Muhammad/cartoon riots

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The page which provided the excuse for the violence


A set of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, sparked riots and led to the burning of the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus (Syria) and the Danish consulate in Beirut (Lebanon), and much uproar in the Muslim world.


First, it seems clear that if we apply the filter of symmetry to this situation, the protesters were utterly in the wrong. How many American flags have been burned by angry Muslims, with no threat of retribution from America? A little anger in response, perhaps – but surely burning a country's flag is calculated to achieve just that response. By behaving like spoiled children with dangerous weapons, the rioters who burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies (severe material damage, in exchange for what damage done to them?) have given up any weight their opinions might have carried.

Second, it seems likely that the outrage was largely manufactured. There have been countless depictions of Muhammed throughout history, including many within the past couple of decades (not to mention the bas relief in DC), with no kind of furor whatsoever. The pamphlet which apparently incited the riots contained three additional, crudely photocopied images almost calculated to be insulting to Muslims, and which had no connection with the original 12 cartoons. The supply of Danish and Norwegian flags, as one observer has pointed out [1], was suspiciously ample on such short notice. (...although this may have been partly free-market forces at work [2]) It is those who incited and nurtuted this outrage who should be held accountable, if they can ever be identified.


This is where two key modern ideals – freedom of speech and religious tolerance – seemingly crash into each other. On the one side, we have a group exercising their right to freedom of speech by satirizing a religious figure. On the other side, we have a group who feels that their faith is being threatened, and so they use their freedom of speech to protest against a claimed lack of religious tolerance. So far so good. The problem comes when the offended group also presume a right to physical revenge against printed insults, a right which is not mandated by the laws of any civilized nation.

Freedom of speech is a key element of modern, enlightened society. We have found, through long, painful experience over the centuries that it is the only way to prevent tyranny.

Freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from being offended. It not only almost guarantees that someone will eventually say something that offends someone else, it also guarantees them the right to say it. A number of followers of Islam, unfortunately, apparently did not share a belief in the freedom of speech as a key element of modern civilization; apparently they believed that any affront to their prophet Muhammed gave them the right to deliver deadly retribution.

Another key concept in modern, enlightened civilization is the idea of reciprocity (or symmetricality), which is the idea that any laws must sound just as good if applied to me as they do when applied to you. So if you were to have the right to burn down my embassies when I make fun of or insult your core beliefs, then I must also have the right to burn down your embassies when you make fun of or insult my core beliefs. A brief examination of history would show that this would have resulted in considerable retaliation against representatives of Islam and the Islamic nations, had it been applied within recent memory (think "Death to Carter! Death to America!" in the late 1970s, for starters).

Fortunately, modern society has learned, through long experience, that allowing that sort of retaliation is a bad idea – in part because it leads to just that sort of useless violence, followed closely by magnified retaliation from the other side (who is now not just verbally insulted but physically assaulted), and on into ever-escalating cycles of retaliation until both sides are decimated. Even though death threats – such as those America is used to hearing from the Islamic world on a regular basis – are not considered free speech, physical retaliation for solely verbal abuse is not an enlightened behavior pattern. We only retaliate when attacked, and we only attack when a real, physical threat can be shown. (This concept is, in fact, at the core of the current debate over the morality of the US invasion of Iraq, where the evidence of threat was largely invented, thus making the United States the illegitimate aggressors.)

In enlightened countries, we are taught these principles from a very young age: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me" and "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you". We can be tolerant of the foreigner who peacefully enters our city and trades with us; we cannot be tolerant of the invader who kicks over the stalls of our merchants or sets fire to our buildings.

Those who were offended by the cartoons had every right to publish their own equally scandalous or scathing ripostes. They did not have the right to pillage, burn, and kill. To the extent that they insist upon this right, they are the enemies of civilization, and would have us return to fighting endless wars of retaliation and revenge until we are reduced to savagery.


