Four years ago Muslims around the world were protesting against a dozen caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published by a Danish newspaper. The incident seemed to confirm Samuel Huntingdon's thesis of a clash of civilisations but researcher Jytte Klausen says it's much more complicated than that, in The Cartoons that Shook the World. It's a detailed and absorbing account of the whole affair.
Peter Mares: Exactly four years ago today, protesters set fire to the Danish consulate in Beirut. Denmark's embassy in Damascus had been torched the day before. Effigies of the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, were burned in Turkey, and demonstrations quickly spread from the Middle East to other countries across the Muslim world, including Indonesia, Afghanistan, Somalia, India and Pakistan. Many protests degenerated into riots, and in the resulting clashes with security forces around 450 people were killed, some 800 were injured. Danes were advised not to travel to 17 predominantly Muslim countries and to leave Syria and Lebanon immediately. Exports of Danish butter and other goods plummeted.
The cause of all this upset? The decision by a provincial Danish newspaper five months earlier to publish 12 caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, though in fact, as we'll hear, some of the cartoons didn't depict the Prophet at all.
Jytte Klausen is a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and the author of The Cartoons that Shook the World, a detailed and absorbing account of the whole affair. Professor Klausen joins us from Boston. Jytte Klausen, welcome to The Book Show.
Jytte Klausen: Thank you very much for inviting me on your program.
Peter Mares: Remind us how this whole thing started. Why did the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publish these caricatures?
Jytte Klausen: Well, Denmark, like many other European countries, has been really concerned and...even perhaps that's a too mild way to put it...very upset about the differences between religious Muslims and the sort of normal lifestyle issues that Danes like to embrace. For a period of time there had been reports in Denmark that Danish artists had become concerned about really just going about their business insulting religion like they used to because they were afraid of what Muslims would do.
So the editors of the newspaper decided that they were going to do an experiment. They wanted to find out if illustrators for newspapers, the cartoonists, really were afraid. So they wrote to all the members of the association of the Danish newspaper illustration association and asked them simply to draw Muhammad as they saw him. The 44 members, most of them didn't answer, and 12 did, and the 12 cartoons were the result of this experiment, and the newspaper had promised to publish them all and they did.
Peter Mares: As you say, 44 or 43 were invited, only 15 responded of these cartoonists, one turned down the commission out of fear, so only one said, 'No, I won't do it because I'm afraid.' Many didn't respond. A couple objected to the whole idea and said they didn't want to be part of it. But let's look at the 12 who did respond because many of them didn't actually depict Muhammad at all, did they.
Jytte Klausen: No...well, you can argue...one depicted Muhammad as a boy in 7th grade and the onset of teenage-hood, and he's wearing a soccer shirt and he's scribbling in Arabic script on a blackboard and nobody knew what the script said, but it turned out the kid was writing on the board that the editors of Jyllands-Posten are a bunch of reactionaries.
Peter Mares: So in fact that particular cartoon was an attack on the newspaper, not an attack on Islam or the Prophet or anyone else.
Jytte Klausen: That's right, and the whole story is just so fascinating because one of the sad aspects of it was that the cartoonist in this case had worked with a Muslim friend on the script (he didn't know Arabic, so the friend had supplied the script) and he was the first to receive a death threat. So this is one of the many strange little winding things that really never came out in the public debates.
Peter Mares: The story is full of ironies and weird kind of complexities. The most potent cartoon, if I can put it that way, was one by Kurt Westergaard. He's also been the most prominent target for assassination attempts since the cartoons affair. In fact just last month police shot and wounded a man who'd broken into his house wielding an axe and a knife. Westergaard's cartoon depicts the Prophet with a bomb in his turban, and you can immediately see why that would cause offence. A simple reading of it is that Islam is an inherently violent religion. But the cartoonist himself, Kurt Westergaard, maintains that his image was completely misunderstood.
Jytte Klausen: Yes, he argues that this is really just a drawing showing a mad cleric dressing himself up in the clothing of the religion and using religion to justify his violence, which is actually how most Protestant Danes would read a drawing like that because many Danes are used to depicting Catholics this way. So there are many aspects of the current complaints against Muslims in Denmark and their disloyalty to Danish norms and presumed loyalty to other powers that repeat the sort of things that Protestants have for centuries said about Catholics.
Peter Mares: Another example is a cartoon that actually depicts a Danish children's author with an orange falling on his head. That one makes no sense to anyone who's not Danish, I don't think.
