Columnists > Voices

Cartoon violence

Europe finally takes sides in the clash of civilizations

Issue: "Tighter lips?," Feb. 18, 2006

Europe is finally waking up to the threat of radical Islam, as the cartoonist's pen is provoking the Muslim's sword.

Last year Kåre Bluitgen, a children's author in Denmark, complained that he could not find an illustrator for a sympathetic biography he had written about Muhammad. All of the artists he approached, aware of the Islamic prohibition of any religious images including those of their prophet, were scared to do any drawings.

So Flemming Rose, the culture editor of a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, challenged his country's editorial cartoonists to see who had the nerve to draw what they thought of Muhammad and to sign their names. The result was 12 caricatures of the prophet: Most of them were mild representations but others associated him with jihadist violence (having a bomb in his turban, brandishing a scimitar, breaking the news to martyrs newly arrived in Paradise that it has run out of virgins).

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Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons on Sept. 30, 2005. Danish Muslims complained, stirring up a purely local controversy-but then they enlisted the aid of other Muslims in distributing the cartoons throughout the world. To pour gasoline on the fire, someone-apparently a jihadist violating his own religion-added pornographic drawings of Muhammad as a pedophile, a pig, and a rapist, creating the false impression that these too were being published in Denmark.

Protests came from the Muslim street but also from Muslim governments. In December the Organization of the Islamic Conference, representing 56 Muslim states, filed a formal complaint at the United Nations charging Denmark with a human-rights violation for allowing the publication of the cartoons.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen insisted that the government had nothing to do with the actions of a newspaper, which was simply exercising the freedom of the press. "A Danish government," he said, "can never apologize on behalf of a free and independent newspaper." Other European newspapers, standing up for freedom of the press against Muslim pressure, also published the cartoons.

With that, the Muslim world-from Northern Africa through the Middle East to Southern Asia, and including the huge immigrant populations in Europe-exploded. What began with boycotts of Danish goods and diplomatic protests turned violent as mobs of Islamic militants attacked the Danish embassy in Indonesia and set on fire Danish diplomatic outposts in Syria and Lebanon. Demonstrations in Afghanistan and Somalia led to at least six deaths. Clerics have issued fatwas calling for the death of the 12 cartoonists, who have now gone into hiding.

But the Muslim rage is directed not just at the Danes but Europe-and the West-as a whole. Protesters called for terrorist attacks on Europe. One pamphlet circulated by gunmen who attacked the European Union office in Gaza called for attacks on churches. Protesters in England (where the cartoons were not even published) waved signs reading "Behead those who insult Islam," "Exterminate those who slander Islam," and "Be prepared for the Real Holocaust."

We Christians do not like our religion insulted either, though it happens all the time. Hollywood's anti-Christian slurs might provoke protests and boycotts (though not against the whole state of California). Christians do not, however, deny the offenders' freedom of speech, much less call for them to be killed.

Many Europeans, assuming that all religions are essentially the same, insist that conservative Christians are no better than conservative Muslims. They dislike America for being too religious. And, ironically, they dislike this too-Christian America for taking military action against jihadist Muslims.

The recent bloodshed is tragic, but at least the cartoon fallout puts Europeans on the same side as Americans in what Samuel Huntington calls "the clash of civilizations." Up to this point many Europeans have resisted the notion that the pen often must be defended with the sword.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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