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Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation

About the author
David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy, which he co-founded in 2000. He has written textbooks on human rights and terrorism, and was a contributor to Town and Country (Jonathan Cape, 1998). His work has been published in PN Review, the Irish Times, El Pais, the Iran Times International, the Canberra Times, the Scotsman, the New Statesman and The Absolute Game

He has edited five print collections of material from the openDemocracy website, including Europe and Islam; Turkey: Writers, Politics, and Free Speech; and Europe: Visions, Realities, Futures. He is the editor of Fred Halliday's Political Journeys - the openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011)

The row over the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed raises profound tensions – between freedom of speech and mutual respect, ethics of satire and sacrality, shared values and coexistence, perceived western arrogance and Muslim victimhood. openDemocracy writers respond to the dispute and seek ways forward.


Respect, and a real debate
Roger Scruton, philosopher

Freedom of speech is one of the bastions of democratic government, and it has been clear at least since John Stuart Mill's eloquent defence of it that, without free speech, we are likely to be locked into mistaken policies until the point comes when we can no longer correct them. Actually this has happened in this country in the matter of immigration. As we all know, the cost of expressing reservations about the growth of Muslim ghettos in our cities was, at the time when this might have been avoided, far too great to take the risk. Now we must live with the consequences, and they are only just beginning.

That said, we ought also to recognize that freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to produce images, however offensive, or to make insulting gestures. The United States supreme court has set a very destructive precedent here, by regarding pornography as "speech" for the purposes of the constitution's first amendment, so protecting the most offensive image-mongering as though it were a vital contribution to public debate.

The effect of this has been amplified by the hooligan culture of "Britart", which has routinely presented images that desecrate the symbols of the Christian faith as though this were some daring challenge to oppressive hierarchies and a bid for liberation. Gilbert and George have just produced another truckload of this stuff, and the critics are making their routine nods of approval. As a result of this and the quotidian displays of degeneracy on TV we have lost all sense that the icons of faith must be respected, however ridiculous they may seem.

A faith is not a system of intellectual beliefs; it is a way of life. And the symbols of that way of life are like family portraits, which stay on the wall and the desk, defining the place where we are, the place that is ours, the home that is sacred and not to be defiled. Those who spit on them are not regarded kindly.

This does not mean that we cannot openly discuss the tenets of a faith or the deeds of its followers. On the contrary we can and must. We need Muslims to come clean about their faith, just as we Christians have – for the most part – come clean about ours. We want to know whether they accept the doctrine of jihad as this was elaborated by Ibn Taymiyya or whether, on the contrary, they accept the validity of peaceful coexistence and the legitimacy of secular law. Some do, some don't. But all should discuss it publicly, so that we can decide what to do.

Also in openDemocracy on the "cartoon crisis" wracking Europe and the Muslim world:
-Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity" (February 2006)

The condition of the public discussion that we need is respect. That means that we must respect the icons of the Muslim faith, even if we think them ridiculous, indeed especially if we think them ridiculous. The cartoons that have precipitated the current crisis were worse than a mistake: they were an act of sacrilege, like trampling on the crucifix or spitting on the Torah. This is not a contribution to free speech but an obstacle to it.

That said, we still need to remind Muslims of the ground rules of democratic protest. You don't respond to this kind of insult by calling, as the Islamic cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi called, for an international "day of anger". No Christian or Jewish leader would dream of responding in that way. The duty of a religious leader is not to inflame anger, but to protest in a spirit of forgiveness.

There is, in the Muslim culture that is growing in the modern world, a lamentable attachment to double standards – an assumption that you are free to express the most violent hatred, incitement to violence, and group antagonism, including attacks on embassies and the symbols of peaceful coexistence, while condemning all invasions of the sacred Muslim space as intolerable breaches of the law. And there is a feeble retreat from confronting this, which can be witnessed in the government's absurd attempt to outlaw religious hatred, which was not directed against Muslims but supposed to appease them. We have only one weapon in the confrontation with Islam, and that is the law as we have, over a thousand years, defined it.

People who incite violence must pay the price, and we need to bring home to Muslims that incitement is not the right response to provocation.

Where we go from here, however, is anyone's guess. The public debate that we so much need is not going to occur until things have simmered down, and we all know that moderate Muslims are in a quandary, should they ever veer close to the alleged crime of apostasy. Maybe the debate between secular society and Islam has to take place with only unbelievers representing the Muslim side. And in fact that is what is happening.

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Looney Toons!
Sajjad Khan, New Civilisation

What started off as a little local difficulty about community integration in Denmark following the publication of the famously controversial cartoons has now escalated into a worldwide chasm between the Muslim and western worlds. Many commentators have fixed the debate between the absolute principle of free speech versus what they perceive as an obscurantist attempt by Muslims to censor any criticism, satire or rebuke of their beliefs or revered figures.

Many recent media editorials and columns imply that the western world practices absolute freedom of speech and expression. But (to take only Britain as an example) absolute freedom of speech doesn't exist – from incitement to racial hatred to libel laws, from the official secrets act to incitement to violence, from banning images of child abuse to the proposed glorification of terrorism, many western societies have no shortage of laws that censor speech.

There was little outcry from these advocates of free speech when the British government took out an unprecedented injunction stopping publication of the infamous al-Jazeera memo. There was no outcry from the free-speech lobby when internet service providers are told to crackdown on child pornographic sites (with the exception of Denmark where some sites are legal). Similarly, when the Austrian chancellor condemned the publication of sexually-graphic images of the Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, George W Bush and Jacques Chirac in January 2006 there was no libertarian outcry. Die Welt, the German newspaper that on free-speech grounds took a "principled stand" to publish the controversial cartoons, would never be permitted by law or social pressures to publish anti-semitic cartoons or question holocaust statistics. France claims to be a protector of freedom while simultaneously denying Muslim women the right to wear the headscarf in schools.

These examples illustrate that every society weighs the right of speech against other important values such as justice, security, dignity, or building community cohesion. The same is true for any freedom. If freedom trumped every other value, no one would be forced to pay taxes, the media would not censor pictures of dead soldiers out of concern for their families, and there would be no need for confidentiality agreements in various walks of life. Failing to place a principled limit on freedom would lead to a free-for-all. Civilised society would collapse, indecency would rise, bad language would be ubiquitous, respect would vanish and community cohesion would be eroded.

Every society has its important symbols of reverence. In the United States it is the constitution, the founding fathers and the flag. In France it is the republic. Britain reveres the institution of parliament and the country's war heroes. For the Jewish people it is the Torah and perhaps the holocaust. Muslims revere God, the Qu'ran and the prophets. Each community feels a deep-rooted passion and strong emotional attachment to these symbols. Intelligent people of all civilisations usually understand this and are sensitive to these feelings, even when they disagree with the substance these symbols represent.

If courtesy can be restored, then we can move to the more productive arena of debating the real issues of difference that exist between Islam and secular societies. I know of no debating platform where the rules of civility are not a precursor, and where frank abuse would be tolerated. Isn't it a basic rule of setting ground-rules that all parties agree them together rather that those with power simply deciding for everyone and being satisfied with their implementation?

