The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 1
On the surface, the conflict appears to deal with the publication of a dozen caricatures satirizing the prophet Muhammad, published in the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30 2005. The first that most people heard of it was four months later, on January 30 2006, when gunmen raided the EU offices in Gaza, demanding an apology for the caricatures.
Since then, Danish consulates have been attacked; the Danish national flag has been torched; Danish goods have been made the target of a boycott, etc. Altogether, the Islamic world appears to be up in arms against Denmark -- at least, the more excitable elements. Pressure on Denmark's government to apologize on behalf of the Danish people (who are being held collectively responsible by the radicals) is intense, and the Danish right wing is making the most of the situation, by emphasizing its anti-immigrant (and anti-Islamic) position. The situation seems locked into a spiral of confrontational rhetoric.
But is that all there is to the situation? Is the situation as clear as it seems, or is there more to it?
Let's go back to September 2005, but a bit further back than the publication of the caricatures. As you will see, there's a great deal more to the story than just a pointless provocation.
In the summer of 2005, author Kåre Bluitgen, writer of several books critical of Islam (Nye danskere and Til gavn for de sorte) and a frequent participant in media debates on Islamic presence in Danish society, was working on a book dealing with the life of Muhammad. During a meeting with an old acquaintance, journalist Troels Pedersen, Bluitgen mentioned that he was having trouble with his book, because three different illustrators (according to Bluitgen) had refused to participate, citing fears of reprisals for making pictures of Muhammad. Not necessarily an incredible story, since a Danish (non-Muslim) lecturer at the University of Copenhagen had recently been attacked for reading aloud from the Qu'ran.
Troels Pedersen didn't do anything with the story at the time -- but three months later, he was working at the Danish news agency Ritzau and Pedersen now made the situation with the three reluctant illustrators the basis for an interview with Bluitgen. Bluitgen declined to identify the three, but Pedersen went ahead with the story anyway.
On September 16 2005, Ritzau sent out the story of Bluitgen and the reluctant illustrators, under the headline Danske kunstnere bange for kritik af islam ("Danish artists fear to criticize Islam"). It was a very catchy news story, and it was quoted by a number of other media. Repeated requests by journalists for Bluitgen to identify the supposed illustrators were denied, and a certain skepticism crept in. Had Bluitgen concocted the story to bring attention to his upcoming book?
Nevertheless, the story dealt with a subject fundamental to a free press, namely the fear of creeping self-censorship. At Jyllands-Posten, an editorial staff meeting on September 19 2005 brought up the suggestion of testing Bluitgen's claims by asking a number of named illustrators to portray Muhammad. The idea was popular, and the newspaper's cultural affairs editor, Flemming Rose set the plan in motion. He sent out requests to a number of illustrators, and all of them responded positively, with no apparent fear of reprisals.
Rose (formerly correspondent in Moscow and Washington for another major daily newspaper, Berlingske Tidende) is a well-travelled man, with an extensive knowledge of the world. He is also a person who tends to treat the world as a series of black-and-white situations... perhaps the result of too many years in Russia and America (two cultures well known for the lack of intermediate shades in their world-views). In this situation, the matter was very clear to him. It was a question of a fundamental freedom of Danish society: the right of freedom of expression. And Rose was willing, even eager, to step forward and defend this right.
On September 30 2005, Jyllands-Posten printed the twelve illustrations, along with Flemming Rose's article warning about the need to protect the freedom of expression. The article garnered very little attention in the ordinary Danish public. The Muslim minority in Denmark, however, took the matter seriously -- as did a group of diplomats from the Islamic countries who were attending a reception the same day.
The scene was set for the next stage of the conflict.
(Continued in part 2)
Addendum - some selected recent blogposts on this topic:
mylifeonline.net: of gods and cartoons
spark: Cartoon Row Whos guilty
India Uncut: Where is Denmark?
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