In 15 years with the Mackenzie Institute, there are only two times that I have been genuinely angry. A mail bomb, harassment from supporters of various terrorist groups, and sundry other episodes might have left me peevish and irritable, but real anger has only been experienced twice. The first time was in 1993, when the Ontario Human Rights Commission mused aloud about suspending the principle of the presumption of innocence when accusations of racism had been made. The second concerns the casual attitude so many Westerners have toward freedom of speech with regard to the Cartoon Jihad launched against the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper.
The very foundations of our liberal-democratic culture, the core values of Western civilization, are too important to treat casually.
“Muslims are the first victims of Islam. Many times I have observed in my travels in the Orient that fanaticism comes from a small number of dangerous men who maintain the others in the practice of religion by terror.”
- Ernest Renan, as cited by Ibn Warriq, Why I am not a Muslim.
“The nice sensibility of honour, which weighs the insult rather than the injury, sheds its deadly venom on the quarrels of the Arabs…an indecent action, a contemptuous word, can be expiated only by the blood of the offender.”
- Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
“He who dares not offend cannot be honest”
- Thomas Paine
The uproar over some political cartoons in a Danish newspaper is a coordinated and deliberate assault on one of the most fundamental and hard-won rights in the Western World. After years of seeing freedom of speech being defended by the likes of pedophiles, pornographers and Neo-Nazis, it is a welcome relief to speak up for editorial cartoonists against the two-faced demagogues of the Islamic World.
The seeming outrage is only expressed by a tiny minority within the Islamic world, and could be characterized as the work of rabble-rousers and professional activists from the Jihadist movement. To acknowledge their point and adjust our behavior in any way only rewards this group and invites their next act of carefully coordinated ‘spontaneous’ outrage. Their concerns neither merit serious consideration nor our respect.
Those from Western societies who miss these points are making a grave mistake if they believe that refraining from publishing ‘offensive’ cartoons about Islam (let alone making any sort of intellectual inquiries) will solve the problem. Frankly, any concessions at this point is like tossing meat to a misbehaving canine… you are only rewarding bad behavior and can expect more of the same in the future. Try a rolled up newspaper and some firm language instead.
In a sustained military campaign, an attacking force must probe the defences of its opponent to look for weak points. Then it attacks, capturing what it can, exploiting openings as they develop, and striving to keep the initiative and weaken the morale of the enemy. Once the defences firm up in one sector, the attacker then must shift his focus and exploit a new weakness elsewhere. Deception is continuously practiced to mislead the defender, to get him to misread the situation and react too slowly or in the wrong place. Eventually, the enemy is irrevocably weakened and forced into a disadvantageous situation – whereupon the real killing begins.
An activist campaign is little different, except that it seldom proceeds with a grand master-plan in mind or under the control of a single entity. Rather, a network of loosely coordinated entities work like a wolf pack to tackle their objective: One might think of the 40 year campaign against cigarettes, or the way radical environmentalists now campaign as examples of how the process works: Weaknesses are probed and then exploited, gains are consolidated, success gets reinforced and failures are abandoned.
With the Jihadist movement, we have a new example. Islamic extremists intend to cause the downfall of Western society and supplant it with a new Caliphate. Their goal is our destruction. Those who do not believe this intention to be true have plainly not been listening to what the terrorists and their political activists have been saying.
The movement seldom acts as a single coordinated force, but rather operates in a loose pack motivated by a common ideology and shared sense of tactics. Nor do they primarily think of damaging the West in material terms, but rather seek victory in the psycho-political realm first… the rest can follow later. As the authors of blitzkrieg doctrines or the ancient Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, knew full well, victory over the mind and spirit of the enemy must come first; when he can no longer effectively resist it becomes much easier to accomplish his physical destruction.
The apparently offensive cartoons carried in the Jyllands-Posten on September 30th seem innocent enough by the standards of editorial cartooning in the Western World. Considering how casually and cruelly many politicians and other public figures have been lampooned by pen and ink over the years, the Danish cartoons are subdued and almost respectful. Some of the cartoons are attached (Appendix A) as are a selection of the much more pointed editorial cartoons of the Arab World.
The purpose of the cartoons was a reaction to the fact that the Danish publisher of a non-polemical children’s book about Mohammed could not find anyone willing to illustrate it. Jyllands-Posten issued a challenge to Denmark’s cartoonists to overcome the limits of self-censorship and published the results.
