Liberalism and the "Satanic Sketches"


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Article on the 2006 Danish Cartoons controversy, published in the London School of Economics student magazine "The Scrip.t"

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Liberalism and the "Satanic Sketches"

  1. 1. 1 Liberalism and the “Satanic Sketches” By Saad Omar Khan The Danish cartoons incident is probably one which most people would understandablywant to forget. It seemed to have brought out nothing but mutual hostility between Muslims andthe West, and was certainly considered an international relations disaster for Denmark. Formany in the West, time seemed to be repeating itself: like the Satanic Verses controversy,Muslims seemed once again at odds with Western values and freedoms. For many Muslims, thecartoons seemed to show nothing more than a bigoted, anti-Islamic streak in Western society. Itmay seem that bringing up old wounds might be inappropriate; yet in a continent constantlytrying to fixate the position of Muslims as either intrinsically foreign or capable of integration,discussing the crisis is necessary as it showcases a flaw in European liberalism that may precludeany meaningful dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. As deplorable as the angry,intemperate, and often violent attitudes of many Muslims were, the cartoons and their supportersdid not display any greater sophistication. Despite the claims of the many of the cartoon’ssupporters that they were fighting against a form of religious totalitarianism, they were, eitherconsciously or unconsciously, supporting an all-toghether different form of narrow-mindedness. The so-called “Satanic sketches” published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Postenwere probably not intended to offend. In response to a claim that a children’s author could notfind anyone willing to illustrate a book on the Prophet Muhammad, the editors of the newspaperinvited cartoonists to offer their interpretations. The cartoons published on September 30, 2005depicted the Prophet of Islam in various caricatured forms, most of them far from flatteringways. The most notorious included one with the Prophet holding a curved knife in front of two
  2. 2. 2veiled women, another shows the Prophet with a bomb in his turban and yet another shows theProphet warning off suicide-bombers from heaven by announcing the lack of available virgins. Most in Denmark probably saw the cartoons as innocuous, not realizing the traditionalIslamic prohibition in depicting the Prophet in any form, or not appreciating the stereotypicalnature of many of the depictions. Regardless, the Muslim reaction in Denmark wasunderstandably one of outrage. This outrage spread to Europe and the rest of the world as thecartoons were not only circulated by Muslims but also reprinted by dozens of newspapers acrossthe world in subsequent months. Soon the entire crisis escalated to violence, including theburning of embassies in Syria and Lebanon, death threats directed at the cartoonists, and thedeaths of more than a hundred protestors in total. Jyllands-Posten could not have anticipated this level of reaction and anger on the part ofMuslims worldwide. Joern Mikkelsen, the editor in chief of the newspaper, defended accusationsof prejudice on their part by saying “No, we did not have a cynical, mean ambition to upsetMuslims around the world. No we did not have a cynical, mean ambition to upset Muslims inDenmark. No, we were not an accomplice of extreme anti-Muslim sentiment around the world.”1As far as they were concerned, therefore, the newspaper’s ambitions seemed more inclinedtowards engaging readers in a debate about censorship than really participating in journalisticMuslim-baiting. At the same time, one could have been easily fooled into believing that thecartoons were part of some Islamophobic tract. Even ignoring the Islamic prohibition againstdepictions of the Prophet as a general rule, one cannot help to see cartoons of the Prophet with abomb in his turban or the image of the Prophet holding a knife in front of veiled women as moreakin to crude, archaic Orientalist images of the East as a land violence and intrinsic barbarity.1 “Cartoon editor attacks misreporting”, June 6, 2006.,,1791557,00.html
  3. 3. 3 If the cartoons were displayed by themselves, without any broader contextualization, theycould easily have been seen as simply insensitive. What crossed the line from mere politicalincorrectness to something a bit more disquieting was the text written in the centre of the pagedisplaying the cartoons reading: “The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims.They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religiousfeelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where youmust be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule”2 The type of language used here doesnot seem indicative of the rhetoric of even-tempered dialogue or intellectual debate, but ratherthe language of xenophobia, the idea that Muslims cannot interact with “modern, secularsociety”, and, by extension, are thus inherently opposed to the West. Denmark has had a long history of democratic freedoms, especially in terms ofjournalistic expression. Critical mockery directed towards authority figures and traditionalvalues has a long and proud history. Like all societies where freedom of speech is held sacred,there is an idea that irreverency has a special place as a societal equalizer. Yet trying to poke funat the Danish royal family or any other public figure in a Danish context where satire of suchauthority figures is typical is not the same as attacking a representative figure of a minoritypeople who already feel marginalized in a society and where xenophobia and anti-Muslimsentiment is particularly rampant.3 There is also a difference between genuine liberalism andnarrow-mindedness in a liberal guise. Muslims do not object to satire or criticism anymore thanother groups do. The cartoons, however, did not come across as some intellectual critique ofIslam or religion as a whole or a cry against fanaticism, but more as a deliberate form of2 Translation of text from “Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy” .3 Karen Wren, "Cultural racism: something rotten in the state of Denmark?", Social & Cultural Geography, Volume2, Number 2, 1 June 2001.