The reaction to these cartoons in the Muslim world makes it even harder to argue that western secular values can be successfully implemented there (an objective already reeling from the pernicious "war on terror"). The burning of embassies is regrettable, but it is disingenuous to suggest that the reaction is a surprise given the backdrop of invasion, occupation, desecration of holy books and the humiliation in Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo Bay. In Europe, moreover, there is severe prejudice against Islam in many countries (especially Denmark). It is as if the abuse meted out by gratuitously republishing the images across Europe was done in the expectation that they would only cause the "cartoon damage" that Bugs Bunny does to Daffy Duck. In real life you can't abuse people and expect them to just get up again and walk away.

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The Lebanese reaction
Zaid Al-Ali, writer

Two violent protests took place in this part of the Arab world during the weekend of 4-5 February, one in Damascus on Saturday, and another in Beirut on Sunday, both of which led to the torching of the Danish embassy, as well as parts of other European missions. A Lebanese church was also attacked during the protests, which eventually led to the arrest of several hundred people. Lebanese minister of the interior, Hassan Sabeh, resigned later the same day.

Very few people in Lebanon seem to believe that this weekend's violence was a true and spontaneous reaction to the Danish caricatures. By and large, the Lebanese interpreted the Damascus protest as a message from the Ba'athist leadership to the outside world: if you topple our government, these are the people that will take our place, so tread carefully. For many Lebanese, the Beirut protest on the following day was another message from Damascus: without Syrian oversight, Lebanon is chaotic and simmers with sectarian hatred.

This way of seeing things is supported by three facts:

  • more than half of the protesters arrested in Beirut were not Lebanese citizens; the largest group was in fact Syrian
  • it is inconceivable in Lebanon today that the country's Sunni population (Sunday's protest was not endorsed by Shi'a leaders and so it is virtually certain that no Shi'a took part), which has been allied with Christian parties and movements against Syrian influence for a year, would attack churches and damage property in Christian areas, particularly for something that has nothing to do with Lebanon
  • the absence of any violence whatsoever in countries such as Jordan, which also has a sizeable Christian community as well as a strong Islamist current, serves to demonstrate that without political manipulation, the Danish caricatures were not in and of themselves enough actually to provoke violence in the Arab world.

Otherwise, most Lebanese seem to accept that the caricatures were improper and that they betray a fundamental misunderstanding within Europe of the status of Mohammed within the Islamic world. Muslims regard their prophet in the same way as Christians or Europeans regard Jesus. They therefore regard his comparison to a terrorist as being a form of racism against Muslims rather than anything else. The caricatures have also reinforced the belief in many quarters that Muslims are simply not welcome in Europe.

A final point is that, from the start, most Lebanese accepted that there was a clear distinction between the types of reaction that they consider to be legitimate, which include economic boycotts and diplomatic pressure, and those that they consider to be unacceptable, including violence and threats. The protests that took place on 4-5 February were therefore met with a certain amount of surprise and revulsion throughout the country.

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Them and us
Patrice de Beer, Paris journalist

L'affaire started in France on 1 February when the dying daily France-Soir decided to reprint cartoons criticising Islam and its prophet, M0hammed, as a sign of solidarity with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten; the editor was subsequently fired by the owner, a Franco-Egyptian businessman. Islamist demonstrators all over the middle east started to throw France – which sees herself as a traditional friend of the Arab world – in the same basket as Denmark and Norway.

Since then, another daily, Libération, has done the same – after lengthy internal debates – and Le Monde published a massive front-page cartoon from its main cartoonist, Plantu, who managed to draw a portrait of the prophet composed solely of the repetition of the same sentence: "Je ne dois pas dessiner Mahomet" ("I must not draw Muhammad"). As much a cartoon as an editorial comment!

The main reason for this French response, as for many other media in Europe – with the main exception of Britain – is the desire to inform readers and to show solidarity with colleagues whose freedom to publish is being threatened.

At a deeper level, French reactions to an event whose origins have yet to be elucidated (the "offensive" cartoons were, after all, first published … in September 2005) show how complex and difficult it can be to deal with issues of this sort. Most politicians have simultaneously criticised the lack of "sensitivity" of these cartoons while stressing the importance of press freedom. As one of them admitted: "It's nitro" (i.e. nitro-glycerine). But, in France, the reasons for this prudence are different from other European countries: it is far less related to the demonstrations and inflammatory speeches in the middle east than to the domestic situation, just a few weeks after the suburban riots and only fifteen months before the next presidential elections. Will the debate on immigration invite itself again into the campaign, and at what cost?

Until now, reactions from the multi-faceted Muslim community – the largest in Europe – have been subdued, critical but not inflammatory – threats to sue France-Soir, not to torch its precincts. A sign of maturity from the community's leadership probably, but perhaps also some fear of a political backlash. This crisis has already inflated the opinion-poll support for Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme-right and xenophobic National Front; nobody has forgotten how, in 2002, he managed to spoil the democratic debate in finishing second during the first round of the presidential elections, just behind Jacques Chirac and ahead of the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin.

Some pollsters have stressed the "fear of feeding extremism" which could peel away from the right to people fearing that "they are threatening our own freedom of expression" and stir up feelings against the Muslim community, most of whom are French citizens. Today, 6 February, the Socialist Party stressed that "law should not be made in the streets" and that "press freedom is part and parcel of democracy, which is non-negotiable".

Others fear that this crisis could nurture a "clash of values". Paradoxically, the only issue on which opinions on both sides of the conflict seem to agree is that double standards should not be accepted. If the "Arab street", and those who are trying to stir it up, criticises Europeans for allowing "blasphemy" against Islam, one could ask in response why we haven't seen Muslim crowds demonstrating against terrorists throwing bombs in the name of Allah "the merciful", the torching of churches in Iraq or the murder of Christians (the Jews are long gone) in countries from Pakistan to Turkey.

Another French cartoonist, Cabu, has wondered why "moderate Muslims don't express themselves, and allow terrible things be done in their names?" The problem is that these double standards are, in fact, only the tip of an iceberg of misunderstandings based on the political use of religion: "they" expect us to behave like them and "we" expect them to behave like us. Will it end one day?

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Muslims as subjects
Fauzia Ahmad, Bristol University researcher

In this discussion, it would be a mistake to see "Europe" and "Muslims" as discrete entities – debating within such a binary frame can only serve to reproduce artificial boundaries of "Them" and "Us". If we are to learn anything from the recent furore, it is that Muslims in Europe want to be treated with equality and respect and be recognised as valued contributors and citizens of the societies in which they live. In this light, I believe we need to take a few steps back to reassess the context of the protests.

What has changed in the past decade? Have debates on racism within the United Kingdom and Europe actually yielded real, positive change? There have indeed been some moves to recognise religious discrimination and Islamophobia at structural levels but I believe these gains are relatively minimal and have failed to filter down to address the very real racism Muslims face on a daily basis.

Watching the events unfold, reading various commentaries and looking at the cartoons themselves aroused several emotions for me. One was the deep sense of unease I felt looking at the offending cartoons – they are indeed insulting, stereotypical and frankly racist.

Crisis points in our recent histories such as 11 September 2001, the Iraq war, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings and the cartoon affair have all resulted in more calls for dialogue, understanding and education. These are very noble aims which we should all hold onto, but I think some more creative thinking is required that fully acknowledges the pervasive and damaging nature of anti-Muslim racism.