Richard Dawkins said:

...the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Over the next three months, indignation was carefully and systematically nurtured throughout the Islamic world by a small group of Muslims living in Denmark, led by two imams who had been granted sanctuary there. In late 2005 these malevolent exiles travelled from Denmark to Egypt bearing a dossier, which was copied and circulated from there to the whole Islamic world, including, importantly, Indonesia. The dossier contained falsehoods about alleged maltreatment of Muslims in Denmark, and the tendentious lie that Jyllands-Posten was a government-run newspaper. It also contained the twelve cartoons which, crucially, the imams had supplemented with three additional images whose origin was mysterious but which certainly had no connection with Denmark. Unlike the original twelve, these three add-ons were genuinely offensive – or would have been if they had, as the zealous propagandists alleged, depicted Muhammad. A particularly damaging one of these three was not a cartoon at all but a faxed photograph of a bearded man wearing a fake pig's snout held on with elastic. It has subsequently turned out that this was an Associated Press photograph of a Frenchman entered for a pig-squealing contest at a country fair in France. The photograph had no connection whatsoever with the prophet Muhammad, no connection with Islam, and no connection with Denmark. But the Muslim activists, on their mischief-stirring hike to Cairo, implied all three connections... with predictable results.

The carefully cultivated 'hurt' and 'offence' was brought to an explosive head five months after the twelve cartoons were originally published. Demonstraters in Pakistan and Indonesia burned Danish flags (where did they get them from?) and hysterical demands were made for the Danish government to apologize. (Apologize for what? They didn't draw the cartoons, or publish them. Danes just live in a country with a free press, something that people in many Islamic countries might have a hard time understanding.) Newspapers in Norway, Germany, France and even the United States (but, conspicuously, not Britain) reprinted the cartoons in gestures of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten, which added fuel to the flames. Embassies and consulates were trashed, Danish goods were boycotted, Danish citizens and, indeed, Westerners generally, were physically threatened; Christian churches in Pakistan, with no Danish or European connections at all, were burned. Nine people were killed when Libyan rioters attacked and burned the Italian consulate in Benghazi. As Germaine Greer wrote, what these people really love best is pandemonium.

from pages 24-25 of "The God Delusion"

Editorial note: the discussion of the event continues for another two pages; possibly the quotation could be both extended and more selective, to hit the highlights. We should also clearly make the point, possibly at the top of the page, that despite repeated discussion of "hurt" and "suffering" on the part of Muslims, the only people who were actually hurt or actually suffered were hurt by rioting Muslims. --Woozle 22:02, 14 February 2007 (EST)


  • 2005-09-30 Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten publishes "12 different cartoonists' idea of what the Prophet Mohammed might have looked like." The paper's editor later characterizes these depictions as "sober" and "not intended to be offensive". Other papers reprint the images and their accompanying story.
  • 2005-12-15 (approx.) a delegation from several Danish Muslim organizations went on a tour in several Middle-Eastern and Arabic countries, reportedly to gain sympathy for their point of view (see Wikinews)
  • 2006-01-23 (approx.) two European newspapers Die Welt in Berlin, France Soir in Paris, and two small weekly Jordanian newspapers, Shihan and Al-Mehwar, reprinted the cartoons and characterized the publications as a matter of free speech.
  • 2006-01-26 a massive boycott of dairy produce from Denmark-based Arla Foods starts in Saudi Arabia (see Wikinews) and spreads to Kuwait
  • 2006-01-30 Jyllands-Posten explains and apologizes for the original publication
  • 2006-02-03 (Friday) Pakistan's government unanimously passed a resolution condemning the cartoons [3]. About 800 people protested in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, chanting "Death to Denmark" and "Death to France," "Death to America". Another rally in the southern city of Karachi drew 1,200 people, but only about 20 protesters showed up for a rally in the eastern city of Lahore.
  • 2006-02-04 (Saturday) Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said his "government condemns the publication" of the drawings, but he urged his citizens to remain calm. According to Jordan's Petra News Agency, arrest warrants were issued for the editors-in-chief of the Jordanian newspapers (Shihan and Al-Mehwar). Shihan's editor, Jihad Momeni, who is a former member of the Jordanian Senate, was fired after publishing the cartoons.
  • 2006-02-05 (Sunday) Danish embassy in Beirut torched [4]




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