Activists are notorious for having no real sense of humor when it comes to their special issue – irony, gentle wit, or self-deprecation seems lost on them. Humor, of course, would detract from the seriousness or assumed gravity of their cause. One of the funniest ‘light bulb’ jokes takes a poke at this by asking “How many radical feminists does it take to change a light bulb?” The punch-line is “One, and it’s not funny.” Islamic activists certainly appear equally humorless. Ahmad Abu Laban, the leader of the Islamic Society of Denmark decided to take offense. Make no mistake; Laban is an activist with an axe to grind.
No society is perfect and a democratic society does need a regular supply of activists of various stripes to raise real and vital issues, test our laws and principles, and (sometimes) to try the public’s patience. Activists with real causes such as the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, the Suffragettes, or (occasionally) the peace movement need freedom of speech to function. So what should one make of activists who are against this vital right?
Some activists – particularly ambitious ones with lesser causes-- need division and conflict. When these don’t really exist (as is frequently the case in a truly multicultural or cosmopolitan society like, oh, Denmark), they must have the ability to make mountains out of molehills in order to create tension. In short, some activists do not exist to heal wounds and sore points in a society, instead they are there to preserve injuries and worsen them – it’s their ticket to power and influence. In an earlier, less blinkered age, such people would be usually referred to as demagogues.
Laban is a 60 year old Palestinian who has lived in Denmark since 1993. Over the years, he has appointed himself as the “moderate” leader of the country’s Muslims; a role which has been seen played in many other countries by similar figures. The role normally means making public appearances to wring his hands and remonstrate over “Islamophobia” and “racism” among the Danes. As these didn’t really exist a decade ago in one of Europe’s most tolerant and easy-going societies, it was up to Laban and company to ensure that they did. The cartoons gave him a new opening to incite protest.
Actually Laban is much less moderate than he appears: On February 3rd, Denmark’s state television station DR broadcast a long report about him. According to Danish authorities, Laban had been in close contact since the early 1990s with Gamma Islamiya, the Egyptian Jihadist terrorist group that also gave rise to Osama Bin Laden’s chief lieutenant Ayman al Zawahiri. Abu Laban worked as a translator and distributor for Al Murabitoun, the official publication of Gamma Islamiya after Zawahiri, Talaal Faoud Qassimy and other members fled from Egypt to Copenhagen. Laban may not be an Al Qaeda member, but he has certainly worked with them and is an active agent of the Jihad movement.
Interestingly, Laban had been persona non grata in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates because of his terrorist connections.
Laban’s attempts to stir up protest in Denmark were to little avail through October, but he apparently visited the embassies of several Middle Eastern countries in Copenhagen to try and garner more support. The ambassadors of twelve Muslim nations demanded that the Danish government punish the newspaper – and were rightly ignored. The only time freedom of speech was curtailed in Denmark since their Constitution of 1901 was during the Nazi occupation of WW II. Laban and his colleagues did mount a protest of 5,000 people – which is not a bad crowd for a protest march, but clearly not nearly enough to merit real attention. They also filed a complaint under Danish laws about hate literature, but this was dismissed in early January.
The failure to get a real reaction then led to a sponsored tour of the Middle East in December 2005 with a 43 page dossier outlining what Laban and his associates decided was more hateful material ‘proving’ bigotry and racism towards Muslims from Danes. The dossier included:
Sundry hate letters and e-mails purporting to be sent to Danish Muslims (many of these are of doubtful provenance, but some might be genuine).
Sundry cartoons, mostly of a humorous nature from a rival newspaper, largely poking fun at Jyllands-Posten’s Mohammed cartooning competition.
Video footage of Hirsi Ali, the Somali born Dutch MP and human rights proponent receiving a prize for “her work to further freedom of speech and the rights of women” from the Danish Liberal Party.
Although Laban was persona non grata in Egypt, the Egyptian ambassador to Denmark (since expelled) made entry to Egypt possible, where Laban and his colleagues made contact with a number of senior clerics and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. On December 5th, the dossier was circulated at a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference – with representation from 57 countries and several heads of state. Interestingly, the main focus of the OIC meeting had been intended to reconcile Shia-Sunni violence in Iraq (violence which ironically serves the purposes of both Iran and al Qaeda), but the cartoon controversy neatly derailed the issue.
There was little stir in 2005 about the cartoons – even the publication of six of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in the Egyptian newspaper Al Faqr in October excited no comment. So where was the rioting in the streets of Cairo? Plainly, if the cartoons were that outrageous, why was there a delay?
To return to military analogy, impulsively attacking in wrathful anger seldom yields good results. The best offensives are pre-planned.