In Britain, the absurdity of British National Party leader Nick Griffin's recent acquittal from charges of incitement to racial hatred has left many of us baffled. In what were clearly inflammatory statements against Islam and Muslims, which he was allowed to repeat in court without challenge, Islamophobia became publicly legitimised and justified as an example of "free speech". The cartoons are no different. When seen in terms of the disenfranchisement and disempowerment of Muslims from political and social structures in Europe, the cartoons take on a new significance that renders talk of "free speech" a red herring and distraction. Here, Muslims are again expected to act as apologists for the violent remonstrations of a few. Rather than seeking constructive ways to challenge latent Islamophobic racism, we have allowed this to fester and gain "respectability", as a sort of distant cousin of "real" racism.

The question we need to ask is – what part do our elected representatives, and the governing and legal structures they uphold, play in the realisation of this racism? What part do they play in combatting it? All we seem to have now are superficial calls for "integration" where migrant cultures (read Muslim) are problematised and pathologised, where migrants are expected to make unfair choices if they are to "fit in", and where Muslims are expected to respond to Eurocentric debates and questions that are heavily laden and highly assumptive, and serve to objectify Muslim experiences, again.

I am reminded of another central and unresolved question that concerns all of us living within the shifting boundaries of Europe – are we to view Europe as a project or an identity? Who decides?

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Religion: handle with care
Adam Szostkiewicz, Warsaw journalist

Poland is no stranger to things Muslim. We shared political, cultural and military history with the Ottoman Turks; centuries ago we fought wars with them, and made peace with them. King Jan III Sobieski stopped the Ottomans at Vienna in 1683.

However, when Poland was partitioned among the Habsburgs, Prussia and the Russians in the late 18th century the sultan refused to legally accept the partitions. The Ottoman sublime porte was able to sense the danger of Europe's losing the balance of power.

All this still echoes in my country. Poland has a small community of Muslims of Tartar descent dating back to the Ottoman era. We officially support Turkey's bid for full European Union membership. And there are at least 20,000-25,000 foreign Muslims living here – students, businessmen, diplomats, refugees from Chechnya and other unfortunate lands. Last but not least, we joined the anti-Saddam coalition, and now have more than 1,000 troops in Iraq.

So it came as a shock to many in this country when a leading Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, republished two cartoons from the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. The daily's editors said the recycling of this inflammatory material was meant to be a gesture of solidarity with those in Europe who champion the freedom of speech. They posed the question: how can you have an informed debate on the cartoon issue without first having a look at the caricatures themselves?

The politicians and religious leaders did not feel that way. The prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, and the minister for foreign affairs, Stefan Meller, apologised to those who may have felt offended. The Council of Polish Muslims and Catholics condemned the republication, as did a Polish Roman Catholic bishop committed to interfaith dialogue. The Polish Muslim organisations threatened to take the paper to court for a serious breach of law protecting religious feelings.

As the tension grew, Grzegorz Gauden, the editor-in-chief of Rzeczpospolita offered his apologies. He said it was not the paper's intention to offend Muslims and their faith, but they had wanted to act in defence of civil liberties and media freedom.

As the cartoon controversy still rages on here – Polish society being rather divided on the issue, more or less along pan-European lines – two lessons come to my mind as a writer on both religion and international relations.

First, beware of handling religion without care – it's highly explosive and may spread havoc in the global village which is today's world. Always seek advice from the religion-literate when contemplating an editorial or journalistic decision on a religious story. This is not self-censorship, but an act of prudence as well as professionalism.

Second, the end result of the Danish incident is deeply annoying. In no way has it promoted a better understanding between Europe and Islam, nor has it made our democratic and pluralist societies safer and more secure.

To make things worse, it was a favour done to extremists on two fronts: it may be used as a rallying cry by both radical Islamist parties, and conservatives within the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox forces now uniting against a "secular-postmodernist'' juggernaut rolling across the western world. Sorry, but it was not worth it.

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Honing European traditions
Shaida Nabi, researcher, University of Manchester

Free speech has had a mighty battering recently. This is not because of any Muslim resistance to the gratuitous depictions of the holy prophet [peace be upon him]; rather, it is because a chorus of European commentators have invoked the freedom to speak as a smokescreen for the crudest form of racist vilification. In addition to Israel, this racist vilification spans at least thirteen European states.

The constellation of responses spanning media coverage cannot have escaped anyone's attention. Reminiscent of the liberal inquisition pursued by western commentators during the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989, we are yet again witnessing attempts to denigrate legitimate Muslim political expression. Back then Muslims merely questioned the conventional criteria of free speech. Now, however, they recognise free speech as the red herring in an Islamophobic onslaught. In both cases, Muslim protest has been widely construed as inherently transgressive.

Once again, the largely peaceful print protest, petitions, economic boycotts, and mass diplomatic engagement are being clipped from our view in favour of more sensational imagery: burning flags and embassies. In a play of déjà vu, these images are obscuring the burning issue at stake: anti-Muslim racism.

This aspect of the cartoons has been muffled, and instead, the sub-level debate, barring a few recent commentaries, has focused on the "freedoms of the west versus the despotic east", the "European tradition of satire versus the ignorance of the Muslim world", and the "violence of a minority versus the upsurge of global Muslim (and increasingly "non-Muslim") resistance".

These cartoons cannot be located in the tradition of European satire, but they can be located within the tradition of racist representation, currently directed at Europe's powerless minorities. If the cartoons represent anything, they are indicative of this relation of power, which if left unchecked, will exceed these malign gestures to re-enact Europe's own bloody history of ethnic cleansing. Indeed, we need to question the value of free speech precisely because of such racist appropriation. There is certainly nothing funny about racism, not least when you are its primary recipient.

Yet one might have anticipated a more sophisticated whitewash than the one being drip-fed to Europe's Muslims. The managing editor of France Soir epitomised the clumsiness, with the headline "Yes we have the right to caricature God". It must have escaped him it was not God in these cartoons. With European ambassadors across the middle east being recalled; with mass protest from Christian sects in Bethlehem to Muslims in secular Turkey; and with Denmark alone at least £40 million short, perhaps the racist power-play now seems a little less satirical.

So where now?

Like the Jews in the 1930s who were also the subject of many a cartoon, are we, as Ziauddin Sardar asks, being set up for a holocaust? Is this the road Europe is paving for its Muslims in the name of (as Die Welt, one of the offending German papers, put it) "Europe-wide solidarity"?

Those advertising Islamophobic caricatures in the name of free speech understand that Islamophobic insult is not prosecutable. And herein lies one of the small ways forward, a way that was diluted to irrelevance this week by the British parliament, and stupendously undermined when the BNP leader walked free following his court trial.

Britain and the United States have responded with apparent restraint. All things considered, in the context of a "war on terror" this "responsibility" is somewhat curious. The British state and its papers are enjoying this exceptionally responsible status away from continental Europe. The way forward would be to make this exceptional stance the norm, not merely in the publishing houses of Europe, but in the offices of state. And indeed, for this to be a recognised aspect of European tradition.

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Rasmussen’s folly
KA Dilday, writer

If a tree falls in Denmark does anyone hear it?

