Four years ago, I wrote a dispatch for PBS's Frontline/World about what at the time seemed to be a quaint little controversy unfolding in Denmark. Jyllands-Posten, the nation's largest daily newspaper, had published some cartoons depicting Islam's founder and prophet, Mohammed. Images of the prophet are considered blasphemous under Islamic code, but what really pissed some Muslims off was the offensive way Mohammed was portrayed in some of the cartoons, particularly one that showed him with a bomb for a turban.
The backlash was immediate, but relatively measured, at first. I reported the story three months after the cartoons had actually been published. Here's where the controversy stood then:There are about 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, accounting for 3 percent of the country's population. Soon after the cartoons ran, a few thousand of them took to the streets of Copenhagen in protest. But from there, the reaction snowballed to proportions that [Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons] never anticipated. At least 11 Muslim countries sent letters of protest to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The Organization of Islamic Conferences, a body that represents 56 Muslim states, put the cartoons on the agenda at its recent summit in Saudi Arabia. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights appointed a group of "experts on racism" to investigate the matter. And that's just the diplomatic blowback. In Kashmir, thousands of businesses reportedly shut down for a day in early December to protest the cartoons. (A reaction that left most Danes I spoke to perplexed). And according to the Danish Foreign Ministry, the youth group of Pakistan's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, posted an $8,000 bounty on the lives of the cartoonists.
The dispatch ran on Dec. 22, 2005 and initially received modest attention. A month and a half later, I received an email from the editors at Frontline that the story had suddenly taken off and had received more feedback than any other that had ran up until that time. The snowball was growing out of control.
In early February 2006, protesters in Muslim communities around the world took to the streets. Danish Embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran were torched. And over 200 people were reportedly killed in demonstrations in Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Today, a new book, "The Cartoons that Shook the World" by Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen, explores why cartoons published in one small paper in one small country had such resounding affects across the globe. Klausen demonstrates how the angry protests weren't exactly spontaneous, but rather a well orchestrated campaign. But the book has sparked some controversy of its own. It seems that the authoritative account of the Danish cartoons chose to omit the cartoons that sparked the controversy to begin with.
"The decision rested solely on the experts' assessments that there existed a substantial likelihood of violence that might take the lives of innocent victims," said a statement from Yale University Press, the book's publisher.
A number of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and American Association of University Professorsaccused Yale of failing to stand up for free speech. Indeed, Yale's decision seems to be exactly the kind of self-censorship that Jyllands-Posten's editor Flemming Rose was trying to challenge when he initially published the cartoons. Again, from the initial dispatch:
It was a provocation, Rose told me. A provocation to artists, writers, translators, actors and comedians who, he believes, are intimidated when it comes to addressing issues that some Muslims might find offensive.
"The point was that we have some people who submit themselves to self-censorship," Rose said. "And they are doing so not out of respect, but out of fear."
Rose listed several recent incidents to illustrate his point. After the 7/7 bombings in London, the city's Tate Gallery canceled plans to exhibit John Latham's "God Is Great," which featured a Koran (along with the Bible and Talmud) for fear of offending Muslims. And the translator of a new book by Dutch politician Aayan Hirsi Ali, a vocal critic of radical Islam, requested anonymity fearing the reaction of militants. (This is perhaps understandable. Ali previously collaborated on a film about Islam with Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a young Muslim man who claimed the film was blasphemous). But it was the complaint by a Danish childrens' author who said he couldn't find anyone to illustrate his book about Mohammed that finally led Rose to take action. Free speech, he felt, was being compromised.
But Yale's fears of a violent response are not unfounded. Obviously, there is the example of the deadly unrest of four years ago. But just this October, the FBI arrested an American man named David Coleman Headley and an associate for allegedly plotting an attack on Jyllands-Posten. Further investigation into Headley has shown that this might have been more than a crackpot scheme of some misguided radical. The FBI and Indian intelligence services now believe Headley helped plan the terror attacks in Mumbai last year. Federal prosecutors charge that Headley helped identify targets for Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist group, whose two-day attack on India's financial capital left 163 dead.
Four years ago, when I pitched the dispatch, I remember discussing with the editor at Frontline whether the cartoon story was too local and whether it had any legs. We decided that at the very least the story would say something about the uneasy relationship between Europe and its growing immigrant Muslim population. "The Cartoons that Shook the World" goes a long way in deconstructing how the cartoon controversy became much more than that.