Cartoon Crisis - Clash of Civilizations?

Cartoon Crisis - Clash of Civilizations?

The controversy over the publication of the Danish cartoons illustrates how globalization is creating a convergence of cultures.
How did twelve cartoons erupt into a global catastrophe that brought death and destruction to cities around the world? This article explores the events that occurred between September 2005 and February 2006 known as the Danish "cartoon crisis" and how they have changed the nature of the relationship between Muslims and the West forever.

The "cartoon crisis" began, as given by the mainstream media, with the publication in a Danish newspaper of twelve caricatures depicting Islam including some of the prophet Muhammed -- a forbidden act according to some sects of Islam. The debacle ended in a display of rage, with Muslims across Europe and the Middle East violently protesting the images. Danish embassies in Beirut and Damascus were attacked, relations between western countries and the Middle East became strained if not broken off entirely, and most tragically, at least 139 people died as a result of the violent outbreaks with many injured.

The globalization of the media enables rapid worldwide exposure of current events, and in this case what spread like wildfire was an oversimplified version of the story. Out of a long, nuanced series of events only the most sensational received global media coverage. As a result, many have narrowly interpreted the cartoons as representative of the callous disregard for Muslim sensibilities held in the West, and the protests as exemplary of Muslims' intolerance of freedom of expression and tendency to use violence as an acceptable form of political expression. It has thus reinforced the misconception of an incompatibility between Muslims and Western society and exists as further proof to some as an irreconcilable "clash of civilizations".1

Upon closer examination of what happened, including the correction of misstated facts, the controversy over the publication of the Danish cartoons illustrates not how globalization has contributed to a growing rift between Muslim and Western cultures, but rather how it has contributed to further convergence of the two.

Correction of Fact

First it is important to clarify that in Islam, it is not the case that any depiction of the prophet is universally forbidden and is therefore considered blasphemy. There is no direct proscription against visual depictions of the prophet in the Qu'ran. In fact, the prohibition has come from within various haddiths or traditions of Islam, which vary among different sects. For example, the Shi'a sect has generally not had a problem with pictures of the prophet, which are prevalent throughout medieval Ottoman, Afghan, Uzbek and Persian Islamic Art.2 Among fundamentalist and extremist groups of Islam, however, the creation of images of the prophet is strictly forbidden and more generally, freedom of expression is severely limited. Second, the charge that the cartoons were "blasphemous" should also be reconsidered. Blasphemy is used to mean the defamation of God or a divine being. Since Muhammed was human and not a divine being, and it is actually considered wrong to see him as divine, the charge of blasphemy becomes irrelevant. This is not to say that the cartoons were not extremely insensitive and even racist, but they were not blasphemous or in violation of widely held principles of Islam.

The publication of the Danish cartoons illustrates not how globalization has contributed to a growing rift between Muslim and Western cultures, but rather how it has contributed to further convergence of the two.
The intention of the publication of the Danish caricatures was not primarily to attack Islam or Muslims. The cartoons were solicited in response to the perception of a trend in Denmark of self-censorship among artists, writers and others on the subject of Islam. It began when a Danish author wanted to write a book for children about the Qur'an and the life of the prophet Muhammed and was unable to find an illustrator. The artists who declined said that they did not want to be involved with such a project because they feared a violent response from the Muslim community. This sparked an intense debate and inspired an article published September 17, 2005 in the Danish newspaper Politiken under the headline "Profound Fear of Criticism of Islam". Then on September 30, 2005, the now notorious daily, Jyllands-Posten or "The Jutland Post" decided to publish a series of twelve cartoons depicting caricaturists' interpretations of the prophet Muhammed along with some commentary on the self-censorship debate.

The culture editor of Jyllands-Posten explained the cartoons by saying that it was unfair and contradictory for a democratic society to treat Islam differently from other faiths. The death of film director Theo Van Gogh for his involvement in a film critical of Islam's treatment of women and threats on the life of author Salman Rushdie for his book Satanic Verses have made people fearful of attempting any social commentary of Islam in public. According to the editor, though religion should not be indiscriminately made fun of, the refusal of artists, writers, filmmakers and others worldwide to even touch on the subject of Islam has signaled a serious threat to society's freedom of expression. For this reason, the paper felt the cartoons deserved publication as a way of provoking debate about this sensitive and controversial issue.

Muslims Respond to Cartoons

A formal lawsuit was filed to the Danish police on October 27, 2005 by a group of Muslim organizations incensed by the offensiveness of some of the cartoons, but the charges were denied after the Danish police found that the cartoons did not constitute a criminal offense. Dissatisfied with the verdict, a group of Danish imams decided to initiate a campaign in various Middle Eastern countries. They created a dossier consisting of the twelve cartoons as well as other images and hate mail directed toward Muslims in Denmark. The campaign began on a conciliatory note to bring together Muslim countries in solidarity against racism and religious intolerance of Islam. The group visited various religious and political leaders throughout the Middle East to ask for their support to improve understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in Denmark. Then in December 2005 the dossier was circulated at a meeting of the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) and in late January 2006 the OIC and Arab League, the Muslim world's two main political institutions, put out a statement that they would seek a UN resolution to prevent attacks on religious beliefs and impose sanctions on countries in violation of the resolution.