In December 2005 I read an interview with the writer Philip Roth that had been translated into English from its original publication in a Danish newspaper. It mentioned in passing a "huge scandal" in Denmark: a venerable 68-year-old Danish writer had been pilloried for having sex with the 18-year-old daughter of his maid in Haiti and writing about it. Sexual-racial dynamics of that sort interest and disturb me so I searched for articles on the scandal – yet I could find none in either English or French.

Had it been, say, Philip Roth who had done such, I dare say I could have found reports in most languages. But Denmark, tucked up there at the tip of Europe, a tiny, relatively homogenous country of scarcely 5.5 million people, with relatively little global weight and involvement in few conflicts doesn’t generate much press. Consider that the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed that have set off a global furore were first published in Denmark in September 2005 and that most of us non-Scandinavian "westerners" only just started reading about it in our local papers.

The editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, the paper that commissioned and published the cartoons has expressed shock at the furore that followed publication. Any editor in France or the United States or Britain or the Netherlands would have understood what publishing these cartoons would unleash. They might have done it anyway (and of course a group of European editors did just that as a show of solidarity) but they would have been well aware of the potential for extreme ramifications.

Carsten Juste is not the only Dane who is blissfully ignorant: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark refused to meet with ambassadors representing predominantly Muslim countries over the issue, saying: "the background to my rejection is that they sent me a letter which concluded that I, as prime minister, should take legal measures against the press. I cannot. I will not. And if I agreed to hold a meeting on the same topic that would be the same as accepting that this is a relevant problem which there could be dialogue about."

If a group of ambassadors to your country thinks something is a problem, then that in itself is a problem that must be addressed by the foreign minister. It doesn't matter whether you think they should be angry or not. Had a group of ambassadors representing European Union countries requested a meeting, I have no doubt that no matter what he thought of their concern, Rasmussen would have met with them. Indeed, twenty-two former Danish ambassadors criticised Rasmussen early on for his handling of the issue. A good diplomat would have received the group, expressed regret and likely said that unfortunately with the laws of the country, his hands were tied and that freedom of speech protected the Muslim community as well as the press.

It is probably easy to ignore Denmark’s tiny Muslim population. 93% of the population is of the same indigenous Dane ethnic group. The 2% of people in Denmark who say that they are Muslim are probably drawn from those of Turkish, Asian, African and Balkan origin – collectively about 4% of the population. I expect that for a Dane, it is probably pretty easy to live one's life without ever having to consider the perspective of someone who looks or worships (or abstains from worship) differently from you.

In response to the unfolding events, Carsten Juste said: "I'm very surprised that the reactions have been so sharp, very shocked, and I find the death threats against the cartoonists to be horrible and out of proportion".

His surprise surprises me. In this new information age, if a tree falls in Denmark, it is to be hoped that the world will hear it. At its best, this recent globalised amplification is what protects those in remote places from unseen repression. At its worst it facilitates what we see now: the ability to network violence. Of course the reaction is horrible and wrong but if Carsten Juste is going to be bold and make a statement, it's would have been wise to have an idea of the likely consequences. That would be an informed choice. It's Anders Fogh Rasmussen who is shockingly bad at his job since he refused to do it by dealing with a potentially explosive issue until it exploded. It’s not free speech that created the outrage, but access. One wonders if all of this would have happened if he had simply opened his door to the ambassadors.

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Blurred boundaries
Saeed Taji Farouky, filmmaker

The charge of blasphemy was first made in September 2005, but it took until last week for the controversy over Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to turn into an international diplomatic crisis. What the situation highlights most starkly is that, despite increasing fascination with Europe’s relationship to the Muslim world, there is still little appreciation of cultural relativism, and in this case, a distinct failure to understand that the line between politics and journalism is drawn differently in the two regions.

This is all happening at a time when Denmark’s immigration policy is considered the toughest in Europe and support for the extreme rightwing, anti-immigration Danish People’s Party increased to 13.3% in the February 2006 general election. Add to this the fact that Muslim governments, disaffected Muslim communities and European media are so highly sensitive to ideological encounters that they threaten to overreact at every possible opportunity, and it should be obvious by now that publishing the cartoons was, at best, poorly thought out. Freedom of expression is most valuable, after all, when it is exercised strategically and logically, not merely pushed to its limits for naïve sensationalism.

However, as Jyllands-Posten pointed out, they have broken no law, and Muslim diplomats and protesters have now undermined the entire concept of legitimate protest by the scale of their reactions and by their failure to distinguish between political and cultural responsibilities. If something truly appalling were to happen, something far more serious than these Danish cartoons, those same protesters and diplomats would be left with no way to express genuine outrage. Like the "boy who cried wolf", the violent protesters will find that if they are ever faced with a real crisis, European governments, and even public opinion, will be hard pressed to take them seriously. That threatens not only their own voices, but also the voices of Muslims around the world who do not feel that the violent protesters represent their views.

This is not to say that Muslims, who have every right to be insulted by the cartoons, should simply keep quiet. Instead, their arguments should be confined to the right arena. The cartoons are not a political issue; they never were, and to suggest that politicians get involved in restraining journalists contradicts one of the fundamentals of a liberal democracy. Whether or not you agree with Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s handling of the whole controversy, it is difficult to argue with his statement that "the government refuses to apologise because the government does not control the media or a newspaper outlet; that would be in violation of the freedom of speech".

In many of the countries that reacted most strongly to the cartoons, there is no independent free press nor is there is guarantee of freedom of speech. Syria, for example, continues to exercise extremely strict control over the content of its news media, and as far as the ordinary Syrian is concerned, the opinion of Denmark’s biggest selling daily is the opinion of the Danish government. Syria’s protesters have little experience with debates over a free press, such is the intimacy between the content of their newspapers and the opinions of their politicians, and this hazy border makes it difficult for the outraged governments to accept the familiar defence of independent press freedom.

At the same time, the European media’s blurring of the line between political and ideological clashes is making it extremely difficult for them to understand that Muslim protests are inspired not by a hatred of press freedom or a rejection of northern European liberal values, but by resentment at the impunity and insensitivity of Europe’s press. For Jyllands-Posten, publishing the cartoons was simply an exercise in provocation, while journalists living under dictatorships are literally dying for such freedoms – and that risks undermining the significance of press freedoms in general.

What can be done to avoid a similar situation in the future? Jyllands-Posten and her newspapers in solidarity are trying to frame this as a fundamental difference between Muslim and non-Muslim cultures, but the cartoons themselves express how blatantly and deliberately provocative they are. "The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs", reads one caption. Another says: "Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel south Jutlander."

The controversy has shamelessly stoked the flames of Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilisations" fallacy in little more than a publicity stunt when, by this point, it has more to do with posturing than any ideological confrontation. The fact is, both the European editors and the protesters are demanding the same thing: a basic respect of boundaries. Respecting boundaries does not mean that free speech is under threat, nor does it mean that journalists are being allowing to get away with blasphemy, it simply means appreciating the responsibilities that come along with certain freedoms.

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The eye of the beholder
Mohammed Sajid

Islamic tradition bans images of God and prophets to prevent forms of idol worship. As a Muslim, I was outraged to learn that the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) had been depicted in this particular way by the Danish media. However, after my initial anger had subsided, it was with more than a pang of guilt that I remembered laughing at some of the jokes in Monty Python's Life of Brian. Aspects of the Christian and Jewish faiths and culture are mocked as a matter of course in satirical humour.

