According to a rather rightist Brussels Journal, whose website has been my main source to view the cartoons and obtain other details, it all started in the summer of 2005 when a Danish writer complained about not finding anyone willing to illustrate his book on the Prophet Muhammad. Here is a more detailed account from another similar website :
"Last September, Danish author Kåre Bluitgen was set to publish a book on the Muslim prophet Muhammad, but there was just one catch: he couldn’t find an illustrator. Artistic representations of the human form are forbidden in Islam, and pictures of Muhammad are especially taboo — so three artists turned down Bluitgen’s offer to illustrate the book for fear that they would pay with their lives for doing so. Frants Iver Gundelach, president of the Danish Writers Union, decried this as a threat to free speech — and the largest newspaper in Denmark, Jyllands-Posten, responded. They approached forty artists asking for depictions of Muhammad and received in response twelve cartoons of the Prophet — several playing on the violence committed by Muslims in the name of Islam around the world today."
These reports leave several questions unanswered. Were the illustrations absolutely necessary? How was it that the author was knowledgeable enough to write a book on the Prophet but didn’t know, nor cared for, the common Muslim’s feelings concerning images of the Prophet? If it were an artistic problem, then Bluitgen could have easily resolved it by only showing the landscape and the people around, but not the Prophet himself, as was done by the maker of the film "The Message." Doing that with an explanation would have also communicated to the book’s readers another bit of useful information about Muslims — if that was truly the author’s intention.
Another question that bothers me: why did Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten, see in the situation a threat to the Danes’ freedom of expression? And why did he, instead of commissioning some suitable illustrations for a children’s book, ask forty Danish artists to draw "a picture" of the Prophet to illustrate an article on the subject of "freedom of speech in a multicultural society"? (Did he not specifically ask for political cartoons?) Only twelve artists—yes, 12—agreed to take the chance. Some, to their credit, saw in Juste’s request a publicity stunt and expressed that opinion in the images they sent in. Jyllands-Posten, to its credit, published all the twelve cartoons on September 30, 2005. Two of them are indeed critical of the editor of the newspaper—including one that says in Persian (!): "Jyllands-Posten’s journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs"—a few are nastily racist, and one or two are blatantly anti-Islam. Altogether, however, they are quite mild as political cartoons in European and American newspapers go. Or, for that matter, the anti-Israel cartoons in Muslim newspapers.
Here another interesting question comes up. It’s very easy to make a Hitler cartoon: a cowlick on the forehead of any face together with a toothbrush moustache is more than enough. Just as a staff and a loincloth on an emaciated body is enough to caricature Gandhi. But we don’t have any historically verifiable image of the Prophet. So how does one make a caricature of him? Needless to say, one falls back on one’s racial prejudices: the Prophet must look like a ‘typical’ Arab. But what does a ‘typical Arab look like? Like the ‘typical’ Jew, of course, that one finds in the Nazi cartoons of the past but also in the present day anti-Jewish cartoons in Arab countries and the underground anti-Semitic literature in Europe and the United States. It’s amazing how different ingrained hatreds can sometime produce identical results.
As expected or desired by the editor of Jyllands-Posten, there was immediately a reaction of outrage in the Muslim population of Denmark, the overwhelming majority of which, we must never forget, is immigrant. As several writers have pointed out, the previously mono-cultural Scandinavian and Benelux countries are no longer so. They all have large immigrant populations, and a big majority of those immigrants are Muslims, both asylum-seekers and job-seekers. As their numbers have increased over the years so has changed their reception by the wider population. Denmark may be happy to do a billion dollars worth of annual trade with the Arab countries of the Gulf but its politics is now much imbued with racist and xenophobic views. Even the Queen of Denmark, who is the titular head of that country’s Lutheran Church, is on record with such views, as was reported in The Telegraph (U.K. April 15, 2005):
Queen Margrethe II of Denmark has called on the country "to show our opposition to Islam", regardless of the opprobrium such a stance provokes abroad.
The Danish government has already been accused of fuelling xenophobia by introducing measures which effectively closed the country to asylum seekers.
But in overtly political passages from an official biography published yesterday Queen Margrethe makes comments certain to complicate her nation's relationship with Muslims.
She said: "We are being challenged by Islam these years - globally as well as locally. It is a challenge we have to take seriously. We have let this issue float about for too long because we are tolerant and lazy.
"We have to show our opposition to Islam and we have to, at times, run the risk of having unflattering labels placed on us because there are some things for which we should display no tolerance."
The Queen was admirably frank, for she also added: "And when we are tolerant, we must know whether it is because of convenience or conviction."
It was in the context of such royal sentiments that the editor of Jyllands-Posten commissioned, only four months later, his momentous political cartoons.
When the Danish Muslims tried to lodge their protest with the Prime Minister’s office, they were told to seek recourse through the courts. They did, but failed to get the verdict that they desired—as was predictable given the Danish laws on the freedom of the press. Instead of debating the free-expression issue and exerting pressure on demanding more editorial space for a debate on this subject or even a change in law with the help of their non-Muslim compatriots, nearly one-third of whom reportedly object to the publication of the cartoons, they then took their grievance abroad, to several Arab countries, to seek support. There were also immediate diplomatic protests. Ambassadors from some Arab countries and Turkey and Bosnia tried to present their views to the Danish Government, but the Danish Prime Minister refused even to meet with them. Soon the Organization of Islamic Conference passed a unanimous resolution condemning Denmark, and a boycott of Danish exports to Arab countries followed next. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights also condemned the publication of the cartoons, and promised more diplomatic action.
