Guilt and the ‘Innocence of Muslims’
We tend to forget that it was in September 2005 that the editors of Jyllands-Posten first published a series of cartoons satirizing not just the Prophet Muhammad but the cultural hypocrisy that attends that any debate about freedom of speech where Islam is concerned. This collective amnesia is understandable and owes to the fact that a handful of Danes, some of whom also poked fun at their own self-conscious provocation, managed to avoid a global controversy until January 2006, almost four months on from the cartoons’ original publication. It was only then that European legations and non-Danish fast food joints were firebombed or stormed and boycotts of Danish consumer products were imposed across the Middle East. Never had Lego blocks seemed so polarizing.
In other words, it took four months for the clerics and their authoritarian helpmeets in the Middle East to organize a sophisticated public relations campaign that would stir indignation and hysteria where only ignorance and indifference existed. The lineage of this row, and the parallels with the current conflagration of anti-Americanism in the region, ostensibly ignited by an anti-Islam film no one had heard of before last week, are worth recounting.
In December 2005, a delegation of Danish imams met in Cairo with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and officials from Hosni Mubarak’s government. The imams carried not just the original Jyllands-Posten images but three new ones that they claimed added “context” as to how Islam was routinely lampooned with impunity in the West. One of these depicted a man in a pig mask said to represent a typical infidel’s derisory view of the founder of the faith, when in fact it was a newswire photograph of a French farmer from the Pyrenees who was competing in his town’s annual “pig-squealing competition.” A second delegation traveled to Beirut where the imams visited with Sunni and Shia clerics and did guest appearances on Al Jazeera and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television channel. One member of the delegation, Ahmed Akkari, then took a short bus ride to Damascus to shore up the Syrian grand mufti’s support for the coming backlash.
The real kingmaker of international scandal, however, was the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which held a summit in Mecca in early December. The same semi-fabricated dossier was circulated, resulting in a communiqué by the OIC that recommended the criminalization of “defamation to Islam and its values” and condemned the use of “freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religions”. As Jytte Klausen writes in The Cartoons That Shook the World:
The global Muslim population knew little about the cartoons until after the [OIC] summit meeting. It encouraged the religious establishments to become involved and various governments and parliaments in Islamic countries to publicly condemn the cartoons. The summit also made the boycott of Danish goods feasible.
Only then did the riots and embassy attacks commence, egged on by extremist clerics, dictatorial regimes and their proxies, many of which had to manufacture outrage where none spontaneously occurred. Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas all staged protests and allowed Western embassies or buildings in their demesnes to be raided or set alight. In total, 139 people were killed or died in the ensuing violence worldwide.
Now compare this affair to last week’s.