I remembered visiting the library of a local mosque and noting that the Bible (in Urdu) had a picture of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) on the front. Nobody had ever cared to protest that this was the image of a prophet which is as banned in Islamic circles as that of Prophet Mohammed. Despite Jerry Springer – the Opera being in remarkably bad taste and offensive to many, I don't recall any coordinated attempt by Muslims to work with Christians on the issue of portrayals of prophets, and there definitely hasn't been any march on the capital over the issue.

Christians have given up counting the times that Jesus Christ is portrayed in an offensive manner. As yet Muslims are able to count the times that this has happened to Prophet Mohammed: the Satanic Verses affair in 1989, when we all learnt what fatwa meant; the murder of Theo Van Gogh in 2004 by an extremist over the depiction of Qu'ranic verses on semi-naked women; and now in 2006 the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed and subsequent international unrest.

This piece is not intended to blame Muslims for the consequence of inaction, but one can't help thinking of pastor Martin Niemőller's famous sermon:

"First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me."

Is the international Muslim community only out to protect what it considers its own rights?

The closing reference in Mohammed Sajid's article comes from the following Islamic source: when the Prophet Mohammed was stoned out of the city of Ta'if (then Arabia's second largest city-state), it is reported that he ran until his shoes filled with blood. When the angel Gabriel came to ask him what punishment he wished upon the perpetrators, and tell him that the valley of Ta'if would be crushed in upon itself should he so wished, the prophet chose to forgive in the hope that perhaps not the perpetrators but their children would benefit from the teachings of Islam.

Many responsibilities come with free speech. It is not an unqualified right and no one has the right to offend those beliefs which are held most sacrosanct simply for comical effect. Many contributory factors in the background to these cartoons have led to this unrest – the post–11 September world and the militarisation of Salafi Islam are among them. But we are where we are, and two things now would be beneficial: a degree of pragmatism, and a debate about the wider issues this episode throws at Muslims, and European Muslims in particular.

It is difficult to assess at this stage exactly what media image has caused most damage to Muslims: drawings of a Prophet Mohammed with a bomb-shaped turban or the photographs of British youths wearing bomb-belts and an innocent child wearing an "I love Al-Qaida" bonnet.

Although heartened by Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain’s press release on 3 February calling for Muslims to act with dignity at all times (echoing words of the Prophet Mohammed), it is more upsetting to see Muslims behaving in such an undignified way – destroying embassies, burning flags and even places of worship! What on earth has happened to that religion of the prophet who forgave those who stoned him until his shoes filled with blood?

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Cartoon chaos
James Howarth, analyst and translator, Jordan

Besides revealing an apparent chasm between European principles of free speech and Islamic sensibilities, the cartoon furore is putting chaos theory into alarming action. The butterfly's wings flapped on 30 September 2005 in an obscure Danish newspaper, and now the storm has broken across the Islamic world, from embassy torchings in Beirut to deaths in Somalia and Afghanistan. In an age of decentralised global networks the exponential effects of the butterfly's wings are all the more dangerous and uncontrollable.

Here in the middle east, people now wonder what the Muslim world hopes to achieve out of this scandal. In this charged situation, rational debate and measured reactions compete with the uproar and violence. To many Muslims, who simply don't buy the pretext of freedom of expression, the cartoons only reinforce fears that a loosely defined "west" is waging an undeclared war against Islam. Some call for new international conventions against defaming religions and their symbols; others wonder if President Ahmadinejad's holocaust denial isn't an equivalent exercise in free speech.

Amid the outrage, the response in traditionally moderate Jordan has been mixed. The standard condemnations have been tempered by awareness that overzealous reactions may only undermine Muslim legitimacy. The official line counsels magnanimity and maintaining the moral high ground. Lapsing into indiscriminate anger risks sending precisely the wrong message – that Islam is an intolerant religion which meets criticism with violence – as if walking headlong into a trap. The violence and harassment of Europeans could even harm the image of Muslims and Arabs more than the original cartoons. Strong reactions are understandable and justified; violent ones are counterproductive.

It is possible that protesters in this region used to state-controlled and self-monitoring media have failed to fully appreciate that a Danish newspaper does not necessarily reflect the Danish government or people. However, prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's failure to meet with concerned Muslim ambassadors in October gives his plea for clemency a very hollow ring.

Jordan is the only Arab or Muslim country where the offending items were published. In another scenario, that might even have shown a progressive inclination lacking elsewhere, but this was not the time for subtlety. The two magazine editors were fired and formally charged with defaming the Prophet Mohammed. In the increasing acrimony action became obligatory, although al-Mihwar magazine had in fact published the cartoons as far back as 26 January.

Although the editor of Shihane magazine, Jihad al-Momani, was arrested for violations of Jordan's press law, which forbids insults against religion, the move was partly a response to popular outrage and partly for his own safety. Momani insisted that he was merely alerting Jordanians to the Danish offence: "The cartoons are silly. They don't deserve such an intense reaction … I feel we, the Muslims, are overreacting." In his final editorial he argued that action to rebuild east-west relations must start at home: "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?" But amidst the backlash, such reasoning stood no chance.

The furore is part of a deeper crisis that may not be resolved any time soon, with senses of grievance and victimhood on all sides. What began as a legitimate reaction is now a definitive flashpoint for intercultural relations. There may yet be serious implications for moderate countries like Jordan. In this bleak time for dialogue, the progress of the "Amman Message", a high-profile religious initiative launched in November 2004 to emphasise common Abrahamic teachings and denounce extremism, can so easily be lost. Much needs to be done locally and internationally to avoid further escalation. But it is precisely because the Hashemite message of exploring common values rather than exaggerating misunderstandings is so threatened that it is as vital as ever.

Most distressingly, the chaos effect feeds into dangerously simplistic distinctions utterly unrelated to the original incident. For example, Christian Arabs in Iraq, Palestine and the sectarian hotbed of Lebanon are somehow being implicated as co-religionists with the Danes. Scandinavians working on behalf of Palestinian refugees may be forced to leave the region. Can we really be so foolish as to fall headlong into the infamous self-fulfilling prophesy of the clash of civilisations? Have we reached such a nadir that Christian Arabs, after 1,400 years of relative tolerance, are seen as a fifth column in their own societies?

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Much ado about something
Tarek Osman, banker and journalist

A silly, rude cartoon from a Danish magazine instigated a ferocious response from millions of Muslims around the world, including threats of abductions and killings. Why? Three reasons:

First, there is a fundamental difference between the liberal western mindset and the "Islamic" mindset. To a liberal, free-thinking mind, adherent to the 21st-century western value-system, we are living in a post-ideology world where the human mind rules supreme; nothing is beyond its evaluation and assessment; nothing completely sacred; questioning all doctrines and assertions is not only valid, but the duty of intellectuals; and a sense of humour in such undertaking does no harm.

It was that thinking environment that has sidelined the church and isolated it from exercising any serious influence on mainstream politics and economics, that has degraded rigid, dogmatic thinking of every colour and hue, and that has sanctified freethinking and the right to uninhibited expression – be it nude beaches, solid counter-Christianity laws such as abortion rights and gay marriages, or novels that relegate Christ to the madhouse.