However, by the end of January 2006, the matter seemed to have reached some conclusion. The Danish Prime Minister had not changed his stand vis-à-vis Jyllands-Posten and its editor, but the editor himself had published a qualified apology: he apologized for having "indisputably insulted many Muslims" while asserting that the drawing were "not against the Danish law." There was even a "good meeting" between the editor and the Muslim leaders. The Danish imams announced that they too wished to end the matter and no more apologies were needed; the Muslim community leaders also made similar sounds of reconciliation, while still insisting that the newspaper make some more amends. Ahmed Akkari, the spokesman of Danish Muslim organizations, was reported to have said: "We want Jyllands-Posten to show respect for the Muslims. This can happen with an apology, but it can also happen in some other way. We will leave it to Jyllands-Posten to come up with some ideas." He stressed that the newspaper must declare it had no malicious intent to mock Islam when it published the cartoons. But some other Muslims opposed any further demands and proposed an event to celebrate the moderate side of Islam which was welcomed even by the editor of Jyllands-Posten.
The matter should have ended then. But it didn’t. How could it? By then it had taken on a life of its own. That was only predictable in this ‘globalized’, ‘inter-netted’, and ‘post 9/11’ world that we live in now. Particularly when the world’s ‘only super power’, led by a bunch of religious and ideological fanatics, is serially waging a ‘global war on terror’ in predominantly Muslim populations. By the time things started to cool down in Denmark, the news of the cartoons and the protests had been disseminated widely in Arab countries by those who had their own diverse motives. Meanwhile, other Scandinavian magazines and newspapers, in their turn, had chosen to express their solidarity with the Jyllands-Posten by republishing the twelve cartoons—even after the original editor had conceded that the cartoons were "indisputably insulting [to] some Muslims."
By now, outside of Europe, every would be leader in the so-called Muslim world had seen in the issue a fabulous opportunity to gain, regain, or further strengthen his hold on local power. They jumped into the fray joyously. Some might claim that they had to, because Danish imams and Muslim community leaders had come to them to draw the attention of their Muslim brethren to their plight in Denmark. Something queer, however, had happened during that trip, which has not found much mention in the reports. When the Danish Muslims visited the Arab lands they not only showed and distributed the original twelve caricatures but also added a few more, including three that were indescribably scurrilous. When asked about these additions, "Akhmad (sic) Akkari, spokesman of the 21 Danish Muslim organizations which organized the tour, explained that the three drawings had been added to ‘give an insight in how hateful the atmosphere in Denmark is towards Muslims.’" Mr. Akkari also claimed that he didn’t know "the origin of the three pictures" and that "they had been sent anonymously to Danish Muslims."
I must be forgiven if I must ask: Dear Muslim leaders, the drawing and publishing of the twelve cartoons was a blasphemous act, so how should we label your deed of reproducing and distributing many more and worse images? An act of virtue, blasphemy, or an attempt to cause fitna? Particularly now when your action has led to such terrible upheavals in public life in so many places?
And you, dear editor of Jyllands-Posten, what is one to make of your posture of upholding all Danish citizens’ right to free expression when according to a report in today’s The Guardian (U.K. Feb 6, 2006), your brave and bold paper, way back in April 2003, refused—"on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny"—to publish some drawings by the Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler that made fun of Jesus Christ?
Hypocrisy, rabble-rousing, and fanaticism is not always swarthy and hook-nosed, as often it comes fair-skinned and blonde too. As also in every other hue that mankind has.
Two long days have passed since I began sorting out my thoughts about this yet another clash between fanatics. Now it is late Tuesday, February 7. More demonstrations have taken place. In Indonesia, where nearly a million Indonesians were once killed for being ‘Communists’ and countless East Timorese were slaughtered for being Christians, but where no Muslim cleric had come forth to protest at the time. In Kabul, where four persons died when police fired on a demonstration, but where no mullah or mujahid ever came out to protest the destruction of Bamian Buddhas or to demand for the Afghan women the equality of rights that the Qur’an itself grants them. In Syria, where the present ruler’s father had once levelled to the ground the entire town of Hama and its population, but not a squeak of a protest was heard in any street in Damascus—or for that matter in any street in Riyadh, Amman, or Cairo, where the powers-that-be will not tolerate for a moment even a peaceful challenge to their own authority.
Meanwhile, back in Denmark, the local economy has been badly rattled, and the ‘Muslim’ boycott is beginning to affect the lives of the immigrant Muslim labour in Denmark and elsewhere in Northern Europe. A Muslim member of the Danish Parliament has appealed for a peaceful local resolution of the matter and objected to its ‘globalization’. One lonely voice. Who will listen to him? Will he even be heard in this clash of fanaticisms?
C. M. Naim is Professor Emeritus, South Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago