are
expressing something against that tradition because of abuse they
themselves have suffered within it, or some similarly important reason,
then the undeniable hurt to members of the religion who are offended
may be acceptable. Otherwise, how can sacrilege avoid being, or being
seen as, hate speech? If you insult Mohammed, how can you avoid his
followers feeling insulted?
It doesn’t matter how the cartoons were meant or how they would be
received in the culture of the people who produced them–unless that is
somehow related to a clearly justifying offsetting purpose as I
described avove. Discrimination, hate speech, and sacrilege must be
judged by the eye of the targetted population. To do otherwise is to
colonize the mental reality of another group. We have had enough of
that in our history already–and colonization is a major part of the
reason why the dispute between Islam and the West even arose!
Personally, as a Christian (a moderate Protestant married to a Catholic
and sympathetic to Catholicism), I find stuff like the elephant dung
Jesus to be very insulting. But I know that as a result of my
religious formation I could never hope to understand the level of
sacrilege involved in an image from the point of view of a tradition as
iconoclastic and anti-represention as Islam is now, whatever it may
have been in the past. I think for Christians to try to comprehend the
level of sacrilege involved, we would have to think more in terms of
bodily functions polluting the consecrated host or communion
wafer–because our feelings about sacrements are likely much more of a
good guide than our feelings about religious art, even mocking
religious art, could ever be. We are a visually saturated culture and
have been much more so for a very long time–and much more so than the
Islamic cultures, even taking into account the images you mentioned.
We have to imagine the level of sacrilege involved by creating examples
of comparable sacrilege in terms of our own traditions. It is not for
us to say that a counter-example from their culture in the past is
authoritative denial for what they are saying now about the
sacreligious impact of the Mohammed cartoons.
I don’t appreciate this link being pasted to the NCDD, as I think that
the pursuit of extreme free speech as an overriding ideal is compatible
with the purpose behind the NCDD. I say that even though I DO
appreciate that many people of conscience support free speech as an
overriding ideal, and even though I do welcome the existence of the
archive of images on the internet. I think it is great that people can
have access to expressions which represent well known and well
subscribed political traditions of ideals; but I don’t think those
expressions work to further the goals of promoting dialogue and
deliberation when those ideals are countered by many other people of
equal conscience and dignity, people who are involved politically in
this dispute and whom I would like NCDD to welcome into this dialogue.
So to the runners of the list, I propose that we should inform everyone
of the url so that they can go there if they wish, but we should kill
the link to that url from NCDD pages, because THIS space should not be
choosing sides in this important debate over the claims of free speech
versus claims of blasphemy, sacrilege, and hate speech.
About the violence associated with the outrage, yes everyone I think
should agree that that is totally unwarranted and excessive reaction.
If we have a problem with expressions, we should fight them with
expressions, not force. However, I found your tone to be rather
dismissive, Olya–even sanctimonious, comparing extreme Moslem
reactions to sacrilege to non-violent Christian reactions to what was
probably less sacreligious to Christian sensibility in the first place.
Christians are not under the same sorts of political and economic and
cultural pressures that affect the Islamic world today. We do not and
cannot walk in the shoes of Middle Eastern citizens from New York City.
We are richer and far more personally secure in nearly every way.
While violence should be deplored, it should not be deplored using a
false, unfair comparison which implies that one cultural and religious
group is superior to another. This is just another way to shut down
the right to speak from a group which desperately needs to both speak
and be heard. The situation there is explosive; the best thing NCDD
can do to help is to provide a safe place for expression where
listening can be assured to every speaker. There is a reason why
crisis response personnel in dangerous hostage taking situations try to
get their violent perpetrators to talk. Let’s never forget that.
To everyone at NCDD, I have been lurking for a long time and this is
the first–or maybe the second–time I have ever actually “spoken” up!
Hope it helps to promote the D and D for which the List stands! And
Olya, thank you for your post.
Law and Women’s Studies scholar, Saskatchewan, Canada
I’m not sure if you were saying posting the link was problematic. If so I’m not sure why. Espcially because it is a LINK that noone has to click, and includes depictions by Muslims of Mohammed.