In such an intellectual environment, a harmless caricature that mocks the prophet of Islam, at a time when Islam is viewed by millions in the west as an oppressive, aggressive, violent religion, is nothing out of the ordinary. To the Muslim mind, viewpoints cannot be more different. Islam is not a doctrine that the Muslim world has moved beyond, or even wants to move beyond. It's inherent to everything that it is to being Muslim; and as many Muslims see it, will continue to be.

As Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (1929-2001), a prominent Palestinian writer and scholar, once commented: "Islam is a system of thought, and a way of life." If you insult Islam, you insult the Muslims; you give a direct punch to the core of the belief that guides the Muslim's life, way of thinking, and identity.

Second, the theory of the vapour cooking-pan. Keep the hot vapour trapped inside the pan in order to cook the food slowly. On chicken, the theory produces delicious results; on people, not. Millions of Muslims and Arabs living in their countries of origin have so much hot vapour trapped inside of them that they are ready to explode. Frustrations run high that are experienced on the level of the trivial and mundane, yet are crucial to the strategic: corrupt, suppressive regimes diminishing development chances; a sense of historical defeat; lack of employment opportunities; vast – almost frightening – gaps in income levels; humiliating daily experiences in what ought to be simple actions such as travelling; complete alienation from all decision-making at almost all levels; and the overarching sexual frustration.

Chicken in the pan gets a succulent smell and taste; the men and women on the streets of Damascus, Gaza, Beirut, Cairo get irritated, angered, agitated. The fuel is ready. Pass me the match, please. Sorry, I only have a mediocre, rude cartoon. OK, that will do, thanks. And you get boom, fire.

Third, the cartoons are indeed rude. Were these cartoons replaced by a sensible criticism on Islamic thinking, classic or modern; or Muslims' interpretation of their religious teachings, it would not have stirred any violent response. The truth is that they were indeed provocative.

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Cartoon power
Max Farrar, sociologist, Leeds Metropolitan University

I love Steve Bell’s cartoons in the Guardian. Each time he savages Blair or Bush I exult in the wickedness of his pen. Bush is worshipped by about 50% of United States citizens who vote. About 55% of them believe that God made the earth in six days, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Bush was one of them. His fundamentalist Christian supporters would probably attack the amiable Steve Bell if they could read the Guardian. Some of them have actually bombed abortion clinics and blown up federal buildings, so they are no strangers to political violence.

Free speech has never been an inalienable, universal right in modern democracies. It has always been bounded by power, either by the naked power of intimidation by the enraged (and I remember participating in the hour-long, organised, shouting down of a racist Tory MP in 1968), or the gloved power of parliament. So it is utterly disingenuous to suggest that British Muslims are somehow outside the democratic order when they erupt in maddened anger at mockery of the prophet.

We should remember that placards recommending that we "Butcher those who mock Islam" are only placards. Dressing up as a suicide-bomber is only dressing up. Burning flags and effigies are purely symbolic acts: depressing, disturbing, distasteful – but not qualitatively different from much of the repertoire of politics in the age of unreason. The decision by rightwing editors to publish those cartoons was just as unreasonable, just as disturbing, just as distasteful as anything I have seen from the British al-Ghuraba.

The real focus of public debate in the UK should be on the extent to which al-Ghuraba – the reformed al-Mujahiroun, who publicly supported the 9/11 attacks – has a hold among British Muslims. We should take seriously the information that the masquerade bomber, Omar Khayam, has served a prison sentence for dealing in hard drugs. Fundamentalists of all types recruit in prisons – no wonder, since the educational and therapeutic services in prison are so poor. Secondly, we need to know more about how rapidly the deeply reactionary, backward-looking but intellectual Islamists – Hizb ut-Tahrir – are recruiting. The absence of a high-profile, credible, modern, youthful, progressive political force among young British Muslims is a serious concern. For all its manifold faults, the Respect party is at least addressing that absence.

The other absence we should focus on is the lack of attention to Islam among British politicians and intellectuals. Since the Rushdie affair in 1989 it should have been abundantly clear to everyone that this great religion, so similar in many ways to the other monotheisms that emerged in the middle east, was undergoing its own version of the crisis imposed upon Judaism and Christianity by capitalist modernity. The Muslim Brotherhood – the first response to that crisis – is nearly a century old. These reactionary currents have to be intelligently and politically debated. (If and when they become nihilistic, and engage in actual physical violence, they have to be imprisoned.)

Multiculturalism in Britain is fifty years old, and its discourse and laws provide a good basis for progressive modernists to win the argument both with the jihadi and the intellectual Islamists. But the flimsiness of its "celebration of diversity" mantra has now been exposed. Homophobic, anti-democratic, "to-hell-with-your-liberty" Islamism has to be negotiated not celebrated.

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The problem is racism
David Tyrer, Liverpool John Moores University

There is no uncontested starting-point to discuss the cartoon disputes. It therefore behoves us to sketch out the figurative terrain that somehow links those on the various sides. This ugly terrain is not natural but historically contingent, and I call it "race". "We" have contoured, shaped, made this brutal terrain. It has provided the stage for racism, colonialism and the holocaust. Sometimes "we" cultivate it and then sit back to look on it as "culture" rather than "race". Currently it underlies edifices of hatred being built by Europe's far-right parties, its limits fixing a horizon against which their existenmce for some apparently seems plausible.

This terrain reflects the banal, everyday workings of "race" and establishes the grounds for a question such as this one positing "Muslims" (whoever they are) as the binary opposites of "Europe" (whatever that is). Regularly churned up on this ugly terrain are racialised conundrums such as "our" ambiguous positioning vis-à-vis racism. Mostly "we" face these through a perverted arrangement that both guarantees and localises racism by seeing the far-right as markers of racism generally, rendering invisible the mundane, everyday grind through which "we" make and remake this terrain in the name of "race". Sometimes "our" efforts are disturbed and disrupted - as has happened in the cartoon disputes.

At times like this, "we" step back and profile the situation against the terrain so it will all make sense again. That way "we" have the security of knowing how to place people against this terrain; the positions and status symbolically and materially they should adopt in hierarchies that would mean nothing without "race". Thus "we" find our rightful place in these unfolding tales again. Tut-tutting through our daily toil to recreate this terrain, we wonder over the craziness of far-right acquittals, and deny that cartoons emphasising a similar message might in any way at all have anything to do with demonising Muslims as barbaric, backwards, violent, terrorist. Instead, "we" argue, this staged, second-time-around effort to drive home a polemical point over "free speech", when viewed against the background "we" have created rather resembles a struggle over basic freedoms.

Muslims, it seems, don't share "our" perspective. There are two ways "we" can respond to this, to the ways in which they seek to disrupt "our" endless remakings of "race". On the one hand, "we" can forcibly insert them onto this terrain and force them to see themselves only against the horizons afforded by this land "we" have created. On the other hand "we" can accept that it is high time "we" begin the long process of unmaking this ugly terrain.

