Manipulation :An Endless Controversy

Posted in Broader Middle East | 06-Feb-06 | Author: Hichem Karoui

Hichem Karoui is WSN Editor France.


On 30 September 2005, the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten ("Jutland Post") published an article titled "Muhammeds ansigt"("Muhammad's face"). The article consisted of 12 satirical drawings of the prophet of Islam. It was after an invitation from Jyllands-Posten for around forty different artists to give their interpretation on how Muhammad may have looked, that twelve different caricaturists chose to respond with a drawing each. These twelve drawings portrays the prophet in different fashions. Islamic organizations demanded an apology from the Danish government and the incident turned into a worldwide diplomatic issue. The OIC (the Organization of the Islamic Conference), the Council of Europe and the UN all criticized the government of Denmark for not taking measures against the newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Now, the core of this controversy is perhaps beyond the apparent messages both parties have delivered. Is it a kind of “negotiation” between the West and the Muslim states? Is it about intervention in internal affairs or about freedom of expression?

The European view is that: 1- freedom of the media is granted by the law and governments can do nothing about it. 2- the foreign states (the Muslim states) have no right whatever to interfere in the internal affairs (what the press publish) of European sovereign states.

The Muslim view is that: If you take a picture of my face without my permission, if you depict me in a way that I deem harmful to my reputation or my person, I can sue. The prophet of Islam is a “moral person” and an ideal to which every Muslim identifies himself. If picturing his face is forbidden to Muslims, these latter cannot allow what happened without losing their face.

However, two points retain the attention in the present situation: 1 - the Danish newspaper has actually apologized twice, and the media in the Muslim world and in Europe neglected the fact. 2 – The Danish judiciary would have been able to tackle the issue preventing it from spreading abroad, if it has accepted to prosecute. Instead of that, they rejected the case out of hand as “unacceptable”.

The origins of the controversy

According to various Hadith (sayings of the prophet) any depiction of the prophets – not oly Muhammad but all those who preceded him and who are duly recognized and respected by Muslims - either in drawing or statues, even respectful ones, is banned out of concern that such images could lead to idolatry, and thus worshipping of Muhammad instead of the One God.

Some may wonder: why the controversy about the cartoon published in last September, has been aroused right now? Why during the last four months the Muslim world was quiet, and all of a sudden, demonstrations sparked and spread throughout the world?

An objective observer might remark that the masses of Muslims throughout the world which have never heard of Jyllands-Posten before this affaire was handled by the media and would never had, neither read the Danish papers nor have any clue about the events of this country. But now, these masses are investing the streets in several capitals, burning the Danish flag, and throwing stones on the embassies of this country, and calling for the boycott of all Danish products. Why a small event that would have never been heard of outside Denmark has been manipulated so that it grew out of control? Whom by?

Such a question is inevitable. For between Denmark and Muslim and Arab countries there have never been such incidents in the recent history. There is nothing comparable with the love-hate relations that we see for example between those countries and their previous colonizers (mainly Britain and France). Many Arabs and Muslims among those who took to the streets recently have likely never heard of Denmark or Norway or the Scandinavian countries before the Oslo peace process become the subject of the media. Many of them do not even know what is the capital of Denmark, and a lot of them certainly mistake Denmark for Sweden or Norway, etc. And now they decide that their new enemy is that country. It is quite an obscure affair, which came apparently to be useful for other interests than the Danish.

A delayed or a manipulated reaction ?

About four months after the publication, people rush to the streets and the frenzy starts. Meanwhile, stating this reaction some European papers decide that there is not enough chaos and that the best way to tell those oppressed Muslim masses that, unlike them, we are free in our countries is to re-publish what has just caused their anger.

A few days after the cartoons appeared on the Danish newspaper, on 2005-10-19, ten ambassadors from Islamic countries, including Algeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as the head of the Palestinian delegation in Denmark, sent a letter to Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen requesting a meeting and asking him to distance himself from alleged "hate speech". Rasmussen declined, saying that the government could not interfere with the right to free speech, but said that cases of blasphemy and discrimination could be tried before the courts. Yet, when the Muslim Danish community resorted to the law-court, they were told: the case is unacceptable.

On 2005-12-29, the Arab League criticised the Danish government for its handling of the affair. The Danish foreign minister Per Stig Møller responded, saying that the situation had been misrepresented. In late January 2006, Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their ambassadors for consultations - a traditional message of diplomatic displeasure - and Libya announced that it would close its embassy in Denmark. Pakistan's ambassador urged the Danish prime minister to penalise the cartoonists. In Bahrain, MPs called for an extraordinary session of parliament to discuss the cartoons, while protestors set Danish dairy products ablaze.

Apparently, what could have been diplomatically handled, was no longer contained. Is it right, logical, normal that such a small event causes such a turmoil? - No and Yes.

No first, because the whole affair might have ended with apologies from the newspaper; and there were apologies, but apparently too late.