Jytte Klausen: That's right, that's one of the other things about it, the humour is just not...humour doesn't travel. But to have an orange drop into your turban is an expression in Danish for having undeserved good luck, and this particular author, who as any Dane would know, who is being portrayed in this cartoon was among the people who had been complaining that he couldn't get anybody to illustrate his forthcoming book about Muhammad, the book eventually has come out, not to terribly good reviews. It was illustrated and the illustrator did ask to be anonymous. But in the cartoon the author was shown as running a PR show for himself, and he actually crops up in some of the other drawings as well.
Peter Mares: So, again, some of those cartoons were actually an attack on that children's author and the kind of campaign that the newspaper was running rather than an attack on Islam or satirising Muhammad.
Jytte Klausen: Yes, and it's a bit of an irony that Kurt Westergaard became so prominently identified with the cartoons. I actually in the book argue that his cartoon is not really the most anti-Muslim. Some of the other cartoons are drawn in a style that's very recognisably anti-Semitic and repeats stereotyping using racialist connotations to depict evil intentions.
Peter Mares: And a kind of echo of Nazi Germany in depictions of Jews in fact.
Jytte Klausen: Yes, in this case Muhammad is always portrayed as an angry Arab, which is also a Semitic trait that's being used; bulbous nose, et cetera. One shows Muhammad with a blood-dripping sword as an old man controlling what is obviously very pretty women. So the theme of this is violence and control of women and all of that, and also in the case of anti-Semitic drawings from the 1930s and subsequent anti-Semitic drawings in Europe which still exist, you have the theme of Jews controlling women also but in the place of violence, which is how Muslims are being stereotyped, it's about money. So there are some similarities there. But as Flemming Rose the editor said to me when I interviewed him, it was clearly the case that not all of the illustrators, the cartoonists, were 'with the program', but in the name of pluralism he published them all. And Danes never agree on everything, so why should they have agreed? That's to be expected.
Peter Mares: And you make the point that Muslims don't agree on anything either, and there were a very wide range of reactions to the cartoons within Denmark, amongst Muslims in Denmark.
Jytte Klausen: My interest when I started the work was to find out both what Muslims saw and why some Muslims got angry and what the complaint really was and also to find out what happened in the interim period between the time when they were published and the demonstrations (that you just described when you started the program) broke out. Because the time period was a puzzlement.
Peter Mares: Yes, five months had elapsed from the original publication.
Jytte Klausen: Yes, and the people who had been involved in those demonstrations for sure had not any knowledge of the cartoons when they were originally published. There's research done that shows when people started logging onto the newspaper's website and that didn't happen, knowledge about the cartoons didn't spread in the Middle East and elsewhere until late December and January and particularly after a meeting in Mecca on December 3rd and 5th in 2005 where the Organisation of the Islamic Conference passed a resolution calling for a trade boycott. That then became a signal to the media and to the religious authorities to start talking about the cartoons, and after that, knowledge spread about the cartoons.
Peter Mares: You make the point that this very local affair, which was aimed in some ways...the editors were really in conflict with a few local imams in Denmark with whom they'd had disagreements, but this very local Danish affair became in international incident. Why did it become a global affair?
Jytte Klausen: I argue in the book that there were two mainsprings really of the protest. One was the very same imams who the paper had been feuding with for some time, and they were all well known in Denmark, they started an action committee immediately and started making contacts with people that they knew in the international Sunni radical movement, stretching from particularly Lebanon to Pakistan. And there were early indications of trouble during that fall in Pakistan which people sort of overlooked and didn't really understand.
And then the second source was diplomats representing Muslim countries in Copenhagen. The representatives of a group of 11 ambassadors and chargé d'affairs had met in Copenhagen at a party to celebrate the end of Ramadan, right after the newspaper had published the cartoons. They got angry, they felt that Muslims were just getting beaten down a lot in the Danish press, and decided to write a letter of complaint to the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and deputised the Pakistani ambassador to do that because they figured he wrote English the best.
That letter raised a number of issues, not just the newspaper's treatment of the Muslim Prophet and the blasphemy and the insults to Muslims that that represented, but also other incidences with a Danish parliamentarian describing Muslims as like a cancer on society that had to be cut out. So the letter was much broader and really the result of...the cartoons were just the drop that made the anger flow over.
Peter Mares: And yet the Danish prime minister at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, didn't take this letter seriously at all.
Jytte Klausen: No, he didn't, he didn't respond to it.
Peter Mares: The other thing that happened was a group of imams went to the Middle East to try and get support for their complaints against the Danish newspaper. They took with them a dossier which had copies of all the cartoons but it also had three other cartoons, cartoons that had never been published in Denmark, and they took on a life of their own.