The issue is not that globalization is forcing groups into conflict. The challenge globalization presents is that the technology that brings people closer together evolves faster than the time it takes for people to change their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. The question is not about an absolute acceptance or denial of either freedom of expression or Islam. It is a question of cultural sensitivity and appropriateness.
Acknowledging the insensitivity of the cartoons, an apology was issued by the Jyllands-Posten on January 30th, 2006 for offending Muslims. Despite this, newspapers in France, Germany, Italy and Spain decided to reprint the cartoons and a series of violent protests broke out across the Middle East. Danish embassies in Syria and Lebanon were attacked, and people were killed or injured during protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Globalization and Culture of Convergence

Though it is perhaps globalization which allowed the cartoons to be spread so quickly around the world, it does not explain the violent protests that erupted in response. Upon closer inspection of events the cartoons were not meant as a malicious attack on Muslims, but rather a social critique of a phenomenon of self-censorship happening among artists in Denmark. That is not to say they were not insensitive and the Muslim community was not within its right to protest under the law, which they did. Both the case brought to the Danish police by Muslim organizations in Denmark and the OIC and Arab League's attempt to pass a UN resolution illustrate how Muslims were cooperating and working within generally accepted standards of practice within the international community.

It was the uneven coverage of events by the media that gave the impression that Muslims and the West could not get along or that somehow freedom of expression is at odds with Islam. However, Muslims have lived in the West peacefully for many generations. Since World War II, the number of Muslims living in the U.S. and Europe has significantly increased with Islam now considered the fastest growing religion in Europe. What the cartoon crisis really illustrates is the next level of cultural integration -- not between Muslims and the West, which has already happened, but within each of these cultures. Muslims must ask themselves to what degree should the more restrictive sects of Islam, for example the Wahhabi sect from Saudi Arabia, be able to dictate what is and is not acceptable for all Muslims, while the West must also look introspectively and ask its secular "fundamentalists" or freedom of speech "absolutists" how far they should be allowed to take their cause in the face of offending religious and ethnic minorities.

We must learn to take advantage of the opportunity globalization presents and stop fighting what is inevitably becoming a smaller world.
The issue is not that globalization is forcing groups into conflict. Globalization is simply a system of interconnections, networks and relationships. As technology and information sharing improve, beliefs and boundaries of different groups whether they are social, cultural or religious, are constantly tested and in many cases revised. The challenge globalization presents is that the technology that brings people closer together evolves faster than the time it takes for people to change their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. The question is not about an absolute acceptance or denial of either freedom of expression or Islam. It is a question of cultural sensitivity and appropriateness.

The cartoon crisis illustrates two sides to globalization. On the one hand how its awesome influence is bringing about a culture of convergence as shown by Danish Muslim groups working within the law to contest the caricatures, as well as the OIC and Arab League's effort to put together a UN resolution against religious hatred. On the other hand, it shows the destructive consequences of what happens when information is manipulated and unevenly shared. This is illustrated by the insensitive re-publication of the incendiary cartoons by many countries in Europe who felt their freedom of expression was under attack because of the false impression that Muslims would not tolerate any public discussion or even criticism of Islam. Likewise, much of the violence erupted because Muslims perceived the cartoons as a direct assault on their faith, not as a social critique of Danish society where a disturbing trend of self-censorship on the subject of Islam was perceived.

Globalization presents many challenges, but also opportunities for people to learn about each other and about themselves. We must learn to take advantage of the opportunity globalization presents and stop fighting what is inevitably becoming a smaller world.

1The title of an article published in the academic journal Foreign Affairs in 1993 by political scientist and Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington. The article talks about how post Cold War conflict will be based on ethnic or religious identity rather than state power. Article Link. [Accessed March 10, 2006].

2Marshall, Paul, 2006. "Misrepresentations of Islam: Not all Muslims shun depictions of Mohammed" [online]. National Review Online. 13 February. Available from FreedomHouse. [Accessed March 10, 2006].




Contributed by Cory McCruden, a writer for Global Envision. Cory McCruden is a 2005-2007 Rotary World Peace Scholar and is pursuing her Master's in Conflict Resolution at the University of Bradford in England. Cory has worked in banking and for various NGOs dedicated to creating economic opportunities for the poor. She has lived and worked in NYC, France, Mexico, Washington DC, Niger, Uganda, and Rwanda. Cory graduated with honors from Binghamton University located in New York earning a bachelor's degree in political science with a concentration in international affairs and a minor in business.

To read another Global Envision article about the cartoon crises, see Cartoon Crisis: Globalisation and Alienation.



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