  4. 4. 4mockery and marginalization. Jyllands-Posten itself has been accused of a conservative, anti-immigrant stance in its editorials.4 The newspaper’s cultural editor, Flemming Rose, when out of his way to deny theseallegations, instead accusing many of Jyllands-Posten’s Muslim detractors of essentially notunderstanding the nature of modern democracy by saying “if a believer demands that I, as anonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for mysubmission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.”5 Mr. Rose seems to be missingthe point. As he himself admitted, journalists often exercise self-restraint in matters of ethics andgood-taste. Jyllands-Posten refused to publish satirical cartoons depicting Jesus on those verygrounds. Many European countries use legal measures to isolate the purveyors of suchrepugnant ideals such as Holocaust denial because they see the need to limit certain areas ofspeech. What he should have appreciated was that the crude depictions of the Prophet wereemblematic of a very one-dimensional view of Islam. Displaying them at a time when theIslamic-Western divide has never been higher does not support the notion that Jyllands-Postenwas making some bold step towards freedom, tolerance, and rational dialogue betweencivilizations. Rather than describing all detractors as extremists or as kowtowing to totalitarianimpulses, some forethought should have been given as to what value and purpose the cartoonswould have in the place and time in which they were published. As the crisis seems to be fading from memory, one should not be inclined toward thenotion that inter-cultural dialogue is impossible and unnecessary. It should be obvious thatcultures do not fundamentally share the same values; it is precisely the contrast in values that4 “The Torch: Report to the UN on Discrimination and Racism in Denmark” Flemming Rose, “Why I published those cartoons”, February 19, 2006.
  5. 5. 5define the separateness of societies. The cartoon issue is as much a question of the dividebetween religious and secular values as it is the divide between the West and Islam. Theassumption of the triumph of secular values is overstated if not entirely false. In the modernworld, the secular and the religious exist side-by-side. It is incidents like the cartoons that pointto a certain lack of ease between the two domains. Flemming Rose’s aforementioned statementconcerning the imposition of foreign taboos in a secular society has a bidirectional quality: justas one religious community cannot impose themselves on a non-religious society, secularistsmust appreciate what gives meaning to that religious community and use their secular values as ameans of encouraging genuine egalitarian pluralism as opposed to a hectoring monoculture. Those who remain pessimistic about the state of inter-cultural relations in the wake ofcrisis should note something mentioned by Karen Armstrong in recent article. During a meetingof the United Nation’s Alliance of Civilizations this year, polls amongst Muslim youths showedthat 97% of those deeply offended by the cartoons also strongly deplored the violent actions ofMuslims protestors across the Islamic world. It was also reported that, while most Danes werealarmed at what they perceived to be a threat to their freedom of expression, they were alsodeeply unhappy with the offence felt by Muslims by the cartoons.6 There is a suggestion,therefore, that the dire proclamations of conservatives during the crisis that multi-culturalism andpolitical correctness are worthless ideals are wrong. While Muslims and non-Muslim Danescertainly held fast to their values, they were alarmed at the hostility and ugliness of the entiresituation. Thus, rather than seeing Western and Islamic societies as two grimacing faces staringacross an imaginary divide, Westerners and Muslims alike should now realize the possibility forvalues and concerns to overlap between “civilizations”.6 Karen Armstrong, “We can defuse this tension between competing conceptions of the sacred”, March 11, 2006.,,1728653,00.html
  6. 6. 6 It is this sense of dialogue that was completely forgotten by all sides during the crisis,almost as if both the cartoon’s unequivocal supporters and the extremists who demanded violentaction were twin sides of a similar venality. A desire for some measure of mutual respect andtolerance is not the same as caving into to the demands of genuine fanatics. The cartoons wereused to “prove” that Muslims were, by nature, fundamentally illiberal, especially in light of theviolent reactions stirred up by the crisis. No democratic nation has an obligation to apologize forits freedoms. The Danish government in particular was perfectly justified in staunchlypreventing any government intervention in a private journalistic matter. At the same time, nogroup (religious or otherwise) should be expected to simply not be offended when another groupviolates its taboos. Sacred cows are universal; those in the West as well as the East, the secularand the religious, all have lines where they fear to tread across. Understanding is not the samething as self-censorship and shallow political correctness. True liberalism, both as a politicalideal and as a general sense of social openness, has to accept the idea that both secular andreligious forms of “sacredness” need to be understood and respected.