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by Archives February 15, 2006

The ‘cartoon riots’ rage on and the debate surrounding them limps timidly behind. Unlike the violence in the Middle East, which is straightforward and direct, the debate in the Western world is hobbled by the press’ ignorant misrepresentation of the events. Here’s a list of some of the lies, distortions and mistaken assumptions that are preventing an honest and informed debate about both the cartoons and the riots:

The cartoons were printed as a provocation to Muslims: False. The original 12 cartoons were printed in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten as a way of drawing attention to the self-censorship that was being practiced in Europe of material that could be deemed offensive to Muslims. In other words, they were directed at the Danish and European press and publishing industry.

It all began when Danish author and former schoolteacher Kare Bluitgen, who was writing a children’s book about Islam to promote religious tolerance, tried to get an illustrator to draw respectful and positive pictures of the Prophet Muhammad. He was astonished to find that not one illustrator in the entire country was willing to draw Muhammad, even for such an innocuous book, because they feared a violent reaction.

When the cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten heard about this, he commissioned 12 artists to draw depictions of Muhammad, which he ran as part of a reflective piece on self-censorship. Several of the drawings are simple artistic portraits of Muhammad, while others are editorial cartoons addressing the problems of terrorism and repression committed in the name of Islam. While some of them could be seen as insensitive to Muslims, none could be characterized as grossly offensive by ordinary newspaper standards, except, of course, if.

It is completely prohibited to visually depict Muhammad in any way. While there is no actual prohibition against depicting Muhammad in the Koran, Islam has always had very strong prohibitions against idol-worship, including the making of idols and graven images. Different peoples and sects within Islam drew the line at different places throughout the ages, ranging from illustrations of Mohammed being permissible, right up to no images or sculptures of any living creature being permissible. Today, depicting Muhammad in any way is against the customs of virtually all Muslim peoples, but it’s still derived from the prohibitions against idol-worship, and isn’t a law unto itself.

Understanding Islamic jurisprudence and custom is helpful when trying to understand the feelings of many Muslims regarding this controversy, but it doesn’t directly apply to the printing of these cartoons. This is because Muslim laws and customs are only binding to Muslims. People of other faiths are no more obliged to observe Islamic laws and customs than are Christians to observe the dietary laws of Orthodox Jews, or Hindus to attend Catholic confession. While insulting another’s faith is hurtful, whether deliberately or by accident, this doesn’t mean one has to live by the strictures of their faith in order not to offend them. Still, even if they had the right to do it.

The printing of these cartoons in Denmark, and their subsequent reprinting elsewhere, provoked the riots. This apparent causality has framed the discussion in the Western world, and it, too, is demonstrably false.

First of all, the original 12 cartoons ran in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in September. Why, then, did it take until mid-January for riots to break out in reaction to these drawings? Because the rioters aren’t actually enraged by the Danish cartoons themselves, but by a worldwide incitement tour led by Danish Imam Ahmad Abu Laban in December.

Abu Laban initially tried to force the Danish government to punish the newspaper for publishing the cartoons. When the government refused, citing freedom of the press, he created a 30-page press release with the 12 cartoons. But he didn’t stop there. He added many more cartoons, some of which had nothing to do with Islam and many of which were too offensive and pointlessly crude to run in any European newspaper. Also, instead of including the thoughtful article on self-censorship that ran with the original cartoons, he compiled a list of fabricated outrages. These included assertions that Muslims are persecuted in Denmark, are forbidden to build mosques, and that a disrespectful movie about Muhammad was being made there.

Once he was finished creating this document, he sent it along with a delegation to Egypt, and they met with religious and political leaders there, where the falsified documents began to be disseminated. Soon afterward, another delegation was sent to Syria and Lebanon, where the inflammatory images and claims were aired on television and printed in the state-run newspapers. It was these falsified documents that sparked the riots, which were allowed by the governments of Syria and Lebanon, and which started the wave of violence that is now sweeping across the Middle East and beyond.

This violence bears no relationship to a dozen cartoons published in Danish some four months earlier. Without the printed lies and the fabricated images, without the widespread diffusion of them through the state-run media and without the orchestrated ‘riots’ in these countries, there would be nothing going on at all. But once the violence has exploded.

Reprinting the cartoons is unnecessary provocation, and only makes things worse. Wrong again. First of all, as should be abundantly clear by now, this has nothing to do with what appears in the Western media. The Middle East isn’t reading our newspapers and watching our television. Most of the people rioting don’t speak English, and hardly any would speak Danish. They’re reading what their governments choose to print, and watching what their governments choose to air. The responsibility for provocation rests entirely on the people who concoct and disseminate vicious lies.

The cartoons aren’t the story, the campaign of violence is the story. The cartoons, the original ones, not the forged ones added later by opportunists, aren’t terribly inflammatory. The worst of them is on a par with the average editorial cartoon seen everyday in newspapers across Canada. By refusing to reprint them, the Western media leaves the public with the impression that they’re far worse than they actually are.

Unlike the rioters, we live in free societies. We enjoy free speech and a free press. We shouldn’t be cowed into silence by the violent acts of people who’ve been misled by their leaders and media. The free press is the solution to this problem, not its cause. After all, if the people rioting knew the truth about these cartoons, they wouldn’t be rioting in the first place.

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