The first real international rumblings about the Jyllands-Posten cartoons came across in the first week of January 2006. There was a general strike in Kashmir and a Pakistani political party posted a reward (of 50,000 Kroners) for the murder of each of the 12 cartoonists. Simultaneously, the political fronts of the Jihadist movement started to warm-up in other countries.
CAIR (the Council on American Islamic Relations – and a terrorist-connected defendant in the Trillion Dollar 9/11 survivor’s suit) started an e-mail flame campaign on American web-bloggers who defended the Danish cartoonists. Interestingly, when one Blogger (Daryl Cagle of FrontPageMagazine.com) started posting messages from the more rabidly foaming defenders of the religion of peace and tolerance on his site, the campaign started to slacken… and ended altogether when he invited his readers to post counter-flaming messages to CAIR. Bullies, as ever, have glass jaws and will back off when boldly confronted.
However, to a number of Muslim nations, the cartoon controversy has come as a godsend. The communiqué from the December OIC meeting railed against “using the freedom of expression as a pretext for defaming religions” and the members briefly discussed organizing a boycott of Danish goods.
To be candid, many observers have noted that the Arab world is backward, impoverished (even with the oil money), repressive, under-educated and in desperate need of reform. The rest of the World is passing them by, which is part of the crisis of identity that drives al Qaeda and the Jihadists in the first place. However, as the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report by 23 Arab economists and intellectuals described, Arab elites have a talent for finding issues and causes that can derail reform and sidetrack popular demands for change. Usually, getting excited about Israel will suffice to accomplish this, but variety is always welcome.
Pressure for reform and change has been growing, but the Jyllands-Posten issue has come in the nick of time. Elites can point out to their citizenry, ‘see what freedom gets you, they have insulted the Prophet and our religion!’ The rest is all too sadly predictable.
To a propagandist or rabble-rouser, there must always be a coat hook of truth to hang a fabric of lies from, and the cartoons have served that purpose. In manufacturing a crisis, if it is to be powerful it must look powerful. So, right after the annual pilgrimages were complete (as were the elections in Palestine) it was time to accelerate the new crisis of the day. On January 27th, the Saudis started the OIC-recommended boycott of Danish goods and recalled its ambassador. Other Islamic nations soon followed suit. On the 30th of January, Hamas gunmen stormed the EU offices in Gaza, and the crisis continued to grow.
By February 4th, protests were being arranged in Damascus (odd, how selective the Syrian police there can be as there are some causes that they would react to with mass machinegun fire). On the 5th, the Danish embassy in Beirut was set afire and their embassy in Iran was attacked on the 8th. By the 10th of February protests had spread to Indonesia, Malaysia and Afghanistan.
In most cases, the first protests have been small but intense and few foreign journalists have bothered to ask why so many of the signs are in English… By the 15th of February, the boycott of Danish products has become widespread in the Islamic world and the first mass protests of 10,000 plus-sized crowds have appeared, with the predictable rioting and looting of anything that seems ‘Western’.
In the riots in Pakistan of February 14th and 15th, it was clear that small ‘shock troops’ of 10-35 men from such groups as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Islami Jamiat Talaba and other Jihadist groups were leading most of the violence. They had come carefully prepared with incendiary materials and were traveling about in paramilitary uniforms and by jeep. In Syria, where open display by Jihadist groups is strongly discouraged, rioters were abetted in their assaults on some Western embassies by the withdrawal of police protection – a very telling sign indeed.
Thus, with terrorists and Middle Eastern governments working in common cause, has the severity of the crisis been established. Self-sustaining hysteria can carry it from here. There have been more than 40 deaths so far attributed to these protests; two embassies have been vandalized and a Catholic priest in Turkey was murdered. More violence will follow.
As for Laban, he has returned to Denmark to practice the other old tactic of the political front, that of standing to one side while attempting to look sorrowful and reasonable. To understand how this role is played imagine, for example, the outraged survivor of a sexual assault being told by a seeming passer-by (who is related to the rapist), “Oh, if only you hadn’t been so provocative”.
Throughout the Western World, the front groups and apologists of the Jihadist movement are playing similar roles. In Canada, the government was told that the publication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in the Western Standard would put our troops in Afghanistan in greater danger… What arrogance! What gall! And what idiot advised the new Minister of Defence to take this threat seriously!?
Our troops in Kandahar are in enough danger as it is and have been attacked prior to the planned eruption of outrage. Moreover, if they are defending Canada and Canadian values by hunting Talib and al Qaeda guerrillas, don’t these include freedom of expression? And why on Earth would anyone listen to the apologists of the Jihad for guidance on this deployment?