And yes, because some rules have not been respected. A prime minister who rejects the idea of a meeting with diplomats has been perceived as a second offense to be added to the first one. The judiciary rejecting the demand for prosecution was felt as a second offense. Soon, a third one was added to the record, when out of solidarity , yet omitting the fact that the pictures have been repudiated by the Danish newpaper and twice apologized for, some European papers re-published them.

Clinton and Frattini made the point

In Doha, a few days ago, M. Bill Clinton was perhaps the first Western personality who made this comparison. Clinton warned of rising anti-Islamic prejudice, comparing it to historic anti-Semitism as he condemned the publishing of cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper. "So now what are we going to do? ... Replace the anti-Semitic prejudice with anti-Islamic prejudice?" he said at an economic conference in the Qatari capital of Doha. "In Europe, most of the struggles we've had in the past 50 years have been to fight prejudices against Jews, to fight against anti-Semitism," he said.

Clinton described as "appalling" the 12 cartoons causing uproar in the Muslim world. "None of us are totally free of stereotypes about people of different races, different ethnic groups, and different religions ... there was this appalling example in northern Europe, in Denmark ... these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam," he said. Clinton criticized the tendency to generalize negative news of Islamic militancy.» Because people see headlines that they don't like (they will) apply that to a whole religion, a whole faith, a whole region and a whole people?" he asked.

Another Western politician made the point: Franco Frattini, the vice-President of the European Commission and EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom, and Security, called the publication of the twelve cartoons "thoughtless and inappropriate" in a time when European animosity towards Islam is said to be on the rise. According to Frattini, the cartoons foment hostility against Islam and foreigners.

Here are the two letters of apologies that have been ignored :

Apologies of the Danish newspaper

First letter

Honoured citizens

Allow me the opportunity to correct some misunderstandings regarding the drawings of the prophet Muhammad, which have now led to a boycott of Danish products in your country.

The drawings were published four months ago as a part of a Danish debate about freedom of speech — a right that we cherish in Denmark.

The initiative has been interpreted as a campaign against Muslims in Denmark and throughout the world. I must categorically repudiate that. It was not our intention to offend anyone's beliefs. That it happened anyway was unintended. We have apologised for that many times in the course of the last few months, both in our own newspaper, in other newspapers, on TV, in the radio and in international medias. We have at the same time carried out meetings with representatives of the Muslim society in Denmark. They have taken place in a positive and constructive spirit, just like we also seek to establish a rewarding dialogue with the Danish Muslims in other ways.

We are sorry that the affair has reached the present magnitude and we will therefore repeat that we did not have intentions of offending anyone, and that we like the rest of the Danish society and respect freedom of religion.

Sincerely, Carsten Juste Editor-in-chief

Second letter (30 January )

Honourable Fellow Citizens of The Muslim World

Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten is a strong proponent of democracy and freedom of religion. The newspaper respects the right of any human being to practise his or her religion. Serious misunderstandings in respect of some drawings of the Prophet Mohammed have led to much anger and, lately, also boycott of Danish goods in Muslim countries.

Please allow me to correct these misunderstandings.

On 30 September last year, Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten published 12 different cartoonists' idea of what the Prophet Mohammed might have looked like. The initiative was taken as part of an ongoing public debate on freedom of expression, a freedom much cherished in Denmark.

In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize.

Since then a number of offensive drawings have circulated in The Middle East which have never been published in Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten and which we would never have published, had they been offered to us. We would have refused to publish them on the grounds that they violated our ethical code.

Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten attaches importance to upholding the highest ethical standards based upon the respect of our fundamental values. It is so much more deplorable, therefore, that these drawings were presented as if they had anything to do with Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten.

Maybe because of culturally based misunderstandings, the initiative to publish the 12 drawings has been interpreted as a campaign against Muslims in Denmark and the rest of the world.

I must categorically dismiss such an interpretation. Because of the very fact that we are strong proponents of the freedom of religion and because we respect the right of any human being to practise his or her religion, offending anybody on the grounds of their religious beliefs is unthinkable to us.

That this happened was, consequently, unintentional.

As a result of the debate that has been going on about the drawings, we have met with representatives of Danish Muslims, and these meetings were held in a positive and constructive spirit. We have also sought in other ways to initiate a fruitful dialogue with Danish Muslims.

It is the wish of Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten that various ethnic groups should live in peace and harmony with each other and that the debates and disagreements which will always exist in a dynamic society should do so in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

For that reason, Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has published many articles describing the positive aspects of integration, for example in a special supplement entitled The Contributors. It portrayed a number of Muslims who have had success in Denmark. The supplement was rewarded by the EU Commission.

Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten takes exception to symbolic acts suited to demonise specific nationalities, religions and ethnic groups.

Sincerely yours

Carsten Juste



It is inevitable to ask why in the Muslim World as well as in Europe, media ignored those letters.

It is quite possible then to induce from the way the whole case was presented to people, particularly the fact of omitting to underline that the Danish have actually apologized, was meant to aggravate it and manipulate it for political short-term and middle-term interests.

Hichem Karoui