This is my preferred course of action. It also happens that Muslims (and other black and ethnicised minority groups) may have a vision or two of their own from which we can all benefit in rendering this a more pleasant ideological landscape. But for as long as "we" avoid recognising the proper name for this terrain of "our" making, nothing will change. For as long as those commissioned with levelling this terrain abjure their responsibilities and focus on monitoring rather than legal casework there will be no change. For as long as "we" seek to cement the positions of minority groups on this terrain and play the blame-the-victim-game by discussing disadvantage and under-representation rather than racism, and for as long as we localise and invisibilise racism there will be no change. Stronger legal instruments to deal with racism should be a starting-point. For we will need honed tools to unmake this ideological terrain that has been centuries in the making.

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A crisis of free speech
Henri Astier, French journalist

As the row over the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed rages, people tend to lose sight of a crucial point: there is not one row, but two.

The first row is over whether it is desirable for a news organisation to publish offensive material. This is a question journalists ask themselves all the time. Reasonable people will differ over the boundary between robust opinion and gratuitous insult – and indeed over whether gratuitous insult is such a bad thing. Arguments about the cartoons on such editorial grounds will continue without ever being conclusively settled, and that is a good thing.

The second row is over whether newspapers have a right to publish the cartoons. Unlike the first, this issue is clear-cut. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend – period. It is not an absolute freedom, of course: libel and explicit calls to violence are not protected. But the Danish cartoons were neither; the state has no business banning them.

The problem with the cartoon controversy is that many people blur that distinction. Condemnations of editorial decisions by newspapers turn into calls for state repression. These can be violent (e.g. the death threats and ransacking of embassies) or non-violent (e.g. appeals by seventeen Arab countries to "punish the authors" of the cartoons, and legal attempt by French Muslim groups to prevent their publication). But they are all calls for censorship.

It is tempting to view the dispute as a clash of civilisations between a west that has transcended its wars of religion and a Muslim world that remains stuck in the Dark Ages. Tempting but wrong – on two counts.

For one thing, some prominent Muslim leaders – including Tariq Ramadan – have called for forbearance. One French cleric reminded protesters of a Qur’anic verse that reads: "When believers are insulted by the ignorant, they say: peace". Muslim opinion, in other words, is divided.

The second point is that the west itself has been far from unwavering in its support for freedom of expression. Some European governments have not reaffirmed, but blurred the distinction between responsible speech and free speech.

The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, pronounced that freedom of speech did not mean "open season" on religious taboos. The French government agreed it "must be exercised in a way that respects beliefs and religions". But can speech that must be exercised within boundaries set by those offended by it really be called free?

Of course, one should not read too much into official comments designed to appease sectarian passions. But lack of commitment to freedom of expression goes deeper than a few throwaway words. Free speech has been under attack across Europe for many years – and nowhere more than in France.

France is a country where a newspaper has been fined for applauding 9/11, where Mein Kampf is banned, and people are routinely convicted for denying the holocaust. With France's state apparatus working to restrict speech to responsible speech, it is no wonder that aggrieved groups seek to enrol to its help to silence those who offend them.

The storm over the cartoons stems not just from grassroots intolerance, but from long-standing erosion of free speech at official level. As long as Europe's commitment to liberty continues to weaken, more rows like this are to be expected.

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Mock the prophet at your peril!
Tahir Abbas, University of Birmingham

Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten culture editor, probably feels like Salman Rushdie did in 1989 – much of the Islamic world at war with a single man, and in this case too a single nation. Certainly there are shades of the Rushdie affair in relation to the recent events, where a figure who in principle knows how Muslims would feel about representing the prophet, positively or negatively, still goes ahead. We subsequently find Muslim leaders expressing sentiments from general disquiet to outright death threats (Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa), aggressive protests on the streets (book-burning in Bradford), a general vilification of Islam in the media, a questioning of the inherent compatibility of Islam in the west, and talk of how Muslims are averse to freedom and democracy.

In this case, the cartoonists and the publishers wished to engage in satirical dialogue with the Muslims – with the view that Muslims should be able to laugh at themselves as a result. The publication and republication of the twelve cartoons negatively depicting the prophet, however, is not satire. It is deliberate anti-Muslim sentiment, an insult to the religion and entirely provocative. It shows no responsibility whatsoever. Today, nobody is laughing, except perhaps rightwing groups who feel what they have been claiming is confirmed; that Islam is violent, backward-looking, undemocratic and unless questioned it will go on being so.

But the real worry is how the actions by the publishers and the reactions by certain Muslims have been exceptionally divisive, polarising people who are already set apart, creating further tensions and exacerbating the existing problems. None of this helps in the long run. In the short run it makes things become considerably worse.

Certainly, Muslims are insulted all the time – but the message time and time again is "do not insult the prophet". Under current laws it would seem that people have the right to be insulted, but should it not be that people have the right not to be insulted, protecting us all? Provoke a critique, discuss, and debate certainly – but do not insult or inflame. Most Muslims live in secular and democratic societies but what legitimate right do western Europeans have to impose their brand of secularism when in the Muslim world western powers have meddled and cajoled in the name of "freedom" and "democracy" for their own limited and immediate ends? It smacks of double standards and a deliberate vilification of Islam. Only the level-headed can see what lies behind the actions of these publishers and minority reactionaries. The wish is to ensure that they prevail.

In relation to the ways forward potential salutations are not difficult to formulate. Good old-fashioned respect for goodness sake and equality of opportunity in wider society would probably do it! Religions are important to people. Let them not be used as a tool in accenting differences between people who are already politically, economically, culturally and socially disenfranchised. A variation of George Orwell suggests itself: "All people are different. Some people are more different than others". Let us not fall into ready-made traps that impact on us all!

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A challenge to freedom
Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck College, London

Apart from the debatable wisdom, good taste or motives for publishing the offending cartoons, the episode does raise important questions. The denunciations of the cartoons are couched in wider demands: that we should all be bound by Muslim religious prohibitions regarding portrayals of the prophet, as well as showing respect.

In Egypt, which is supposedly a pluralist society with room for different religions and for secularism, Islamist demands have long amounted to censorship and persecution of cultural and scholarly expressions. A few years ago a European lecturer at the American University in Cairo was hounded from his job for assigning as class reading a chapter from Maxime Rodinson's biography of Mohammed, a piece of respectable academic history. A student found the portrayal of the prophet not sufficiently respectful and at variance with "orthodox" narratives, so complained to his journalist uncle, who, in turn, wrote an article, which led to a campaign.

The lecturer was sacked, Rodinson's book was removed from the library, which was also the cue for a censorship committee to review the contents of the library and jettison a number of books, including some modern classics of Arabic literature. All this with the full cooperation of the American university management: not a word of protest.

In 1992, a Cairo University professor, Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, was assailed by Islamist colleagues for publishing works of historical criticism on the Qu'ran and orthodox theology. "Apostasy" is not an offence in Egyptian secular law, so Islamist lawyers petitioned the courts to divorce Abu Zayd from his Muslim wife because of his apostasy. After many courts and many appeals, one court did oblige, and Abu Zayd, now officially an apostate was in danger of his life. He and his wife found refuge in a Dutch university. These are only the most prominent examples of censor and persecution in recent years, there are many others.