The Cartoon Jihad will not come to an end soon, and when it does end, some other self-appointed ‘leader’ will start the whole thing rolling again in another country once more. As long as Western leaders refuse to unequivocally defend Freedom of Expression and continue to agree that maybe the Jihadists have a point, the offensive will continue and these tactics will go on.
We do not have a problem. But the Islamic world does.
In 1989, Andres Serrano filled up a glass tank with his own urine, inserted a crucifix and photographed it – labeling his piece of work Piss Christ. Given what passes as art these days, it won a minor prize and applause from what passes as the cultural community. Comments from many Christians, particularly in the Catholic Church, described this piece as being deeply offensive, blasphemous, and outrageous. The fact that the artist was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts caused a minor fuss in the US Capitol Building. Subsequent showings of this work got picketed occasionally, and the photo was twice ripped off a gallery wall and kicked around by amateur art critics.
One should note that Serrano’s similar Madonna and Child II – featuring a statuette of a Madonna and Child also inserted into a glass tank of his urine – has raised no controversy at all. The more mature reaction from most annoyed religious believers is to feel pity for the artist, and hope that someday he finds the peace of mind that he obviously needs.
The fallout from Serrano’s work?
Imagine the results if Serrano did the same thing with some representation of Mohammed.
There is also the tale of two pieces of fiction: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Brown’s 2003 work purports to be a ‘researched’ fictional novel but is riddled with substantial errors about people, places, institutions, art, and the history of Christianity. The novel is largely a piece of conspiracy theory with all the usual trimmings of outrageous invention to cover for inconvenient absences of fact and contradictory history. Its distortions and attacks on the history of Christianity are deeply offensive to many Christians, particularly to Roman Catholics.
Yet in reaction to The Da Vinci Code, there is again a telling absence of death-threats, burned out embassies, molested publishers, and killings in protests (nor have albino assassins from Opus Dei been dogging Brown’s footsteps). The reaction from sundry priests, ministers and preachers has been to remind people that Brown’s work is only a sloppy piece of fiction, and to invite people to undertake a look at history for themselves -- preferably without resort to conspiracy myth addicts and their inventions.
Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses is based on an interpolation of a strange set of minor references in the Quran which have always troubled Muslims. The so-called Satanic verses have always been an enigma to scholars and Muslim clerics. The usual reaction among Muslims nowadays is to ignore them altogether, or to assert that Mohammed was being allegorical when he seemingly inserted a message from Satan into what became the Quran later. Rushdie himself was being weirdly allegorical in his novel and, while protest drove up the sales of his book, many Western readers have a very difficult time understanding his cultural references.
It would be difficult to determine if, on the whole, Rushdie’s novel is more offensive to Muslims than is Brown’s to practicing Christians, but the reaction was entirely different. There is a standing Fatwa on Rushdie issued by none other than the late Ayatollah Khomeini 18 years ago. In January 2006, the Iranian government announced that the death sentence (still coupled with a handsome reward for Rushdie’s murder) remains in effect. Moreover, in 1991, three people who had either translated the book or published it were knifed, one fatally. In India and Pakistan, 18 people died in demonstrations against The Satanic Verses; two Muslim clerics in Africa who opposed the Ayatollah’s Fatwa were shot to death, and two California bookstores were firebombed.
Altogether, it seems the Islamic world needs anger management sessions.
The apologists and front groups of the Jihadist movement continually tell us that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. One is reminded of Gandhi’s quip about Western civilization – that he’d like to see some. Peace and tolerance from Islam has traditionally been in short supply amongst Muslims themselves, let alone towards the rest of the World.
Muslim attacks on Christians and Animists in Nigeria, the Sudan, Indonesia and the Philippines are daily occurrences. The venom of their diatribes against the Jews and ‘Crusaders’ (us) seldom stops, even from the clergy in putative Western allies such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt. The Christian community in Iraq has survived everything the 20th Century could throw at them, but they are running for cover now.
If Canada or the United States was to practice reciprocity of religious tolerance with Saudi Arabia, there would be no Imams or Mullahs in the country, no Mosques, the Quran would be illegal as would be any open display of religious activity. If the Imperial powers of 19th Century Europe had used Islamic practices when they occupied the Middle East, Islam would be much reduced.
Most Westerners, now the product of a generation’s neglect of the teaching of history in their schools, know little about comparative religion, the history of Islam and about the West’s relationship with it. Suffice it to say, Buddha was a fabulously wealthy prince who discarded everything to seek enlightenment; Christ was a refugee as an infant, a carpenter as a man, and went willingly to his own torture and execution. Mohammed started with the peace and tolerance message but turned into a ferocious warlord when rejected. There were times when Buddhism and Christianity were spread by force of arms, but in the main conversion was done peacefully. Islam spread almost entirely by conquest and coercion.