Jytte Klausen: Yes. I knew one of the imams, I had known him from my previous research, and I went to visit him, and he gave me a copy of this folder dossier, and as it was he was actually not among the travelling imams, he couldn't travel, in part because he was a political refugee from Egypt, so he couldn't go back to the Middle East. So I took it with me when I did my interviews and my research from the book, trying to trace how many of the people responsible for organising demonstrations, both among the Muslim association leaders in Europe, but also the ministries in Turkey and Egypt knew that those additional very, very insulting and sexual in nature depictions were not part of what the newspaper had originally printed.
Peter Mares: We should just describe for the audience...just so they know what we're talking about here, one image depicted a man with a pig's head but the most disturbing one I suppose was of a Muslim praying and being mounted by a dog. Now, that obviously is an extremely insulting image, but it wasn't part of the Danish cartoons and it wasn't published in any newspaper anywhere.
Jytte Klausen: No, it wasn't, they were downloaded from the internet. The folder is written in Arabic and in the folder there is actually a line that says that these are examples of things that are being said about Muslims and that Muslims receive in the mail. That wasn't really true because one of the images was later identified as simply just a picture from a pig squealing contest in France, it was just completely preposterous.
Peter Mares: I don't even know what a pig squealing contest is but presumably it's not an attempt to defame Islam.
Jytte Klausen: No, it had nothing whatsoever to do with Muslims, but they just downloaded it and put it in. And for sure, I found out that even a very influential cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, did not know that they were not part of the original illustrations. But by that time it really didn't matter. The whole show was on the road, so to speak, already.
Peter Mares: The easy interpretation of this affair is to see it as the clash of civilisations in action: that is, the idea put forward by Samuel Huntington that there are irreconcilable differences in fundamental values between different cultures, in this particular case between Islam and the west, between western notions of free speech and Islamic notions of respect for religion and the Prophet. But that's not the way you see it, is it.
Jytte Klausen: No, because in fact many religious people in Europe were extremely concerned about these cartoons. Roger Scruton, a conservative British philosopher, said a society that will blasphemise everything that's holy like this is not a society worth living in. For sure many organisations of pastors and Catholic organisations and Jewish organisations have all come out and been very concerned about the rising secularisation in Europe that allows newspapers like Jyllands-Posten and others to defame religion like this. And in fact the chief editor of the newspaper, one of his reactions (Carsten Juste his name is) was that religion is just taking up too much space in society, that's it's becoming a real encumbrance on free speech.
Meanwhile Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, said this was never about depiction, this was about the stereotyping of Muslims, it was about the implication that Muslims are violent because of the faith, it's Islamiphobic. So the primary complaint on the part of European Muslims and also many diplomats and organisation leaders was that this was just a simply racialist depiction.
Peter Mares: Yes, rather than it being against some injunction in Islam not to depict the Prophet at all. The other more fundamental point you make is that this became an international incident partly because of great power politics, if I can put it that way. The US was at this time...I should point out, the 'Great Satan', President Bush himself, was among the first to condemn the cartoons and the US took a very strong stand against the cartoons. Nevertheless, in a way the whole affair was used to attack US attempts to democratise the Middle East, and Denmark was an easier target than the United States.
Jytte Klausen: Yes, that's right. When I went to Cairo to interview Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League who was very important in pushing the diplomatic protests, he said, 'Who cares about Denmark,' and the same phrase came up again and again, and I got really mystified because if you don't care about Denmark, why the fuss? So I couldn't understand it. And the follow-up part of the sentence always was, 'But the United States has to understand that X, Y and Z,' and then it varied what people said about what it was the US had to understand. But the Egyptian government was particularly concerned about a push-back against the democratisation agenda, and wanted to show that these were the sort of things that could happen if you democratised...
Peter Mares: 'If you democratise you'll get mob rule' was the implicit message.
Jytte Klausen: Yes, but even more importantly they wanted to put on the table that westerners discriminate and violate human rights, and that's why the Egyptian government and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference went very far to point out that this was a violation of basic human rights. And that's one of the legacies of the conflict that is still with us, that defamation of religious figures is now being defined as a human right.
Peter Mares: Jytte Klausen, thank you very much for joining me on The Book Show on ABC Radio National.
Jytte Klausen: Thank you for talking to me.
Peter Mares: Jytte Klausen is a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and the author of The Cartoons that Shook the World, which is published by Yale University Press. The book doesn't actually contain the cartoons themselves and a very interesting explanation from the author and the publishers as to why that's the case is in the book itself. You can of course find the cartoons easily on the internet if you want to look at them. Jytte Klausen is also the author of two other books including The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe.