If the divide between the West and the East could get any deeper, it just found a way – and this time no bombs were dropped. Danish caricatures satirizing the Prophet Muhammad have circulated much of the Muslim world, fueling passions of anger and contempt aimed at western institutionalized free speech.
In the context of today's global setting, the cartoon episode marks yet another rough patch in an increasingly volatile relationship between western and eastern societies. A clash of cultures seems inevitable as tensions mount over political, economical, religious, and, now, artistic differences.
To gain a more complete appreciation of the massive upheaval these cartoons have sparked, one should go back in time to September of 2005. It was during this time that Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper, decided to commission forty Danish cartoonists to depict Muhammad as they envisioned him. Rose initiated this campaign in response to a lack of illustrations of Muhammad in literature, an issue he regarded as self – censorship.
Perhaps, the lack of Muhammad illustrations is due to the fact that Islamic tradition explicitly prohibits the reproduction of Allah or Muhammad as images. Nevertheless, Jyllands-Posten published the caricatures, including one in which Muhammad has a bomb in his turban. Obviously, these images were bound to spark some controversy, but nobody could have foreseen the utter mayhem that transpired.
Across the Muslim world, scores of people took to the streets in protest of the cartoons. Images of protestors burning Danish flags and, in some cases, using Danish flags as doormats sent an alarming message. Worst yet, protestors in Damascus set the Danish embassy on fire and in Iran Danish imports have been banned. In Nigeria's northern state of Kano, members of parliament participated in the burning of the Danish flag after passing a resolution to terminate a multi-million dollar trade negotiation with Denmark.
Unfortunately, the widespread violence has resulted in nine deaths so far (eight in Afghanistan and one in Somalia). In an attempt to patch up relations with the Muslim world, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has hit the airwaves stating, "we're seeing ourselves characterized as an intolerant people or as enemies of Islam as a religion. That picture is false. Extremists and radicals who seek a clash of cultures and religions are spreading it."
European countries have expressed solidarity with Denmark and have even gone so far as to reprint the cartoons in their respective papers. This has led Muslim leaders to petition European governments to punish their journalists. In the most extreme case, prayer leaders in Gaza suggested that an appropriate punishment would be beheadings.
Personally, like many defendants of free speech, I view the violent reactions towards the cartoons as exaggerated and inappropriate. In a free society, all religious and political actors should be fair game for satire cartoonists and columnists – no mater whether their names are Muhammad, Jesus, or Buddha. Although it can be argued that the images of Muhammad were rude and highly offensive, extremist measures of disapproval should be avoided. In my opinion, burning Danish flags and embassies are counterproductive means to garnering international sympathy and support.
Moreover, Denmark has established itself as one of the most generous countries in the international community by providing aid to those countries most in need – many of which are Muslim countries. Denmark's history of goodwill should not be overlooked amidst this turmoil. Unfortunately, in light of the cartoons, the Chechnyian-based Danish Refugee Council was banned from Russia, along with other Danish affiliated organizations.
Particular views on the Danish cartoons aside, one argument rings indisputably true: this fallout could not have come at a worse time. With an unstable Iraqi state, the emergence of radical leadership in Palestine, and increasing tensions with Iran, a West – East conflict seems to be brewing. It's time we start mending fences with the civilization that brought us writing, farming, and universities.
News sources for this article include BBC News and Time magazine.