Even today, Islam has nothing to teach us about peace and tolerance: Not when schoolgirls are burnt alive for trying to leave a flaming building improperly dressed; or when a woman is ordered to be executed for being raped, or is flogged to death for being unmarried and pregnant. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity (and certainly not Hinduism or Judaism) claims a right to convert the entire world by any means possible. We are occasionally reminded by some Muslim apologists that there is room for Christians and Jews in a Muslim society. But by now we understand what is meant by Dhimmini status (very second class status under Muslim rule), and we’ve learned about the practice of taqiyya (the doctrine of continual deception towards non-Muslims) in recent years too.
Yet we are told that that the cartoons of Jyllands-Posten are hurtful and that taking a hard line to criticism of free speech is “Islamophobic,” and “racist” too, of course. Does this seem to be a glass jaw?
Tolerance cannot be unilateral. Actually, it’s a form of credit against the earning of real respect, and respect has to be traded to grow. If we don’t get any from the supporters of Jihad who have settled inside the West, after a while, they shouldn’t expect any more tolerance to be advanced on their account.
The main reasons behind the massive immigration of Muslims into the Western World are natural ones – that common human desire for a better life for oneself and ones’ children. The Western World enjoys a much higher standard of life, is much wealthier, more advanced, and free. Even today, the agents of Jihad are only a tiny fraction among this immigrant community.
However, not enough people ask why the Western World is so well off and the answer is quite simple. The freedoms we have worked so long and hard to achieve make this dynamism possible. Chief among those achievements have been freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Political life has to be a rough and tumble of argument and debate – slow consensus building is too time consuming, too inflexible and too binding for the governing of a dynamic society. The arena of debate is a much better way of letting the ‘left; and the ‘right’ find solutions through creative tension. Yes, Free speech can be ugly (some Muslim readers of this will certainly think so), but how do we know what is true or what is best without testing it?
Freedom of speech also means the freedom to criticize, something that no totalitarian government can long withstand. Nor, if freedom of speech is tolerated, can stifling social strictures endure forever. In the Arab world, this is only beginning, and the explosion of media sources in Iraq bears testament to an exciting new potential… which perhaps has introduced a new urgency to the desire to bring Jyllands-Posten under control.
Freedom of speech is also the freedom to denounce, to accuse, and to defend oneself. Corruption is common to the human condition, but compare the level of corruption in places without a free press to what occurs where it is free. Think also of the ability to hold your leaders accountable.
To live in a society with free speech one must grow a thick hide. Five centuries ago, an artist like Serrano of ‘Piss Christ’ infamy would have been swiftly executed; and there were many writers who did have to run for it – usually to another European jurisdiction. But we can tolerate ‘artists’ like Serrano or conspiracy theorists like Brown as that is the price for free expression. Muslims who chose to live in the West had best learn to get the same thick hide, but they will eventually learn the price is well worth it.
Freedom of speech also means freedom of inquiry and freedom to learn. One of the reasons why the West took off so quickly in the last 500 years was the invention of the printing press in the 1450s – but the first printing press built in the Muslim world only came in 1750, and it stayed under political control in Turkey. By that time, the Europeans had turned their world upside down twice through the Reformation and the Enlightenment (two stages of intellectual growth which seem to have bypassed the Islamic world altogether) while a new scientific and industrial revolution was beckoning.
It is clear that there are plenty of Muslims eager to learn about Western technology – but learning about a few narrow disciplines without picking up the background that made them possible makes for a dangerously narrow base of knowledge, and they won’t be able to sustain it for long unless they learn to take the whole package of freedoms that made this knowledge possible.
Freedom of speech is too important to lightly discard or weaken to avoid being ‘offensive’ - particularly to Jihadists who hate everything that freedom represents or has produced.
For this reason, I am compelled to reproduce the cartoons that Jyllands-Posten published: They are posted as Appendix A. This paper began with three quotes, and will end with the same:
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at its testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions.”
- C.S. Lewis
“We have a tradition of freedom, personal freedom, scientific freedom. That freedom isn’t kept alive by caution and an unwillingness to take risks.”
- Robert Heinlein
“Guds hjælp, Folkets kærlighed, Danmarks styrke” [God's help, the love of the people, Denmark's strength]
- Denmark’s national motto
Note: For the cartoons in question (along with some other material) click here.
John Thompson is Editorial Director of the Mackenzie Institute which studies political instability and terrorism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org