I was merely adding input to the discussion. I have nothing to say one way or the other on the image issue, I just think that we should be very careful when we talk about a tradition we’re not familiar with, and I thought it was important to inlude another perspective on the image of Mohammed talk.
I don’t think the pursuit of freedom of speech should supercede everything, and its not hard for me to understand the level sacrilege. My husband is a Muslim. He’s not thrilled about the cartoon. But the problem as I see it is the recourse to violence as a response.
Thanks for your thoughts
Here’s a thoughtful comment by a peace-builder, a personal friend of mine:
February 3, 2006: 5:30 PM Eastern Stand Time : New York City
Imam Feisal and former Archbishop Lord Carey Call for Calm after Offensive Danish Cartoons
(New York., 02/03/06) – A prominent New York City Imam and Chairman of the multi-faith Cordoba Initiative, Feisal Abdul Rauf today spoke for the need for calm amidst the turbulence that has resulted from the publishing of offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Danish newspapers, and their subsequent republishing in the French, German, Italian, and Spanish press.
In their joint statement Lord Carey of Clifton, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Imam Feisal said: In our capacity as Muslim and Christian leaders committed to bridging the divides that separate our communities, and as members of the C-100 Coalition of the World Economic Forum, we are saddened and appalled by the cartoons, and the irresponsible actions of papers in Denmark in publishing them.
Moreover, we view their subsequent republishing in various other European newspapers as gratuitous and insensitive.
While we recognize the importance of free speech and agree that religions should not be privileged in this regard, the publishing of such insulting cartoons is expectedly being seen by many around the world as an affront to a world faith. This only deepens the suspicion between the West and the Muslim world. At a time when the need for understanding has never been greater, it is sad to see some participate in willful fomentation while others tirelessly advocate for mutual respect and compassion.
In the aftermath of the commotion, we call for calm and peace, as it is firmly our belief that such actions only further prove the need to deepen the dialogue between our faiths and cultures.
Imam Feisal is the Chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, whose mission is to heal the relationship between The Muslim World and America. Lord Carey Clifton is the former Archbishop of Canterbury and the current co-chair C-100 Coalition of World Economic Forum whose mission it is to promote understanding and dialogue between the Western and Islamic worlds
CONTACT: Daisy Khan, Executive Director, American Society for Muslim Advancement at 212 362 2242 or 201 868 4060, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks so much for this source! I love to see people of faith taking a
strong lead on this and speaking out for tolerance. I couldn’t agree
more about the need right now to build up peace rather than to tear it
down. It is healing to hear a Christina bishop and an Imam speak
together in this way.
“irresponsible actions of papers in Denmark in publishing them. Moreover, we view their subsequent republishing in various other European newspapers as gratuitous and insensitive.”
I agree with most of what Imam Feisal and Archbishop Carey said, but I’m not sure I agree with this. I believe the intentions of the Danish paper were borne of what they saw as a serious responsibility, addressing head on the fear people in that country of the consequences of adverently or inadvertently offending Muslims, and that the republishing, while it may have been insensitive, was not gratuitous. It also, was well thought out, by people who came together to support the right to free speech, to say there editorial policy would not be dictated by intimidation.
One may or may not agree with these perspectives, but I think to anyone involved in dialogue and deliberation, recognizing the importance of context and understanding the reality of all points of view is critical.
Boulou de B’beri:
This is my first time to intervene in this list. Indeed, I do believe that some of the questions raised by Olya are important to be considered as a D/D case study.
As a matter of fact, most debates (in western media particularly) have being focusing on what I could term to be “a 2-flow position.”
Kenoli said: “What is this and how would D&D engage this? It might be evident, though I think the ease with which we are distracted might mean that we haven’t really honed in on the larger dynamics in the world with real clarity.
I would agree with you. Most people, as well as most deliberation practitioners, have not honed in on the larger dynamics of the world in general. Basically, the US is currently neglecting its most vital societal priorities, in almost every core area of social and national health. However, it is almost impossible to start or to find information on specific deliberative process regarding these specific goals.
What is possible to find is deliberations about existing cultural debates and/or social divisions. However, I submit to you that the true dynamics will mainly elude our attention. Hopefully, we will enact various constructive community processes, while these issues are still in a small, quantifiable form. Thanks.