Also at issue is the extent to which the Muslim scriptures and prophetic narrations are to be considered part of world culture, and as such resources for literature, humour and fantasy. Salman Rushdie's offence was doing just that. Some Christians and Jews may object to some of the uses of Biblical themes and characters (One is reminded of the "song of the laughing Jesus" in James Joyce's Ulysses), but their objections are usually within the realm of polemic discourse, and in some instances, litigation (always bizarre). Some Christian fundamentalists are now encouraged by the example of Muslim successes, as we saw in the case of the campaign against the BBC showing of Jerry Springer – The Opera. These are serious challenges to a secular and free society.

While sensationalised works of fiction, film or journalism in the west have aroused campaigns of outrage and violence, obscure works of scholarship on Islamic history have escaped notice. One wonders, however, the extent of self-censorship in all these fields, for an easy life. All the more important for political and cultural milieus to make a clear stand against these campaigns of intimidation, even when they are directed at expressions which one may not find worthy. Pious formulae of political correctness by our leaders, and legislation to criminalise "religious hatred" will not help matters.

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The clash of intolerances
Ramin Jahanbegloo, Cultural Research Bureau, Tehran

It's time to realise that we find ourselves in the process of a major change. The democratisation of intolerance has become the rule of social behaviour. Paradoxically, the notion of tolerance — which is preached by all religions and cultures — is turned into intolerance within the confines of particularistic politics. It is true that some Muslim governments around the world would not hesitate to resort to violence to control the social and political lives of their citizens. But it is also true that for many in the west, Islam represents a general threat and that strong measures against immigration and multiculturalism are viewed as necessary to protect westerners from this threat.

The current crisis indicates just how irrational are the categories of the "west" and the "rest". We need to think beyond this over-determined binary, which seems to suggest that the "rest of the world" has nothing to say about the west. Such an affirmation denies the pluralistic essence of western civilisation. If the west starts acting like the Taliban, ignoring the fact that it has within it a diversity of views and cultures, it is bound to betray its own liberal roots and democratic aims. Yet the possibility to coexist in an increasingly intolerant world is very real. We can start from the premise that human dignity is too great to be embodied in one culture. In other words, each culture nurtures and develops some dimension of human dignity; progress can only come from a dialogue between cultures.

So if the west is asking Islam to stamp out its intolerances, it has no lesser duty to do the same. Muslims need the west to find a balance between democracy and responsibility, while the west can learn from Islam's sense of community. Mahatma Gandhi, a relevant figure for our times, fought against intolerance his whole life. Every action of his was aimed at creating harmony among cultures and individuals. Gandhi spoke poignantly of this dialogue of cultures and exchange of ideas when he said: "I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible."

What a challenge these words pose for us as we struggle against the clash of intolerances. If the world is seeking a way out of the clash of intolerances, the best way is to defend one's freedom of expression without disrespecting other people.

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Denmark does not deserve this
Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Northwestern University, Chicago

On 2 February, the government of Senegal issued a declaration "firmly condemning the blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam recently perpetrated by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, through cartoons". Local religious leaders, NGOs and ordinary citizens have expressed outrage at what a letter to the editor of a local daily newspaper has called "yet another attack against Islam." The reactions of the Senegalese government as well as ordinary citizens are another indication that the cartoons have been perceived as a deliberate decision to insult and hurt, not only in the "usual" Islamic countries whose reactions are scrutinised by the global media but also in very poor underdeveloped countries "of the margins".

Two reactions seem appropriate.

(1) Condemn the cartoons, but merely as malicious stupidity that clearly should not have provoked the "global crisis" we are witnessing. It is true that this is not just another cultural misunderstanding, as some would have it: they say that the problem comes from the fact that Islam does not allow representation of the human figure and of course not of its prophet, but they pretend not to see that the question is not the depiction but the message it conveys which is entirely context-free and universally understandable for what it is. The message of the cartoon manifests the racism of its authors but is not worth all the rioting and violence. Write letters of protest, take the issue to the courts (as the anti-racist organisation MRAP is doing in France): this is how one should react when one is depicted without reason (did we really hear that this was just a test of tolerance?) in such a disparaging way.

(2) Reaffirm that one independent right-wing Danish newspaper riding the wave of popular anti-immigrant sentiment is not the Danish government, let alone the Danish people. One very unfortunate aspect of this crisis (which apparently would have faded away long ago had it not been manipulated by different constituencies) is that it has ended up taking on the character of a confrontation between Denmark as such and a number of countries which have always been quite appreciative of its global role. This is another reason to hope that sound judgment will prevail, and that focusing on the real issues of building a just world — issues for which Denmark is known to be an advocate — will put this unfortunate affair behind us.

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The cost of humiliation
Thomas R Asher, US lawyer

When a seemingly small bit of satire and ridicule sets off a massive, seemingly out-of-proportion chain reaction of violent and near-violent protest, it's altogether too facile to write it off glibly as a matter of "our" rights and "their" wrongs. True, there is much anti-semitic and anti-Christian caricature, some quite vicious, in Muslim media, so hypocrisy exists. However, like claiming "it's purely a free-speech matter", a charge of hypocrisy overlooks two big, related issues: victim's rights (and wrongs), and the rancid process of humiliation.

The United States, and probably most powerful western nations, have for decades entertained and permitted victims of discrimination a measure of license to engage in abusive, at times downright bigoted, expression that wouldn't be tolerated if it came from the empowered majority. In the US, this might mean racial taunts directed by black kids at their white counterparts going unpunished because members of the white majority wished to appear (if not be) tolerant, and because they subscribed (however tacitly) to the notion that history's victims deserve wider latitude (freedom of expression, if you will) than history's beneficiaries.

The issue of humiliation also seems to drive and reflect so much of the Islamic world's attitudes toward the west. It was well explored by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in an article in the New York Review of Books ("The Anger of the Damned", November 2001), which grapples with the widespread popular glee expressed by the Muslim "street" in response to the Twin Towers' mayhem and destruction.

The pattern since 9/11 is that Muslims – via the frustrated behaviour primarily of some of its young male practitioners – have exhibited eruptive frustration, feelings of victimhood, and resentment toward perceived prejudice manifested in poor schools, few jobs, and other trappings of second-class citizenship. These experiences resemble those of American blacks, or other minority groups who feel that they dwell in a hostile, mistrustful, ungenerous society.

Many Muslims see Islam as a singular source of pride by a long-oppressed people. When they perceive a cherished rule regarding the depiction of their main prophet ridiculed and violated, the ensuing eruption tells us that a huge, raw nerve has been tapped – one already inflamed by decades of humiliation. In these circumstances, we exercise our freedom of speech by playing with heavy fire.

There is nothing petty about acts of ridicule that provoke already enraged people by exemplifying what they most find intolerable about the west, a reflection of the rapacious power that has repeatedly conquered them and denigrated their humanity. A humiliation-driven and reactionary umma - an islamic super-nation - may be the most dangerous engine of mass violence now on the face of the earth. The Danish cartoons reflect supposedly civilised persons' disdain for the allegedly primitive god in whose name umma is invoked. It is beyond dispute that much awful behaviour has been perpetrated in that god's name. However, there is no god that hasn't been cited to license conquest, torture, mayhem and war. "Remember the Crusades" should, perhaps, be westerners' reminder to one another to foster humility, not humiliation.

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